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LSU vs. Alabama: What to watch for

Time for the big one.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

And here we are again. LSU versus Alabama. Two top-10 teams, top four in the College Football Playoff, squaring off in a game that will settle the conference and national postseason chances of both teams.

It may not be the Game of the Century, but it's still pretty big deal that's going to go a long way towards shaping a lot of the college football postseason, both for teams and individuals.

What to Watch For on Saturday

He is The One

Leonard Fournette has the chance to walk out of Bryant-Denny Stadium and into college football history. Dramatic clichéd, yes. All of those things.

But nonetheless true.

I don't know that Fournette can lose the Heisman trophy here, but I know -- KNOW -- that he can win it in this game with a standout performance. Nobody else in the country has been as consistently great and nobody else will have the kind of showcase that a big performance this Saturday will provide. For God's sake, we're talking about a running back that some will say was "contained" with 180 yards and two touchdowns against Florida. If he goes north of 150 or 200 yards, that's it. The trophy is his. I'm not usually one for predictions like that but there will be nothing else anybody in the country can do that will match that kind of performance.

Whether he will or not is something we'll continue to explore, but there's no mistaking the opportunity. We've seen the difference in Fournette from last year, when he rushed for a mediocre 79 yards on 21 carries versus Alabama. The game has slowed down for him. He sees plays develop differently. The bullets are stopping. Time to take down the fascists in the suits.

It's something we haven't seen any LSU player realistically have in my lifetime. It's something special, and I suggest we all enjoy it.

Be Who You Are


If you're a fan of the Hellboy films/comics, you remember one thing. When it comes to a fight, he'll use The Samaritan, and talismans and spells and all that. But most of the time things always come back to that big Right Hand of Doom. He's a big, strong lug and he does what big lugs do. Hit things really hard.

LSU's football program and offense are built on pounding opponents with a power running game. Hitting them with our own Right Hand of Doom, the aforementioned No. 7. Cam Cameron and the offensive coaching staff absolutely cannot lose sight of that on Saturday. Come out, line up and go right at the Crimson Tide, and let's see what happens.

Are they the best run defense in football? Yep. But they haven't seen a running game like LSU's this year. Georgia and Arkansas are maybe the closest comparisons schematically, and both out-thought themselves in their gameplans. Georgia came out throwing, in the rain, with Greyson Lambert in the first quarter, rather than leading with Nick Chubb and forcing Alabama to take that away. Had they remembered how good he was, maybe he'd have broken a long touchdown run before the game was out of reach in the second half. As for Arkansas, they play-action passed out of the I-formation more often than they ran out of it -- in fact they didn't run once out of that set in the first half. Both teams assumed they would need to throw first to create room for their running games, and while that sounds like a smart gameplan to some, it A) sends a signal to your own players that you don't think they can win up front (and when your program philosophy is "mass kicks ass" like Arkansas, that's anathema); and B) allows Nick Saban's defense to play you straight up and not take any risks.

I've talked at great length in the past about some of the misunderstandings on how Kirby Smart runs Saban's defense, but the simplest way to put it is that they will always try to make you dribble left-handed. But that means a different thing for every opponent. Stuff good running teams. Flood the passing lanes versus passing teams. Make pocket quarterbacks throw off-platform. Make running quarterbacks do it from the pocket. Make pro-style teams spread the field horizontally and make spread teams do it vertically. For all the talk about them stopping LSU's run, they've beaten Texas A&M much worse the last two seasons because the Aggies can only do one thing on offense themselves.

But you can't give up on your offensive identity trying to out-think them. You have to challenge them and make Alabama adjust to you. Will they bring a safety down to try and stop the run with numbers? Yeah, but only if you prove you're going to run on their front seven. If you don't make them, they'll be happy to keep the safeties back and give your wide receivers hell for 60 minutes instead.

LSU should come out on the first drive running power and zone and making the Tide prove they can stop that. Be patient, and stay on schedule. Three- and four-yard runs on first and second down are fine, because third and three or less is still a neutral down where the defense as to respect both the run and the pass. And staying out of predictable passing situations is always a key versus any great defense. If LSU can't get at least that much push, then it has more problems. Remember, LSU ran for 183 yards on this defense last year while completing 8-of-26 passes. This offense is much better at throwing the ball this year but it's also better at running it too.

Attacking Alabama's defense is almost like defending a modern spread offense. There's a give and take to it, but you have to be patient and make them take things away from you. Make Alabama bring that safety into the box and give you one-on-one matchups with wide receivers. Make the front seven think inside-out first, then use that to get on the edge with outside runs and quick passes. Balance your passing between the downfield stuff and the flats and intermediate game. They devour one-dimensional teams whether it's a run-heavy team like LSU or an all-passing outfit like Texas A&M.

Keep Firing

Now that said, LSU isn't going to be able to wear the Tide out running alone. We saw that last season, when LSU ran 82 plays and held the ball for some 40 minutes of the game. That, as much as anything is where we see all those No. 1 recruiting classes show up: depth. Alabama can just keep rolling out big, talented defenders in that front seven, and that's why you don't see them wear down physically. They have more bodies than you have ammo. The Tide play some eight defensive linemen and six linebackers, and while this unit isn't as tough or as physical as that '11 group, it's probably more athletic overall.

Alabama does a fantastic job of playing defense downhill, and "fitting" versus the run from the A-gap out, at all three levels. Getting the edge on this group isn't as easy as some Alabama defenses in the past, so LSU will have to show they can mix things up once they establish a base in the running game. The linebackers struggle playing on their heels, and the corners and safeties are vulnerable in one-on-one coverage, so if the Tigers can isolate those things they can make some plays. Watch for the jet-sweep to make a comeback in this gameplan as a way of making the front hesitate a bit in its flow against the zone running game. And as I discussed in the Western Kentucky recap, watch for a possible wheel route out of the play-action passing game.

LSU has established that it can do things on offense that will work against this defense. They just need to be willing to break a few tendencies. Things like putting Brandon Harris on the move a little more, or maybe some passing when Trey Quinn and John Diarse are lined up at wide receiver (which has been a clear run indicator this season).

The pressure on this defense has to be more than physical, it has to be mental as well. Make them press and try to force the action, and then take advantage of that with play-action down the field. Pressure applied from the offensive side of the ball by LSU will also likely impact the Crimson Tide offense as well.

Identity Crisis

Not to rain on Bill C's "Manball Christmas" parade (which sounds more like a real parade than I realized when I started typing), but Alabama's offense is shockingly un-manballish this year.

Dare I say it, the Tide are a finesse team on that side of the ball.

Now, before the angry comments start, that's not an insult or a bad thing at all. An effective offense works however it works, but the fact remains: Bama has more in common with Oregon, or specifically, Lane Kiffin's USC teams than they do the offenses of recent seasons. Some of that is by design, but it mostly seems to be by necessity -- this offensive line just can't push people around the way Barrett Jones & Co. did for all those seasons.

To his credit, Kiffin's playcalling reflects that. Alabama uses mostly spread formations with a wide/tight zone running game and a very deliberate passing game designed to get the ball out quickly. Alabama runs a ton of bubble screens and other pick plays like shallow crosses (if Kenyan Drake motions out wide, he's either running a pick for the nearest receiver, or the receiver is running it for him) along with the occasional curl or stick route. When the Tide do take their shots, it's usually on first down and involves play-action, or a pump fake such as on a fake bubble screen. There's a definite sense that they don't want to have Jacob Coker hold the ball very long.

Freshman Calvin Ridley has been the go-to guy, and much like with Amari Cooper a year ago, Kiffin will move Ridley around to a number of different spots, including the backfield to try and create room for him (or bluff a play to him to open things up for another option). Calling Ridley a freshman is slightly misleading, because he's 20 years old -- he couldn't even play his senior season of high school ball due to his age -- and that reflects in his polish. He's not as explosive as Cooper (averaging just 10 yards per catch), but he runs fantastic routes and really seems to understand his role in the individual concepts. After Ridley, tight end O.J. Howard has developed into something of a safety blanket option in the flats as well.

Overall, it's not as dramatic of a shift in overall scheme. Alabama's always run a very controlled passing attack in the Norm Chow West Coast style, through Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier before Kiffin. The playcalling is the difference.

In the running game, Alabama mostly tries to work the edges and create numbers advantages with blockers, moving H-backs, tight ends and receivers around and also using jet sweeps and counters off of that look. Again, it fits this offensive line, which has given up the most tackles for loss in the conference (and well on pace to allow the most since maybe Saban's first season in Tuscaloosa). But again, the style fits Derrick Henry well.

The 6-4, 240-pound junior has been outstanding this season, carrying a bigger load than any back they've had since Trent Richardson, but he continues to be miscast. Henry's always been much more of a speed back trapped in a big body than a power guy. He accelerates to the edge quickly, and corners and safeties are going to struggle with a guy that big. But if he can be hemmed back inside he tends to chop his feet and struggle to find space between the tackles. Alabama's best inside plays usually feature some sort of fake or blocking gimmick designed to hold the linebackers for an extra second.

The good news for LSU there, is that this defense has really excelled at stopping wide-running teams to date. Stringing plays out, setting the edge and making the tackle. Henry's size makes that a bit of a different matchup, and there won't be much margin for error if the man in the alley misses that tackle.

Still, the key to stopping Alabama will be the same as usual: win the line of scrimmage and knock them off schedule. Coker has been absolutely dreadful on third downs, even in games where he's completed a high percentage of his overall throws. On the season he's completing just 50 percent on third down, and converting on 26 percent of those passes. For a point of reference, his 81.5 passer rating on that down is about 20 points lower than Anthony Jennings' third-down efficiency.

Alabama thrives on working the running game and avoiding those situations, which then allows them to take low-risk shots down the field in plus sitations, which has yielded big plays for them against teams like Georgia and Tennessee. LSU is going to have to stop the run and make tackles on those short throws in order to force Coker to drop back in situations where everybody knows he has to pass. LSU's defensive line might have the advantage, particularly Lewis Neal on either a gimpy, or backup, Alabama right tackle.

Of course, it would also be nice if the LSU offense could help out by forcing the Tide to pass its way out of a deficit.

Another observation: when Coker does miss a throw, he tends to do it high. That's the kind of tendency that can lead to multi-interception, meltdown-type games against the right defense. Whether the Tigers are the secondary to take advantage of that remains to be seen.

Do NOT Expect

The Typical

There's something different about this game. For starters, LSU has the better offense and quarterback for once. That may not matter (Alabama had those same advantages the last two times LSU has won this game), but it creates a different matchup.

On top of that, you have a pair of secondaries that have been vulnerable down the field, and running backs that are going to command attention from safeties and linebackers. I don't know who's going to win this game, but I have a feeling it's going to play out a little differently than the pre-game narrative, at least in terms of points and big plays. The weather will almost certainly be a factor as well, although who that gives an advantage is anybody's guess -- and there are arguments to be made either way.

Regardless, we all know that one way or the other it will be memorable.