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LSU vs. Alabama: What to Watch For

Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends

Another year, another big matchup between LSU and Alabama, right? Alabama in the top 10 again, chasing their usual preordained championship destiny right? A young LSU team that has fought its way back into the ranking, looking to put another big skin on the wall and maybe make this SEC West race even crazier than it already is.

Maybe it's just me, but this game doesn't have quite the same vibe. Maybe it's the distance from 2011. Maybe it's the fact that the major players involved were all recruited together by both staffs (aside from whatever insecurities Landon Collins is battling). Or maybe it's that the Miles/Saban debate has been relegated to the message board stupidity that it always was. But while this game is still pretty damn big, it just doesn't have quite the same blood-feud vibe to it. Alabama seems pretty loose and confident that LSU is just another team on the schedule. LSU seems hungry, but more for another big win than to avenge any sort of grudge.

Either way, it's the final home game of the year, senior night, and Tiger Stadium is going to be hungry to bury another opponent's dreams.

What to Watch For on Saturday

The Tip of the Spear

This hasn't been your typical Alabama football team for a couple of reasons, but the biggest difference has been on offense. I mean schematically, it's virtually unchanged. Credit Lane Kiffin for not trying to fix a scheme that wasn't broken, really. He's added a few wrinkles to take advantage of his quarterback's ability, but nothing's really changed. It's primarily a one-back, zone-running offense with a heavily managed West Coast-style passing game. The big difference is that for the first time, in a long time since...I don't know...the early 90s maybe...their best offensive player is a wide receiver.

Amari Cooper may not be the level of physical freak that Julio Jones was, but he truly has become the thrust of this Bama attack. In this rountable with Roll Bama Roll I made the Josh Reed comparison, and it's not just because Cooper has been ridiculously productive. It's because, just like with Reed and the 2001 Tigers, Cooper has to make big plays for this offense to do the things it wants to do.

Alabama is fairly dependent on getting Cooper the ball and will do it in a variety of manners from a variety of positions. His 71 catches are nearly three times more than the No. 2 receiver's total, and his 1,132 yards represent 49 percent of the total receiving yardage on the entire team. When you look at Alabama's games this year, their worst performances featured somewhat quiet days from No. 9.

This is nothing new for Kiffin, who did the same thing with Marquis Lee at Southern Cal a few years ago. And Cooper, who is also healthy after battling some injuries last year, has repaid the faith well. He does just about everything well as a receiver, be it using his speed to get down field, finding space underneath and making plays after the catch, or posting players up in tight quarters. Blake Sims doesn't have the greatest arm in the world so they don't throw Cooper many deep balls down the sidelines, but they move him around to different spots on the field and really funnel him the ball through screens, handoffs, shallow crosses and stick routes -- two weeks ago against Tennessee he even came across the formation on a play-action waggle play into the flat in the same way you'd use a running back or tight end.

Between the level he's been playing at and the Tide's reliance on using him to move the ball, John Chavis and Co. will have to focus more on containment. Be aware of where he is on every snap, keep coverage tight, be very physical and get him on the ground when he gets the ball. There won't be one guy responsible for covering him, but you can expect that somebody like Jalen Mills will be in charge of identifying where Cooper is and either helping out over the top or making sure somebody else is helping him out. Given Alabama's love of putting Cooper in the slot and close to the formation, I would have Kwon Alexander give him a lot of jams as well when he's lined up in space in nickel situations.

Alabama's running game is still dangerous, and LSU will certainly rely on numbers there with a lot of man-coverage, particularly on the rest of Alabama's receiving options. But Cooper will be the main focus.


Alabama is dead last in the SEC in first-quarter rushing attempts. This has been an offense that has looked to start fast through its passing game and then rely on the running game just lean on the opposing defense more and more over the next three quarters. They don't come out wailing away with power the way past Bama teams did.

Given Sims' struggles on the road and what is certainly going to be a very big, very loud crowd, look for Kiffin and Saban to look for ways to take the crowd out of this one early on. They'll script some haymakers into their first 15 plays, and don't be surprised if there's a fake or onside kick considered. Alabama's been pretty brutal in kickoff coverage, so onside or squib kicks aren't the worst idea anyway.

Hammer Fight

Don't let all that talk about the nation's best receiver (him or Kevin White) let you think that this game won't be won or loss on the line of scrimmage. Because of course that goes without saying.

Alabama's rushed for 200 yards a game, and T.J. Yeldon is still one of the best backs in the country. But Bama's style hasn't been to just grind opponents up from snap one the way past teams have. They like to back teams up and then gash them with zone stretch plays and quick throws to Yeldon, with a dash of quarterback runs and zone reads to take advantage of Sims' mobility. LSU's done a much better job of defending that style in recent weeks, although neither Ole Miss nor Kentucky had backs half as talented as Yeldon. The other X-factor there has been Kendell Beckwith, who has controlled the inside gaps and allowed Alexander to clean up outside more.

But the real battle is going to come in when LSU has the ball. The Tide have the nation's No. 2 rush defense, and while the Tiger offensive line had a lot of success against Ole Miss' fantastic unit, this isn't an undersized speed outfit that can be overwhelmed. Alabama is big and burley and loves to bring star safety Landon Collins down into the box to help with numbers.

But thanks to a schedule that's been very heavy on spread offenses, they also haven't seen a power game quite like what LSU will bring to the table, either. Oh sure, there was the 89 net yards allowed to Arkansas a month ago, and at face value you assume that means stopping an I-formation power team much like the Tigers.

But film study told a different story.

Arkansas came at Bama with an odd gameplan -- heavy on draws, traps and slow-developing power sweeps. Running wide can work on the Bama linebackers, but the plays have to hit quickly, or the safeties and corners will set the edge and turn the play back inside. The Razorbacks had some success with quick throws into the flat off of playaction early, but by the second quarter the Tide began to notice that there was no constraint -- that Arkansas wasn't actually handing the ball off on any of the run action, and simply spread out to compensate.

LSU's going to have to do what it always does, and lead with zone and power inside. Pound out the body blows, bring Alabama's secondary into the middle of the field and THEN attack use the quick passing game to take advantage of those bigger linebackers.

Is LSU going to be able to push around Bama? I don't know. But I do know that nobody has tried, and that the Tigers can't be afraid to be who they are. Throw those body blows early, just like against Ole Miss. Gamble that in the fourth quarter the short runs will start getting longer. Fox Sports' Coy Wire had a fantastic breakdown of the Tiger running game here, and bringing that level of violence and emotion to the field, especially with seniors like La'el Collins and Elliot Porter, will be a must.

Do NOT Expect

A Clean Kill

LSU's going to have to slop this game up a bit to have a real chance. Sims has been really good this year, better than anybody expected -- never forget that Alabama brought in Jacob Coker to replace him because they didn't really believe he could do this. The Tigers will need to put him in difficult positions and make him uncomfortable. There don't have to be turnovers necessarily, but LSU will have to get the Tide offense off the field and keep them off of it.

Borrowing from Alabama's gameplan in the Rematch might not be a bad idea. There was a lot of talk about the development of A.J. McCarron in that game, but more than anything, Alabama A) found ways to attack LSU's linebackers in coverage and B) neutralized the incredibly disruptive pass-rush by becoming an absolute slave to staying on schedule. They simply would not allow themselves to get in third-and-long situations, even if it meant calling very short, high-percentage throws on second down that had very little chance of actually converting the first, but could at least make the third down distance four yards or less.

Combined with the running game, LSU's passing game has started to fit this style well with Anthony Jennings' strength at throwing on rollouts/bootlegs and finding his outlets and checkdowns. LSU also has a couple of plus matchups here, with Fournette and Terrence Magee getting to the sideline on Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest, along with those Spider-Banana plays to Connor Neighbors and Melvin Jones.

Yes, Alabama's corners have been vulnerable down the field, but they've also been a little more hesitant to put them in those one-on-one situations as often, so Cameron will have to force that with the running game and underneath throws. Another dynamic to watch there is that Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre and John Diarse have all struggled a little bit with corners that can jam them good at the line. Bama's group have played off more this year than usual, but will they roll up to try and attack? Trey Quinn could be the X-factor there. Not only does he usually get a cleaner release than his mates, but when LSU puts him in the slot, especially in 21 personnel looks, he'll usually be matched up on Collins. And while Collins is a pretty good box safety, with some athletic skills as a ballhawk, he's not that great in single coverage. There's a chance for Quinn to have a signature freshman moment besides crowd-surfing.

Jennings' mobility provides another interesting twist, especially when LSU uses its diamond formations. That three-back look will almost certainly draw Collins into the box and create some one-on-one situations outside for a pop pass. Against Ole Miss, the Tigers also showed a new wrinkle to the zone-read game, with LSU's H-back executing the arc-block a la Auburn.

(H/T: College and Mag)

It's an easy way to take advantage of the standard defense of the zone-read (the scrape-exchange) and grab some quick yardage. Quarterback carries won't be something LSU can rely on too much, but they'd would be another way for the offense to frustrate Bama's front and keep things spread out for the inside runs.