1. Well, Bama's looked nigh-invulnerable to date. What's your assessment of the 2017 edition of General Saban's Happytime Death Circus?
This is a really fun team. To borrow a basketball term, it really wants to get up and down the court and run the floor. It's a young one overall, but really focused. It seems like they don't make the same mistakes twice, as a group. What has helped bring them along is an offensive line captained by the steady Brad Bozeman, Minkah Fitzpatrick quarterbacking the most active Saban defense I think I've seen, and the steady Jalen Hurts who remains unflappable. Those three have helped sublimate egos too. There's enough playing time to go around, and with injuries and talent on the bench, 17 of the '17 NSD have already seen action.
2. To the naked eye, it appears that Brain Dabbol hasn't so much changed Bama's offense as brought a more direct approach to play-calling. Fair? Or what, if any, changes has he really brought?
The playcalling has changed a great deal. He has certainly brought with him a lot of the Pats' passing concepts. But, he's still finding his way as a play-caller. Perhaps his best work so far has been reintegrating into the college game, establishing rapport with the quarterbacks, and then working with Co-OC Mike Locksley to integrate the pro passing game with the existing elements of the power spread Alabama already had in place. For instance, you will see Jalen and Bo Scarbrough work the mesh on one play, but instead of a bubble screen on the next snap, you are far more likely to see the TE on a shallow slant. It is particularly noticeable in the increased role the backs have as pass-catchers and more intermediate routes by the receivers. Somehow, it all works.
3. With Bama just absolutely bludgeoning teams, has it made it hard to even really judge this group against something comparable, or will that just have to wait for the playoffs?
It has been hard to judge this team in many respects. This is Hurts first season really asked to be a true quarterback, make his reads, check-downs, deliver the ball etc. He's running far less on RPOs and Alabama is calling far fewer of them. The front seven has been decimated with injuries, especially during the first half of the season. And, the competition hasn't really helped much. There are a few that were alwasy going to be tough: A completely loaded and healthy FSU with 8 months to scheme. Auburn on the Plains, as is Auburn's wont. A&M, simply because everything had been way too easy to-date. I think we'll see with how the team finishes as to how good this team is or can be.
4. Jalen Hurts has been efficient as a passer and dangerous as a runner, but he still has some limitations. How could a defense best try to exploit them?
His biggest limitation is making the second- and third-read quickly and then delivering an accurate ball under pressure. It's not the easiest task for most and certainly not with him still learning. The best way to exploit it is the same way that A&M and FSU did: Blow up the offensive line as many times as possible and force him into a quick decision. He won't turn the ball over, but the odds are good he won't make you pay for the decision either. Of course, a lot of that depends on the defense forcing the Tide into obvious passing situations, which means limiting the running game to the extent possible. Very few teams have done it often enough to get the offense on its heels, though there are some teams out there who could: Georgia, Clemson, maybe Ohio State, all come to mind immediately.
5. Defensively, Bama's replaced a ton of stars from last season with no drop-off. Is there any point you could imagine a team attacking?
This defense is even faster than the last two iterations, but it doesn't pass rush nearly as well from the front four. In many respects, it is like the 2009-2010 defenses: The linebackers and secondary are the heart of the squad. They do a great job of winning their battles up front, but the linebackers are much more involved in cleaning up those tackles and applying pressure. For all that the linebackers are asked to do, they can still be picked on a bit in the passing game. You'd have to think anyone worth their salt in the booth would be dusting off Mike Bobo's gameplan and seeing how the Rams worked the shallow middle of the field to move the chains against them.
6. Best guess as to how this game plays out?
First, I expect LSU to play well above their head. Ole Miss was special to Orgeron and it showed. Last year, this game was special to him in Baton Rouge and it showed. But, I just don't think it's a great matchup this year for the Tigers. I don't think the LSU defense, which is far better pass-rushing and covering downfield, will necessarily get to showcase those skills. Rather, I think you see a lot of the 'State and Auburn gameplans: Alabama will likely line up and platoon four backs and Jalen Hurts at it until LSU can consistently gets enough stops. On offense, I expect the Tigers to have more success running the ball than the last two years; the defense can fail to set the edge at times or wrap up at point of contact (and, for my money, Guice was always the more complete, dangerous back in any event.) But, I don't think the Tigers offensive line can win enough battles, or keep Etling safe enough, to do much damage to the nation's best defense. Let's say that Alabama opens its stretch run by covering the spread.