We're going to start off this game preview with a word from Uncle Billy and Col. Jessup.
"You ever watched a game in Tiger Stadium, son? Ever stood there in the middle of a tight game? Put your hopes in the hands of a bunch of college football players?"
**Note: I strongly considered not posting this. This debate is old, both sides are entrenched and I'm not looking to reignite it. But before the biggest home game of the year it needs to be said, and I'm going to say it once. Only once, and I won't engage anybody in comments on this topic. Hence the quotebox, to set it off from the rest of the game preview. There's more than enough to talk about regarding this game anyway.**
Cheer the team. You want to call yourself an LSU fan, act like one. I don't care what you think about the offensive coordinator. I don't care if you hate the starting quarterback. And this isn't about the head coach. This isn't about your civil rights, what you pay for your tickets, daytime kickoffs or your ability to "voice your displeasure." (God knows there are plenty of outlets for it.) When those 60 minutes are up and all the dust settles, we'll have plenty of time to bitch, complain and second-guess.
"But Billy, I'm entitled to complain when I think the coaches are letting me/the university/the players down!"
We support a football team. A 7-1 football team that's playing a top five opponent. An opponent we've all been aching to watch them beat each of the last two seasons. I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to.
This is about the players. You remember them, right? Those college kids in the gold pants and white jerseys? The players you claim to support? They're going to be in a pretty tough spot on Saturday. Yards will be fought for, and they won't come easy. Chances are, there's going to be a time when things aren't going the Tigers' way. Those struggles may even come by their own hands.
LSU will need a lot of things to happen to win this game, but confidence would damn sure help. And you know what can help that confidence? 93,000 people cheering them on through thick and thin. Letting them know that regardless of all of those aforementioned feelings, you support them. That when things get tough for them, you're going keep cheering.
This summer I wrote a column about the 2003 LSU-Georgia game. I remember when the visiting team inexplicably tied the game and seized all momentum. I remember momentary silence. And then I remember the cheering. The way the shouts of "L-S-U! L-S-U!" rose through the air. Then, I remember the way the Tigers immediately took the momentum back and held on to win. That crowd refused to die. And so did that Tiger team. Do I think those cheers are the reason LSU came back? Not really. But I know it didn't hurt. And when I think about those same circumstances revisited in 2010, all I hear are boos.
Are you an LSU fan? Are you interested in seeing the Tigers do well? Do you love it when you hear about the amazing atmosphere in Tiger Stadium? Then support the team. Do something to contribute to that one-of-a-kind atmosphere. Cheer them on. Do it standing on your feet. Do it sitting on your ass. The "how" is irrelevant. But the "what" isn't. Cheer. Don't boo. If that's all your frustration reduces you to, and you can't sit there quietly, get up and get the fuck out of the stadium. You're not helping. You're not expressing yourself. You're just bitching and complaining at the worst possible time. There will be plenty of time for that later. The game is on TV and nobody can hear you at home. Talk radio will be glad to field your call after the game, and the various LSU message boards will be glad for the traffic. But for the couple of hours you're in Tiger Stadium this Saturday, help make it that special place we know and love. Don't boo.
What to watch for on Saturday
A Heavyweight Fight
In Les Miles' first three years at LSU, the team's November record was 11-1. Finishing strong was something the Tigers hung their hats on. But the last two years has seen 3-5 records in the season's final month. What game leads off that month? Alabama.
LSU is 7-1 (4-1). They were 7-1 last year and 6-2 the year before. So is this team different? Well, that's what we're all going to find out.
Wherever the season goes from here, the most important game is the next one. If I may regurgitate the standard ESPN line, Alabama controls its own destiny. Win out, win the SEC title game, they'll play for the national title. But I can guarantee Nick Saban is selling the same line I am. Only the next game matters. The outside noise may be talking big picture, but he'll be grinding the "one game at a time" message into those players. LSU doesn't have a clear postseason path. But based on player interviews, the Tigers have a clear focus. They are pointing towards this for the game it is, the most important one of the season.
That's going to be reflected on the field in a game that will live up to the above title simply because it's going to come down to the biggest guys on the field. Line play, perhaps more than anything else, will determine the winner. Auburn handed LSU its first loss of the season by doing just that. Winning the line of scrimmage.
And in this game, the weight metaphor carries itself. Bama brings big offensive and defensive fronts. All but one starting defensive lineman weighs more than than 300 pounds, their linebackers average over 240 pounds and the starting defensive backs average over 6-1 and 200 pounds. Add in a pair of powerful running backs and a big, physical star receiver and you have a football team built for out-muscling opponents.
I don't think I have to say much about the other "heavyweight fight" in this game.
Hopefully, Julio isn't packing any "Cramptonite" this time around (copyright:SouthernMan).
Perception vs. Reality
Nick Saban's career at LSU generally gets a whitewash these days in Baton Rouge (and at large). Talk radio in this town tends to stoke those misperceptions among the Humanoids. "DERP! Tough, man-to-man, attacking, blitzing, aggressive, angry defense! DERP! None of that pussy ‘read and react' bullshit!"
Those perceptions follow him at Alabama, but they're not accurate in general and they really don't apply to this year's team. For all the aggression of Saban's past defenses, his real gift is for teaching and disguising zone coverage. His last two Bama teams thrived on stuffing the run, creating unfavorable passing situations and then confusing the hell out of a quarterback. Showing overload blitzes, then bailing out or coming from an unexpected angle and watching as the opposing passer throws a hurried pass into a gang of defenders with their eyes on the football.
This year's Tide plays a much more straight-up style of football. As Spencer Hall noted (in much finer prose than I) after the Florida-Bama clash:
Everything was designed around making you screw up first, a simple but effective wager that your opponent would jab, and then you countered, and then your opponent was on the mat spitting up teeth and talking long distance to imaginary interlocutors in Shanghai without the use of a phone or other wireless communications device.
Bama's defense in 2010 has been much more methodical and less focused on forcing the action. Stop the run early, force third downs, extend drives and wait for the other team to screw up. The average scoring drive against them has taken nine plays, and of the 19 total they've allowed, nine took at least 10 plays. Add an efficient offense that avoids those same mistakes and the snowball just gets bigger as it rolls downhill.
But that style sort of matches LSU's hodge-podge offense, which doesn't rely on big plays and struggles to make them. The Tigers 35 offensive scoring drives have run for an average of seven plays, and 18 of them had more than that. That grinding, ball-control style may not play well with the Humanoids, but it's the style LSU is best suited for as long as the passing game remains a mess. And, as Todd of Roll Bama Roll explained in this week's Geaux Show podcast, the Tide have had issues at times with teams that committed to running the ball between the tackles, like South Carolina and Tennessee. In fact, with games tied or within seven points either way, Alabama is currently allowing teams to run for 5 yards per carry (74 rushes in those situations for 376 yards).
Establishing the run and diversifying it will be a huge key. The Tide has lost speed in the front seven this year, partly due to personnel and partly due to injury. That's been reflected in an anemic pass rush (10 sacks for the team, ranked 98th in the country), and in the fact that teams have had success running laterally. Now, six of the top 10 tacklers on the Bama defense are defensive backs, and the Tiger receivers will have to step up their blocking. But the edges can be opened up in the run game.
The lack of a pass rush is also likely the reason for some issues with third downs. While the Tide has only allowed opponents to convert 32 percent of their third downs, the percentage increases to 44 in distances of four yards or greater.
That lack of speed is also evident in underneath coverage, where freshman LB C.J. Mosley is the Tide's best. Both Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee will need to be on point with their slant and quick screen throws, and it would be wise to get the running backs and tight ends involved when possible. Alabama's defensive backfield practically starts four safeties - so attacking underneath early will be the best way to open up the seams later on. Besides, until LSU finds a capable passing game, minimizing risk will be the best path to success.
This would be a great game for involving Russell Shepard more in the rushing attack - both as a primary ball-carrier and on fakes and misdirection.
I would expect Jim McElwain's offensive game plan to mirror LSU's somewhat. The Tide are much more balanced this season, with a 56/44-percent run/pass ratio compared to 63/37 a year ago. Greg McElroy will come out throwing, targeting the Tiger linebackers in coverage. Look for tight ends Preston Dial and Michael Williams, slot receiver Darius Hanks and running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to be on the receiving end early. Alabama likes to get a lead first and then lean heavy on their running/play-action passing game (70 percent of McElroy's passing has been in the first half). Don't expect a lot of throws deep unless the issue becomes pressed or play-action gets something wide open.
As for Bama's gruesome backfield twosome, don't be surprised if the Tide try to copy some of Auburn's game-plan. The offensive line isn't quite as strong as last year's group, but they've been much better using the classic zone/cutback runs (the outside zone/stretch fits Alabama's favored two-TE sets perfectly) and creating lanes out of the Pistol and Wildcat formations. It's another way of letting a great penetrator like Drake Nevis come up the field, only to wall him off and run behind him.
The Tigers have to shed blocks and tackle, tackle, tackle (TACKLE!) much better than they did against Auburn. It's not even necessarily about giving up the long runs. Giving up a four-yarder that should have gone two will come back to haunt you in the second half against big, powerful runners like Ingram and Richardson. And both have fresh legs for this game.
Do NOT Expect
A Final Solution
I feel like a lot of people are still waiting for the offense to wake up. That all the offense needs is to "open things up" and "start throwing deep more." Denial is a powerful thing.
This offense is what it is. A ball-control attack that needs to stay centered on the run (even more so than it already is, to tell you the truth) in order to minimize the risks it has at quarterback. Jordan Jefferson will still start and likely get his two series. Whether Jarrett Lee and him split things from there on will likely depend on how they play - which means it will likely continue. Neither player has stepped up enough to take the job. Does that mean that the two can't combine to be effective? Not if they're managed well.
Jefferson continues to progress as a runner, and he's proven he can move this offense (while most dwell on the two interceptions he's thrown early in the Florida and Auburn games, he also managed eight- and nine-play field goal drives as well). Give him a run-heavy script that allows him to get outside of the pocket and throw on the run and you can keep him out of unfavorable situations that will play towards his weaknesses.
Lee gives you a much better and more accurate passing arm, but almost no mobility (behind an offensive line that, while solid, is not a great wall of protection) and, as Paul has noted, still has a tendency to get very skittish in the face of pressure. Give him a run heavy script and throws that will get the ball out of his hands quickly and you can keep him out of similarly unfavorable circumstance. Remember what I said about the Bama secondary looking like a gang of safeties? The last thing LSU needs to do is put passes up for grabs.
A ball-control attack doesn't have to mean one that doesn't throw the ball, or doesn't throw it down the field. It means one that is smart about how it goes about doing those things. If the offense manages itself and doesn't get greedy, the big play and scoring opportunities will eventually present themselves. But if you're waiting to see a Tiger quarterback tee it high and let it fly, you're going to be waiting until next year.
The Special Man
General Zod is definitely going to have his hands full with Julio Jones, who is rebounding well from last year's sophomore slump. There are few superlatives I could add to the discussion of that competition, though one has to wonder how often McElroy will push the issue.
But on punt returns, the sledding will be tough. On 24 punts this season, Bama's allowed just four returns. The chances of him getting any pitches to hit are slim.