This game is interesting on a number of levels, obviously, between it basically being round one of the SEC West and maybe even BCS playoffs. It's really kind of the division final for Bama, as win and they clinch Atlanta, whereas LSU would still have to hold off both Ole Miss and Arkansas to keep the top spot (unless the Tide lose to Mississippi State or Auburn).
But to a degree, these teams appear to kind of moving in slightly opposite directions.
LSU of course stumbled out the gate with some pretty rough wins before a disaster of an offensive showing against Florida. Since then, the offensive execution has improved markedly, with 780 yards and 73 points combined these last two weeks. Sure, it was against the bad defenses of Auburn and Tulane, but this team struggled with the likes of ULL in September so you can't completely discount the improvement. Ditto on defense, where LSU's climbed to No. 7 nationally in scoring and No. 15 in total defense.
Alabama, on the other hand, fired out of the gate, scoring 40 points per game in the first five while Greg McElroy got some sleeper Heisman trophy candidate publicity. But it's been a month since he's thrown a touchdown pass, and Alabama managed just two offensive touchdowns in the last three games (averaging 18 points in that stretch). This offense has just converted 16 touchdowns in 37 red-zone possessions, with another 16 field goals - which is kind of hard to believe when you consider the absolute tear Mark Ingram is on.
Which team will take the step forward?
What to watch for on Saturday
One thing's for sure, Alabama's defense isn't in any sort of slump. It's allowed just one touchdown in the last 12 quarters (the same number it's scored) and is in the top 10 in almost every category. Given LSU's offensive rankings - still bottom of the conference in total yards - this seems like the mismatch of the day. But believe it or not, LSU has some advantages to play. The question is, will they?
"I just want your extra time..."
Little known fact: Prince has always been a personal hero for Nick Saban. Not because of his musical genius, short people just have to stick together.
Truth to be known, there really hasn't been much of a change in LSU's playcalling in the last two weeks. The improvement's been in the execution. The offensive line is still having problems in pass protection, a problem both the linemen and Jordan Jefferson bare blame for. But so does Gary Crowton, who has shown a bad tendency to put Jefferson in the shotgun with five wides on third downs while still running intermediate crossing routes and deep comebacks. Jefferson's clearly been slow to read and recognize coverage on those routes, and it's only exacerbating the pressure problem.
Versus Bama, the reads and the drops have to be quick. Slants, screens and seam routes off play-action are the keys to success, along with hitting backs out of the backfield. Even Jonathan Crompton was able to complete those. We saw some of those simple plays out of the I-formation versus Auburn, with both of Jordan Jefferson's touchdown passes coming on three-step fade routes. But Crowton's had a bad tendency to over-diversify his play-calling when it needs to be reined in. Here's hoping he repeats the four words above.
All year long there's been talk about sandbagging and holding plays back, running reverses, flea-flickers and finally letting Russell Shepard throw the ball. I'm not saying there's no place for those things, but the fundamentals of running the football and passing on rhythm need to be the central focus. Do NOT be afraid to run the football between the tackles. And for God's sake, stop trying to run the option with Jefferson.
Chris Brown of Smart Football details it more here, but look for the "smash" pass route concept to get heavy use this week. In short, it's a route combination that mainly involves two receives to one side of a formation - a slot receiver running a corner route and the outside man running a short hitch.
Last season this combination was used heavily against Bama, usually with Jarrett Lee rolling to the play side. It's gotten a lot of use this season, especially on third down. It's designed to put the cornerback in a bind, especially in zone coverage - cover the hitch and you create a throwing lane to the corner. Cover deep and you surrender the short option. It can be successful against a Saban defense because believe it or not, his favorite third down coverage isn't usually man-to-man. He more often likes to play a three or four-deep (quarters) zone behind his blitz; usually with the cornerback using "press-bail" technique (cornerback jams the receiver at the line in bump-and-run fashion, but "bails" into his deep zone rather than turning and running). It's designed to negate one of the more common sight-adjusts to bump-and-run coverage, the quick fade route. The quarterback hot reads to a three-step drop, but when he tosses up the jump ball the corner (and the safety if the throw is deep enough) have their eyes on the ball and are in much better position to break up or intercept.
Combining the smash with the roll-out can also allow account for the blitz and flood one side of the field by having the opposite side receivers run posts or crossing routes in the direction of the quarterback's roll-out (as seen above). Personally, I've always wanted to see it done with a tight end dragging away from the roll in hopes of getting open against the grain. If the defense is running man coverage, the roll will help draw any "floating" defenders, such safeties in the deep or robber positions, away from the weakside routes.
As bad as McElroy has played through this last month, Ingram's negated any consequence. He's the perfect back for Bama's style, a muscled-up bowling ball with shifty feet, and he's in about as good a grove as a running back can get in. He finds the crease, he keeps his feet after the first hit and he uses his hands to stop tacklers from getting a good grip on his upper body.
The Tide's blocking scheme follows the basic pro-style blueprint, with a lot of blocking down and pulling by both guards and tackles. They love to run out of the shotgun with Mike Johnson and Barrett Jones leading Ingram. LSU's defensive tackles are going to have to hold their ground in the middle and keep those two from getting to the linebackers. Win first down, force third and long, and try to create favorable situations for the pass-rush (another aspect of LSU that has improved in the last month). Kelvin Sheppard has shown the ability to shed blocks in that classic "sluggo" middle linebacker style, particularly against Auburn (another team that pulls and down-blocks a lot), so he'll be key.
This is probably the one area where LSU holds a real statistical edge, outranking Bama in punting and kickoff coverage, and still topping the Tide in punt return average despite Javier Arenas leading the league in the individual category.
Special teamer Daniel Graff may be a name to watch as well on punt block teams. He blocked one last week against Tulane and Bama's one of the last teams in this league using the classic tight punt formation. If LSU decides to go for the full block, Graff will have a shorter distance on the edge.