We're one day away from the possibly the biggest game left on LSU's schedule, although Arkansas will have something to say about that. So it's time to break it down, piece by piece.
LSU rushing offense vs. Tennessee run defense
It's no secret that the biggest -- perhaps only -- flaw on LSU's team has been its running game. Despite putting up some respectable numbers, the Tigers have struggled all season with Jacob Hester as the de facto starting running back. Alley Broussard has been in the doghouse for his weight and Justin Vincent looks more like JV05 than JV03. However, something may have happened in the Fresno State game to give LSU hope: Trindon Holliday. This speedy freshman showed his ability to explode through holes and make plays with the ball in space. Then, Broussard came in and ran like every LSU fan remembers him running two years ago before his latest knee injury. Of course that was in the fourth quarter, so take it with the appropriate grain of salt.
Tennessee's rushing defense has been spotty at best, including allowing 165 yards last week to South Carolina. The Vols starting front four has just five sacks all season and 15 tackles for a loss. However, the linebackers, particularly Jerod Mayo have picked up the slack. If the Tigers allow Mayo to fly around the field instead of putting a body on him, he could single-handedly shutdown LSU.
Look for Jacob Hester to get the start at tailback again, but for LSU to try to get Holliday touches out of the backfield early. Hester will likely pound away for his 2 or 3 or 5 yards per rush. The X-factor will be Broussard. If he can make an impact, the scales tilt in LSU's favor. If not, this battle will likely go Tennessee's way.
LSU passing offense vs. Tennessee pass defense
LSU has the SEC's second best passing offense in terms of yardage and JaMarcus Russell is the nation's fourth-rated passer. He has as good a trio of receivers to throw to as anyone in the country in Dwayne Bowe, Buster Davis and Early Doucet. There's really no way to focus on one because they are all big, fast, proto-type NFL guys that can burn you if you try to focus on one. Probably most important in the pass game has been the offensive line. As woeful as they have been run blocking, they've been fantastic protecting Russell, allowing only nine sacks all season.
Like its run defense, Tennessee's pass defense has been relatively mediocre. They definitely don't strike fear into the hearts of oppsing offenses. Syvelle Newton tossed it around for 230 yards on them last week. The dangerous part of the Vol secondary is their ball-hawking ability. They've picked off 11 passes in eight games, led by Jevon Hefney and Jonathan Wade's three each. The problem they'll run into against LSU is getting any sort of a pass rush with their average at best front four.
Expect one of two things to happen. 1) Tennessee can't get pressure with its front four and Russell has all day to pick apart the Vol defense. 2) Tennessee brings an array of blitzes and LSU gets the ball out quickly to its receivers who can make plays in all the extra space vacated by the rushing linebackers.
Tennessee rushing offense vs. LSU run defense
Tennessee has been abysmal running the ball. If you thought LSU was bad, just wait until Saturday. The Vols have yet to find a consistent tailback and have run-by-committee most of the year. Arian Foster gets the nod Saturday with his 3.4 yards/rush average. Tennessee hasn't cracked 100 yards rushing in the last two games and should come closer on Saturday to the -11 (yes, negative-11) yards it had on the ground against Florida.
A brick wall. That's the only way to accurately depict LSU's front four. Only two opponents have broken 100 yards rushing on the Tigers and each time it came late in the fourth quarter of blowouts. Glen Dorsey is clearly the best defensive tackle in the SEC if not the nation. The D-line does a great job occupying blocks and swarming to the ball. If they're not there, the linebackers are flying around the field making plays.
Don't expect Tennessee to be able to run the ball at all. Outside of the Cal victory on opening day, they haven't all year and LSU's defense is the best they'll face. However, they'll try if for no other reason than to keep the play-action working. I'd be surprised if UT broke 75 yards on the ground.
Tennessee passing offense vs. LSU pass defense
Now, we're getting to the most interesting part of the game. It's the SEC's top passing offense vs. the SEC's top passing defense. Of course, part of the fact that Tennessee averages 288 yards through the air might be that they can't move the ball on the ground. But don't be fooled, these guys are good. David Cutcliffe has done a tremendous job with Erik Ainge and he has a big-time target in Robert Meacham on the outside. Only Florida has held this group to below 250 yards passing this season. They have a passing TD in seven of eight games this year.
LSU's secondary is the best in the nation. Period. LaRon Landry is the best free safety in college football in years. Jessie Daniels might be the most underrated defensive player in the country and Jonathan Zenon and Chevis Jackson can flat out fly. But the thing that makes LSU's pass defense special is the D-line. They have 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks just in the starters. That means LSU doesn't have to blitz to get pressure, it can allow the linebackers to drop into coverage, making it nearly impossible for an opposing quarterback to find open space. When they do blitz, they get there in a hurry.
Yes, LSU'd pass defense is sick, but David Cutcliffe is as good an offensive coordinator as there is. The Vols will be able to make some plays through the passing game and will have to if they want to keep it close. Florida showed the ability to move the ball through the air against the Tigers at a decent rate. If Tennessee keeps to throwing short and allowing Ainge to not get pummeled they could have success. Meacham is too good to keep down forever, so expect him to make at least one big play.
LSU special teams vs. Tennessee special teams
In the kicking game, Britton Colquitt and James Wilhoit are as good as any kicking duo in the country. While Colt David is solid, he doesn't have a great leg and Chris Jackson hasn't been able to drop a punt inside the 20 to save his life.
LSU has had trouble finding a solid punt returner all year long. Chevis Jackson felt the need to fair catch with nobody around him quite often. The Tigers have gone to Buster Davis who had a punt return touchdoen last weekend, but he doesn't make me excited the way Skyler Green and Domanick Davis used to. I'd love to see Holliday back there. Get him the ball as much as possible. On the other side. Hefney has been fantastic returning punts with a 17.9 average. He's yet to break one the distance, but does have a 65-yard return. On the flip side, he's picked his spots, returning just 11 punts on the season. Neither team features a kick returner that can do much other than get the ball between the 20 and 30-yard lines. The longest return for either team is 40 yards.
Each team is near even in turnover margin for the season and Tennessee has been slightly better than LSU on penalties. In the redzone, both teams are extremely efficient offensively, but defensively the Tigers are first in the SEC in red zone defense and Tennessee is last. If you get close against the Vols, you're gonna score. Both teams are fantastic on third-down conversions.
Of course, Tennessee is playing at home, but LSU has been to Auburn and Florida already this year and in my opinion, both are tougher places to play than Neyland Stadium. Besides that, LSU has veterans all over the field including under center. I don't think the road affects them as much as "the experts" will make it out to be. Tennessee might get a jolt of energy at home, but if 100,000 are quiet after LSU takes an early lead, it could be a long day for the Vols.
FINAL SCORE: LSU 24, Tennessee 13