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The Make Or Break Matchup

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It's not the one you think

Give him a hug. He needs to be great.
Give him a hug. He needs to be great.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

In the run up to this weekend's matchup, most of the talk has focused on All-Universe running back Leonard Fournette going up against Alabama's impenetrable front seven. It is the most high profile matchup within the most high profile of games, so it makes sense. We want to talk about LSU's greatness going up against Alabama's greatness.

Power versus power. Strength against strength.

It's tempted to say that this matchup will decide the game, just as Georgia's inability to run with their star running back decided their matchup against Alabama. And we also want to talk about greatness playing greatness, as it befits a top five matchup in prime time.

However, it's unlikely either unit dominates the other. Fournette will get his yards, but he most like won't go the full Auburn on Bama's defense. We want this matchup to decide the game because it seems right, like this is the way the game should be decided. But it probably won't. Because games aren't often decided by strength on strength, but by weakness on weakness.

Much has been made of LSU's defense this year on the blog. LSU ranks 4th in the SEC in Total Defense (315.9), 5th in yards/play (4.81), and 8th in scoring (22.6). Those are solidly mediocre numbers.

LSU does boast a pretty stout run defense (93.7 yds/game, 3.25 yds/att), ranking 2nd behind Alabama. The pass defense, however, has been iffy at best: 222.1 yds/game (9th), 6.0 yds/att (5th), and 120.9 Rating allowed (9th). And this has given rise to doubt in what has traditionally been LSU's strongest unit, the defense.

However, can Alabama really exploit this apparent weakness? Alabama scores 33.5 points/game, good for 5th in the SEC. However, the underlying numbers aren't nearly as strong. Bama ranks 7th in Total Offense (421.9) and 9th in yards/play (5.65).

Worse for Alabama, the thing they do best runs right into what LSU does best. Bama might have the best run defense trying to stop the top rushing offense, but LSU has the #2 rush defense trying to stop the 5th best rushing offense in the SEC (188.50). Bama looks even worse in yards/carry, as they average just 4.53 yds/att, only 8th in the SEC. This is an inefficient rushing offense that is running smack up against the best rushing defense in the SEC outside of Tuscaloosa.

Bama will hope to exploit LSU's iffy pass defense, but their pass offense is iffy as well. They average 233.4 yards/game (7th), but at a remarkably poor rate, just 7.1 yds/att (10th). Their team Rating is 133.11, also 7th in the SEC.

If LSU's defense has questions, then Alabama's offense has quandaries. At least LSU can point to something at which they unequivocally excel, Alabama has a star running back in Derrick Henry and not much else. They have a patchwork offensive line, a decent quarterback, and a bunch of highly touted yet unproven wide receivers. So far, they have not delivered.

While everyone wants this game to come down to a great unit matching up another great unit, it will most likely be decided by LSU's slightly above average unit playing Alabama's below average unit. While neither team has the advantage when LSU has the ball, LSU clearly will have the better unit on the field when Alabama is on offense.

Let's not pull punches, LSU's defense has let the team down in three straight Alabama games. In 2012, Alabama got the football, down three, with 1:34 play. They drove down the field to score the game-winning touchdown. In 2014, Bama received the kickoff down by three with just 0:50 on the clock. Again, they scored, this time an overtime-forcing field goal.

That's two successful two-minute drills by Alabama in the past three years to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. In 2013, the one year of the past three that the defense did not give up a score in the waning seconds of the game to give up a lead, the defense just got rolled off the field. Bama scored touchdowns on five consecutive drives, and points on six straight. After a 3-0 first quarter, the LSU defense failed to make another stop for the rest of the game.

That's three straight losses which have come down to defensive failures, Now, most of those defense came into the Alabama game more highly regarded than this unit. So it is up to this unit to re-stake LSU's claim as a great defensive team. That's a high task to ask of this unit. But that's the ask we have to make. This game does not come down to the offense, it comes down to our defense.

Leonard Fournette is the star, and people want this to be his defining game. And maybe it will be, I will never doubt Fournette when it comes to doing something great. But LSU does not need Fournette to step up and have his defining game. No, this game needs to be Kendall Beckwith's masterpiece.

If LSU is going to win this game and its slide against Alabama, it needs the defense to step up in a way it has not over the past three Alabama games. Beckwith was just named a Butkus semifinalist, along with Debo Jones. It's time to earn that honor.

This one is on the defense.