This isn't LSU's final game of the season, but it's the last we'll see of the 2014 Tigers. Teams are always slightly different come bowl season, one way or another. We should be sadder about the final regular season game, but I don't think many people are. There's a sense of relief that we can move forward.
But we'd better hope that mindset doesn't extend to the locker room. People can say "there's nothing to play for" but it's always stupid. There's a game to play, and that means that there is a game to win. Does the bowl destination matter much? Not to me really. But eight wins damn sure is better than seven. And so is a fourth straight over Texas A&M.
What to Watch For on
LSU football season is ending. Shouldn't we be...unhappy?
And yet, I think the general sense is one of relief. Just get through it. Teams can change somewhat in the month-plus layoff of a bowl game, but for now, this team is exactly what it is. An improving defense, with a nice running game and a dreadful air attack.
Most people don't really want to see it anymore. Is that kind of sad? I mean we spend all offseason waiting for these 12 games, and then when the going gets rough we...just kind of act like this. Not blaming really. It is what it is. It's probably sad. Not really sure I blame anybody though.
LSU's strategy for this one is going to be straightforward as always. Run the ball, try and get what you can out of the passing game and help the defense do its job. Get the win, go home and then do what you can to start getting this offense to the level it's capable.
The good news there is that Texas A&M happens to be a pretty good matchup for that type of gameplan.
Styles, Fights, Etc...
We've come to know the Sumlin Aggies pretty well in these few short years, and the contrast in styles between these programs has always been stark on the field. This year's edition is in a bit of a transition, and not quite as explosive on offense (just 36 points per game compared to 44 in each of the last two, and averaging about a yard less per game), but the Air Raid passing attack hasn't changed much. The running game is a little less effective without Johnny Manzell, and as GBH detailed yesterday, the interior offensive line isn't quite as good.
But running backs Brandon Williams, Tra Carson and Trey Williams are talented enough if they can find some room. And what's more, the Aggies will still use a lot of play-action, particularly on slant-bubble screen combo concepts like this one:
Kyle Allen has made his biggest plays down the seams with this route combo. The freshman has a bright future, and a nice arm, but he's still a little inconsistent. And when he does miss receivers it tends to be a little bit high. LSU hasn't had many interceptions this year despite having the best pass-efficiency defense in the SEC, but a few balls up for grabs would be nice.
Football Study Hall's Ian Boyd did a great job of detailing LSU's success against spread offenses under John Chavis in recent years, and without the threat of a running game, it's easy to see that continue. But one wrinkle to watch for that I've noticed on film: the Aggies have been spreading their formations out a little farther recently, which could create some more gaps in the middle, especially if the linebackers or safeties make a false step. A big part of LSU's success has been the ability of LSU to match up man-to-man, even with safeties -- allowing nickel and dime corners to blitz and handle run support. With that extra space, not only will those nickel/dime players be farther out, but the throwing lane might be a little clearer for Allen.
That's going to put a premium on LSU's front four to get pressure, hands in Allen's face, and get him on the ground when possible. It's a plus matchup for Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux, and it would be really nice if Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco could translate a lot of those "almost sacks." Watch for Hunter's hands in defending passes as well. He gave Johnny Football hell doing that a year ago.
When A&M works their screen and short game, the defense needs to swarm and make tackles quickly. Allen's passer rating drops to just 71 on third down. That's even lower than Anthony Jennings.
On the other side of the ball, not a lot has changed. The Aggies are still giving up yards and points in boatloads, especially on the ground. If it's possible, Texas A&M is actually giving up more on the ground this year in conference games -- 255 yards compared to 236 a year ago. The front is a bad combination of young players that aren't quite ready for the roles they've been thrown into and veterans that can't quite get the job done. They've really struggled versus zone-heavy teams like Alabama, Missouri and Auburn, so that should be something the Tigers should lead with.
Fifty rushing attempts have been something of a magic number for LSU this season. They've won every game where they've hit that number as a team, save for Alabama. It won't be pretty, but it'll work, even with the offensive line down Elliot Porter at center. Tigers have won 13 in a row when one back hits the century mark as well. Of course, if one back is getting the majority of those carries, it'd probably help. Particularly if that player is Leonard Fournette.
Stick and Move?
Of course, LSU will have to pass the ball somewhat, right?
There's no getting around the fact that Jennings just hasn't gotten the done this year, and I'm pretty much done trying to predict what he will or won't do well in this game. So this week I'll just give you my best opinion on what will work against this particular defense, and we'll see how it goes. Don't expect much of Brandon Harris, if anything. I imagine the coaching staff just wants to get the regular season over before they try to re-open the quarterback competition.
That said, the Aggie secondary isn't much better than the front seven. They allow a 57-percent completion rate, and have picked off just four passes against 15 touchdowns. It's a primarily zone-based scheme that usually plays lose and tries to rally to the ball. It will be interesting to see if they try to break that tendency any, given that LSU's receivers have really, really struggled with press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Establishing the running game should create opportunities down the field at times, but given Jennings' struggles in recent weeks, Cam Cameron will really have to be measured in how he attacks through the air.
LSU needs to be a slave to schedule and avoid putting the offense in obvious passing downs whenever possible, but the best way to balance that will be some high-percentage throws on run downs when the defense is more likely to be in man coverage. The running backs in particular would be a good matchup, and that means even more touches for Fournette and Terrence Magee. The key, of course, is that these throws have to be completed.
If Cameron does want to spread the field, first down will be the best situation early on. It gives Jennings an easy check to the speed option or the zone read (which A&M has struggled with), and one of LSU's go-to pass concepts out of it, the horizontal stretch, matches up well with the defense. Obviously the execution hasn't really been there, but the stick routes have been able to create space against even the best secondaries Jennings has seen.
If A&M does play off, some shallow crossing routes and digs could be available as well, and LSU's timing on those has been okay when the receivers haven't been held up at the line of scrimmage.
Speaking of magic numbers, LSU is 6-1 this year when the passing game averages at least 7 yards per passing attempt.
This could be an area of concern for LSU. Drew Kaser is a very good punter, and Louisiana native Speedy Noil has been very dangerous on returns. On the whole, this hasn't been too bad of a year, but the breakdowns have come in some big moments. On the road, the last thing you want is a big momentum swing for the home team. Field position was a big factor in the Arkansas game as well. If LSU's deep in their own territory on every possession...this just isn't a team that can pull itself out of holes too often.