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LSU vs. Alabama: What to Watch For

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And so we dance the dance again.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country. They are the defending conference and national champions, and the winners of five straight in this series over the last four years.

They have the best coach in the country, possibly in the history of this sport. Seven consecutive top-ranked recruiting classes. Every single member of this roster was a part of a No. 1 class and three-quarters of the players on their two-deep depth chart were a four- or five-star recruit coming out of high school.

I tell you all of that so that you understand exactly what LSU is up against here. The Tigers are the underdog here for a reason. Alabama is very likely the better team. If they play their best game, and LSU plays their best game, the Crimson Tide will likely win.

That’s simply a reality that everybody reading this has to be prepared to accept.

But I also tell you all of these things to say that LSU has a chance here. A path to victory.

And this is it.

What to Watch For On Saturday

A Tale of Two Downs

This game is annually won and lost at the line of scrimmage, but the battle up front can be shaped, partially, by the theater of operations. Particularly the down and distance each team finds itself in. And in a matchup of two of the best defenses in college football, the offense that does the best job of avoiding third and long will be the one that has the most success moving the ball.

Alabama’s offense is fantastic on third down, converting about 49 percent of their opportunities. LSU converts a solid 43 percent of them. But it’s a different world once things move into longer-yardage situations: third down and seven yards or more. The Crimson Tide’s rate drops all the way down to 26 percent in that situation (13 of 50). LSU’s rate drops to just 40 percent (17 of 43). That’s likely due to having a fourth-year quarterback compared to a freshman.

Staying on schedule, as much as anything, has been the most consistent focus of Alabama’s offenses under Saban, regardless of coordinator, or quarterback. The easiest way to mix up play calling and accentuate whatever your quarterback does well, is to make sure he’s consistently throwing in plus situations, when the defense has to worry about both the run and the pass. Bama’s third-down rate fell off last season, but the big play capability of Derrick Henry and the Tide’s wide receivers made up for it.

This season, Saban’s pushed Lane Kiffin back towards a much more efficient approach. In a lot of ways, this Bama offense reminds me of LSU’s 2011 unit, insofar as there’s no singular bell-cow. Quarterback Jalen Hurts actually leads the team in both rushing attempts and touchdowns, but otherwise he spreads the ball around to a gang of very talented runners and pass-catching targets. Just as the 2011 Tigers could wear teams out with physical runners like Spencer Ware and Kenny Hilliard and then make them chase speedier guys like Michael Ford and Alfred Blue, Bama can just roll out Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Josh Jacobs and Hurts himself until somebody breaks a big play.

It’s the luxury of depth.

So how do you avoid third-and-long? Have a successful first down. If you pick up at least three or four yards, you’re just another two or three from third and relatively short. And that’s a down the Crimson Tide defense have had a little trouble with: they’re allowing a conversion rate of 75 percent on third-and-short plays (11 of 13 on running plays, 7 of 11 passes). LSU has allowed 14 conversions in 29 third-and-short plays.

Of course, third down and three-or-less represents just 24 of the 110 total third downs the Crimson Tide have seen this season. So this is a lot easier said than done.

Patience

On the season, LSU has been a stronger team on first down. They average about 7.2 yards per play and allow 4.3, compared to 6.4 and 5.2 for Alabama. So what’s been the difference?

The fact that Alabama, on average, picks up a tackle for loss every eighth play or so. And a sack every eighth pass attempt or so.

This is a very fast, very athletic front seven, maybe the most athletic front that Alabama’s had under Saban. They aren’t quite the same brick wall that the Tide were last year with A’shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, but with Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Reuben Roster they have the potential to be much more disruptive. Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brings more of an aggressive approach to the defense as well, compared to Kirby Smart. Less suffocating and more mauling.

But, as Bill Connelly noted yesterday, that’s made them a little more susceptible to the big play. Thing is, if you take too many risks trying to get those big plays, you gamble that much more against the front seven. It goes back to efficiency on first down, to aid in it on third down, something that Bill left out of his piece.

That means LSU’s offensive staff, and coordinator Steve Ensminger, will have to find the right mix of run and pass to try and keep the Tigers ahead of the chains. Force Alabama to adjust, and then exploit that adjustment. It requires something of a delayed aggression — a patience, with the knowledge that the little things can lead to big things later in the game.

“Does this hurt?”

Playcalling is a little bit of art and a little bit of science, but it usually pays to approach if clinically. Like a doctor.

Poke around until you see where it hurts.

That’s the approach that Ensminger needs to bring to play-calling. Running the ball will be very important, and if LSU struggles the way it did last year, the play calls won’t matter that much.

Bama thrives on taking away what you do well. Pinching down on a between-the-tackles running game. Rolling safeties into the alley against stretch teams. Forcing pocket passers to throw off platform, and forcing mobile quarterbacks into being patient in the pocket. A successful passing game against them isn’t necessarily about trying to force things down the field, or even directly targeting the Alabama secondary, down a playmaker in Eddie Jackson. It’s about getting the ball out quickly and diversifying with backs and tight ends. Making the Tide adjust.

In thinking about this game, I found myself going back to this quote from Norm Chow, which I discovered in an old piece I wrote on the Washington passing game in 2012:

We'd be lying if we said we sat up in the box and knew what coverages were being run. What we try to do is take a portion of the football field, the weak flat for example, and we will attack that until we can figure out what the defense's intentions are. Then we try to attack the coverage that we see. It is very difficult to cover the whole field. We are not going to try to fool anybody. We are going to take little portions of the field and try to attack them until the defense declares what it intends to do.

LSU’s best bet, early in the game, will be to attack the flanks of Alabama’s defense, outside of the hashes, in order to decongest the tackle box for the running game. Specifically with some triangle concepts the Tigers have had success in the past, such as:

“Spot”

“Swing/Cut”

“Y-Stick”

All of these plays push a defender deep and generally offer the quarterback a quick throw into the flat or curl area. And all can be run out of sets with multiple wide receivers, two tight ends or two backs.

The “Choice” concept is another play LSU’s had success with in the past against Alabama, especially if the Tide does roll down a safety down to cover a slot receiver.

Pass Concept "Choice"

In some of the two-back looks with both Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice on the field, moving one of them around could also be a way to manipulate the defense, whether it’s pulling a linebacker out of the box or maybe shifting a coverage assignment for another DB. The thought of Guice running 525 F-Post Swing down the field is a pretty fun one as well.

In the running game, focus on using the down-hill game. Don’t get too fancy with anything slow-developing. For misdirection, focus on the quick-hitting options, such as this jet sweep with D.J. Chark,

or this fake jet play that features a counter pitch. I’ve always been a fan of this play because you can get the ball to the edge quickly with a pair of lead-blocking tight ends.

There isn’t going to be some magic prescription for success here. Ensminger needs to go into this game with a plan, but be ready to adjust as conditions change in the game. Alabama’s defense has scored an average of 10 points per game this year — they’re an opportunistic group that feeds off of turnovers, and those plays have been the catalyst for every single one of Bama’s big wins this season. If LSU can hold the ball and put the pressure on Hurts and the Bama offense, that would be some new territory.

Hurts is an electric athlete that will only become more difficult to deal in the future, but as we detailed earlier this week, the Bama passing game still hasn’t truly been tested. The quarterback that faces the most pressure in this game, both in terms of a pass rush and in terms of the weight of a game plan, could be the one to crack.

It’s going to be a tall order for the Tigers on Saturday night. But not an impossible one. Now let’s go out there and ruin somebody’s day.