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Time to Learn Who These Teams Are

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LSU finds out if the improvement is real, Bama finds out what happens against a real opponent

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Chris Graythen

It's the first week of November, and we really have no idea how good either LSU or Alabama is. The two teams pick up their rivalry again on Saturday, and though it has lost a bit of its luster, this is still a matchup of two top 25 teams with aspirations of playing in whatever we're calling BCS bowls these days.

However, this is the first time since 2010 that one of the teams is not ranked #1 at the time of the game. Usually, at this point in this year, both of these teams are among the front-runners for the national title, not just another team in the pack hoping things break right. The teams are still real good, we think, but not extraordinary. And we're used to this rivalry being extraordinary.

What is the real LSU? It's no accident that LSU's numbers improved dramatically as soon as they stopped playing two of the best teams in the nation, but it's still remarkable to see how much this team has transformed over the past month. Look at LSU's results against Big 5 conference in their first three games versus the last three games, defense first:

Result


Rush D


Pass D


Total D


Yd/Play


Wisconsin


28-24

268

50

318

5.05

Miss St.


29-34

302

268

570

7.81

Auburn


7-41

298

268

566

7.65

Florida


30-27

123

183

306

5.37

Kentucky


41-3

71

146

217

3.44

Ole Miss


10-7

137

176

313

4.60

FIRST 3


868

586

1454

6.92

LAST 3


331

505

836

4.45

TOTAL


1199

1091

2290

5.75

LSU's run defense improved exponentially. Yes, some of that is not playing Auburn and State, but a lot of that is genuine improvement. LSU's best performance in the first three games was holding Wisconsin to 268 yards on the ground, which is still more than the Florida and Ole Miss games combined (260 yards). That's practically a different defense.

After allowing 268 yards passing in back-to-back games, LSU has not allowed 200 yards passing since. The passing defense has also improved considerably, though not at the same order of magnitude as the run defense. This is the LSU defense we expected to carry this team.

LSU went from allowing 484.67 yards/game to 278.67 yards/game. That's 200 yards per game. Not only that, they have sliced the per play average from nearly 7 yards a play to right around 4.5. The season averages right now are completely misleading... or are they?

I mean, the trio of teams LSU has beaten aren't chumps, but they also aren't on the same level as Auburn and State. The Ole Miss game gives some indication this improvement is for real and not a result of the schedule, but it's not a total surprise that a team's numbers improve as soon as they start playing teams that aren't as good. Then again, this level of improvement demonstrates this is a lot more than just "Not Playing Auburn".

But here's your surprising stat of the day, given our early season complaints: LSU is third in the SEC in fewest plays of 10-plus yards allowed with 89. Only four teams are below 100, and LSU is only 5 plays allowed away from the SEC leader, Florida (Bama is second with 87).

LSU's been primarily been burnt for those long plays on the ground, ranking seventh in the SEC with 39 10-plus yard rush plays allowed. But here's the issue, LSU has allowed 15 20+ yard runs, near last in the SEC, and eight 30-plus yard run, which ranks 13th. The issue for LSU has not been allowing big runs, something the defense does at an average rate, but when they do allow a 10-plus yard run, it goes for a lot more than 10 yards. LSU has allowed the most 40-, 50-, 60- AND 70-plus yard runs in the SEC. This is your weekly reminder the issue is not, as you may have heard, the defensive line. It is the back seven, primarily the linebackers, who have been just plain awful in run support. Hopefully, Beckwith solves this issue.

Result


Rush O


Pass O


Total O


Yd/Play


Wisconsin


28-24

126

239

365

5.37

Miss St.


29-34

89

341

430

5.97

Auburn


7-41

138

142

280

4.67

Florida


30-27

195

110

305

4.24

Kentucky


41-3

303

120

423

6.41

Ole Miss


10-7

264

142

406

5.72

FIRST 3


353

722

1075

5.38

LAST 3


762

372

1134

5.43

TOTAL


1115

1094

2209

5.40

On offense, we haven't so much seen improvement as just a different shape to the production. LSU has gone from averaging 358 yards/game to 378, which is an almost insignificant different. The yards/play has also improved by a nearly imperceptible 0.05 yards. The offense is just as productive today as it was on October 1.

The difference, of course, is how LSU gets those 350 yards/game. Most importantly, in the first three games a year the production was all over the place. LSU went from 365 to 430 to 280 yards. Even that 430 yard output is pretty misleading, as 219 of those yards came in the fourth quarter of the State game as part of a furious yet doomed comeback attempt. The offensive output in the second half of games is a lot more consistent.

Why is that? Well, it's because the team has found its identity as a power run team. LSU's three best running games against a Power 5 team have been the three most recent games. You can see on the game log how the team started to find its identity in the Florida game, and emerged as a beautiful butterfly these past two weeks. Well, a butterfly that likes hitting you repeatedly. More like a serial killer butterfly.

It's not like the offense has given up on the pass, it's just that aside from one quarter in which the team was down by three touchdowns, the passing game is just there to get 100-150 yards, or just enough to keep the opposing defense honest.

So, is Alabama more Auburn/State or Florida/Ole Miss? Florida may be burdened with an offense that barely approaches competency, but they do have one of the best defenses in the conference, particularly against the run. Alabama comes into this game with the top ranked defense in the SEC and a run defense that has allowed a grand total of 625 yards, which seems like a misprint. Alabama also boasts the #2 offense in the SEC, averaging over 500 yards with a balanced attack.

These overall statistics make Alabama look like a monster in the mold of the two teams which whacked around LSU like a piñata, but Alabama's got even worse schedule effects going on than LSU. Alabama has only played two teams ranked in playoff poll, and their only win over a ranked team is No. 25 West Virginia. LSU, by contrast, has played four games against ranked teams, beating No. 24 Wisconsin and No. 11 Ole Miss, who pulls double duty as Alabama's quality loss.

This is LSU's third game against a team currently ranked in the top five, but State has a win over #3 Auburn and Auburn has wins over #7 Kansas St and #11 Ole Miss. Bama hasn't even played a team in the top ten, and their only top 25 win is over a team just barely ranked. That doesn't mean they aren't good, it means we simply don't know how good they are. This team looked pretty ordinary against Arkansas and they didn't exactly take Tennessee to the woodshed.

Still, Florida's got a pretty stout defense, and Bama went for 672 yards against them. The defense still hasn't allowed a team to gain 400 yards and only two teams (West Virginia and Tennessee) have managed to clear 350. There's some schedule effects here, but you can't hide for a whole season. Alabama is real good, the question is whether this team is great.

LSU has improved a lot in the past month. At home, they can beat a real good team with an insane crowd behind them. But this team has also proved they are not in the class of great. If Alabama is great team, it could be a long night for LSU. There's nowhere for anyone to hide. Truths will reveal themselves on Saturday Night in Death Valley.

Who shows up?