After this, there shall be no more...
Just when you thought one Game of the Century of the Year was enough, fate delivered us yet another. Oh well, we all know the villain never dies the first time you kill him anyway, right? Hans Gruber survived the gunshot wound and still nearly pulled John McClane and his wife out of the Nakatomi Building. Alex Forrest survived a drowning and had to be finished off with a bullet, and of course no amount of manure burials throughout all of history stopped the Tannen family from trying to bully the McFlys.
Speaking of bullshit, Nick Saban, everybody! (*rimshot*)
So here we are, back again, AND THIS TIME. IT'S PERSONAL. Or for the BCS championship. But since when have you ever seen a tagline that on a sequel's poster? Either way, after beating the Crimson Tide during the regular season to help secure a division and conference championship, the Tide get another bite at the apple Monday night. Meanwhile, LSU has a chance to finish off one of the greatest single-season resumes in major college football history: 14-0, national champions with 10 wins in the SEC, a conference title PLUS convincing wins over two other BCS conference champions.
At least this time, the Tigers get the Tide on semi-home turf in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
What to Watch For on Monday
When we talk about bowl coaching, the first place people look to is the month's worth of prep time. And it isn't to say that the gameplanning aspect isn't important, but there's only so much film anybody can watch, and it's not like either team is going to dramatically change what they do. It's more about managing the players over the layoff -- keeping them focused and ready for a game despite finals, the Holiday season and a bowl experience that, ultimately, is still supposed to include some fun. And there are countless examples of coaches that have failed by drifting too far to either side of the spectrum. I've seen teams show up flat and lifeless because they were overloaded and viewed the game like some sort of pointless chore, as well as some that appeared to have enjoyed their break, their bowl trip (and/or the awards banquet circuit) a little too much.
Of course, given the stakes, I don't think either one of these teams will fall into those traps given the stakes. Alabama has nothing to lose, and the Tigers certainly understand what they're playing for.
And as for all that gameplanning, these teams are what they are: dominant defenses, fantastic offensive lines and running games with game-manager quarterbacks. These coaching staffs know what they're going to see, and know what they're going to try to do to stop it.
What the Hell are You Waiting For?
Of either team, LSU is the one that looks slightly different from the Tussle in Tuscaloosa, with Jordan Jefferson supplanting Jarrett Lee as the team's starting quarterback. The result has been a dip in passing game efficiency, but a more dynamic running game (with the emergence of freshman back Kenny Hilliard as well) and an offense that has averaged 44 points a game in Jefferson's four starts.
And while I doubt Jefferson's presence changes Nick Saban and Kirby Smart's defensive gameplan too much, his strengths and weaknesses contrast with Lees. With Lee, the Tigers have a more accurate short-range passer who is at his best when he can get the ball out quickly, but struggles in the face of a pass-rush. With Jefferson, the play-action deep game and motion passes like bootlegs work a little better, but the ball will come out slower and leave the offense more vulnerable to sacks. As such, whereas Bama sought to pressure the heck out of Lee in the first-go round, with Jefferson back there look for them to try and stop the run with just the front seven, keep the safeties back, keep Jefferson in the pocket, make him throw passes against zone coverage.
And of course attacking cover two in the passing game is pretty standard in form (obviously difficult in execution -- but such is football). One of the more common routes, the intermediate-to-deep comeback or corner route is a common way to get the ball into the hole between the corner and safety, and that just happens to be one of the routes Jefferson throws well. If that's working early, look for the Tigers to try and sneak Russell Shepard down the seam out of three-wide looks. Zone-flood concepts will get some play as well, and if Bama is determined to keep Rueben Randle bracketed, Odell Beckham Jr. and the rest will need to step up. Blocking from the wide receivers will also be incredibly important. I can't think of how many plays I've seen the Bama defense swallow up with their corners or safeties swarming a perimeter run that would've worked had it been well-blocked.
The play-action misdirection passing game will get some use as well, as a way of getting LSU's tight ends or backs (look for them to try this with Hilliard from the fullback spot) matched up on the Tide linebackers. Chase Clement and Deangelo Peterson in particular could be mismatches on option routes. Remember, they don't have to catch 100 yards worth of passes, they just have to get the job done when their number is called.
One of the more interesting subplots may be which offense gets aggressive early. We all know that LSU nor Bama want to be playing catch-up beyond a one-score deficit. Will one of the staffs try and break tendency early to get that lead? Or will such a gamble stall a drive or lead to a turnover? Possessions will be at a premium, but at the same time when the opportunity to make a big play is there, neither team will want to miss it.
On another subnote, if this year has taught us anything as LSU fans, it is the value of having two quarterbacks. There may be another chapter to that story involving Lee.
Crack the Can Open Again
When I say these two teams haven't changed much that also means that I don't think you'll see anything terribly different out of Alabama's gameplan either. And that includes using Trent Richardson early and often in the passing game when they can get him matched up on LSU's linebackers. On Nov. 5 the Tide split the Heisman finalist out wide on the first drive and was able to create a big play, and while you can expect some more of that, the Tiger staff will likely have a counter. That, of course, is one of the advantages to splitting or motioning an offensive player out wide like that. You can often force a defense to show its hand or create a mismatch for another player. If, say, Tyrann Mathieu is following Richardson out wide, then he's not blitzing or covering one of the other Bama receivers. Chavis will have to be creative in those situations to help keep coverage disguised. LSU's two sacks in the first game were coverage sacks that took advantage of McCarron's confusion, and that'll be the best way for Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Co. to get to him when the defense rushes four.
That will still leave checkdowns in some third-down situations, and one thing Bama's not afraid to do is essentially make those McCarron's primary read. Have the other receivers go vertical to stretch the defense and create room underneath for Richardson to sneak out.
On some of those plays, Richardson will try to hold back and bait a defender that would ordinarily cover him into blitzing before breaking into his pattern. Ryan Baker in particular is going to have to be smart with his rush.
Another wrinkle Bama had some success with in game one that I think we'll see again is moving star tackle Barrett Jones to different spots along the offensive line to create some unbalanced looks. Such as in the figure below.
For a quick refresher, when an offense lines up in a set like the one above, the strongside receiver must be on the line of scrimmage and the tackle must report as eligible. The advantage of doing this (aside from the obvious one of having three offensive linemen on one side of the center) is that a lot of defenses will base their own alignment on where the tight end is in a given formation, and if they don't grasp the unbalance quick enough, they can get outflanked on one side or the other. Most coaches will tell you that the easiest shift is to have the middle linebacker and nose tackle line up over the strongside guard and essentially treat him as the center. When Bama tried this on Nov. 5 they exclusively ran behind Jones, but don't doubt for a second that they have a counter play or a trap from that look either.
For the Tiger run game, of course, the classic way to attack a team trying to keep its safety out of the box is to run the ball well enough between the tackles to force one down into the box. Obviously, this is easier said than done against Josh Chapman, Dont'a Hightower, Nico Johnson and Co. Having a healthy P.J. Lonergan will help, but he's going to have to do a good job of hitting Chapman hard and allowing the Tiger guards to get to the second level. Likewise, when LSU runs the inside-zone toss, the tackles will need to keep the end (or Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw) walled off to give the pulling guard an alley.
Given the success LSU had in the spread running game against Georgia's 3-4, look for some of that. For one, spreading out the formation spreads out the safeties and isolates them a little more for play-action. Plus, in Bama's nickel and dime packages, Hightower and Upshaw will often line up at defensive end, which can be a positive size matchup for the Tiger offensive line.
The Tide's struggles with the option in Game of the Century of the Year Part 1 and later versus Georgia Southern have been oft-discussed, and certainly we know that's always a part of LSU's attack when Jefferson is in the lineup -- but don't expect the Tigers to turn into the 1990s Nebraska Cornhuskers or 2006 West Virginia teams either. The option will be a portion of the attack, but it won't be the centerpiece. Likewise, I don't think you'll see Bama sell out too much to stop it, because that'd open more gaps in the middle of the defense, which is the most common vulnerability to the 3-4.
Otherwise, we know what we're getting. Another tough, hard-fought game between two extremely evenly matched teams that will more than likely be decided by four things: the team that can win the line of scrimmage, convert on third downs, avoid turnovers and use special teams to their greatest advantage.
So For One Last Time I Need Y'all to Roar...
Usually I try to include a section in these previews on what NOT to expect, but that won't be the case this time. This is it. There's nothing left and if there's anything that either of these teams can do to win, they're gonna do it. Anything and everything will be on the table, and then there's Les Miles standing over there in the corner...
But I know this much. I couldn't be more proud of this team or this coaching staff. This season has been so dominant it almost feels like a dream. Win this, and it'll be something we'll be telling our grandkids about. Greatness is there for the Tigers. All that remains is to take it. We know they can beat Alabama, because whether Marquis Maze believes it or not it's already happened once. Superlatives get thrown out all the time, and trying to compare different college football teams always reach ludicrous speed way too quickly, but win on Monday and the 2011 LSU Tigers can, if nothing else, stand on their accomplishments and claim membership in that club. And they get to go for it about as close to a home-game environment as we can ask for.
So be in that number if you can, and be loud even if you can't. Eat, drink and be merry (after all, it's officially Carnival season anyway). And or one last time, make some noise.