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LSU vs. Alabama: What to Watch For

It’s that time of year again.

LSU v Mississippi
We may all need a hug when this is over.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Been a bit of a slow week here, especially for such a big game, and everybody has their own reasons for it. Mine, mostly center around a general lack of enthusiasm. Sure I’m hopeful — and I’m damn sure going to break all this down for you and exactly how LSU can win this game.

But I can’t say I believe that they will. Alabama’s a 21-point favorite here, and based on how these two teams have played to date, they should be. They have out-classed the entire country in recruiting. They have the best coach in the country, maybe the best ever, and are in the middle of a run that is unprecedented, even when judged against the great college football dynasties of the past. Honestly, they should be favored against everybody they play, and there’s no reason, based on the facts, that they should lose to anybody. Nick Saban has created a video game dynasty. Any flaws in it, currently, are user error.

So I’ve been reluctant to gin up much enthusiasm here, partially because I just don’t have the energy for the same cycle of catastrophe syndrome after the loss that we go through every time the Tigers lose (I can picture the “but it’s how we lost” excuses now). Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, the over-focus on this particular game has had a negative impact on LSU over the last few years. That’s something that, I hope, Ed Orgeron and Co. have begun to correct. But it’s a journey that must continue beyond the result of Saturday night.

As for what that result will be? Well, let’s discuss.

What To Watch For On Saturday

The House

Orgeron’s Eleven has a ring to it.

So the analogy works here. Alabama has become the house, and completely slanted the field into their favor. Eighty percent of their roster is a former four- or five-star recruit. They lead the nation in scoring defense, rushing defense, total defense and defensive S&P+.

LSU winning will take a confluence of events that would look something like this:

  • The Tigers pitch a perfect game in terms of turnovers and mental mistakes — penalties, missed tackles, dropped passes, etc...
  • The Crimson Tide play one of their worst games in regards to those areas.
  • A stolen touchdown on defense or special teams.
  • An outright heroic performance by one of LSU’s best players — big plays and multiple touchdowns by Derrius Guice or D.J. Chark, a 20-tackle performance out of Devin White, a multi-interception game from one of the corners or a three- or four-stack performance out of Arden Key.

If I had to guess, LSU will need at least two of those four things to happen. Maybe more.

Offensively, Bama is a remarkably similar matchup to last season on offense. They have a dynamic spread rushing attack that’s largely keyed around Jalen Hurts’ ability to influence the defense with his own mobility.

In terms of the passing game, new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has largely replaced last year’s RPO-heavy style with more basic play-action, particularly flood concepts like the three-level stretch with a short and intermediate receiver with a deep clear-out.

3L Oblique

Hurts has been efficient, but he still struggles with his accuracy, especially down the field. Of course he’s an incredibly dangerous runner, and that largely makes up for it. At least against most of the teams Alabama will face.

For LSU, the gameplan is largely the same as last year. Roll a safety down and fill against the run. Look for Grant Delpit to play a huge role after the last few weeks. Donte Jackson will also be key from the nickel spot, particularly given how much Bama likes to throw into the flats. When they do run an RPO, it’s usually a quick slant.

Up front, the Tide have been consistent, but struggle slightly on the right side. So we may see Key move around a bit to take advantage. Damien Harris has been emerging as the lead tailback over Bo Scarborough, although the receiving reps are still overwhelmingly dominated by Calvin Ridley.

Third and long will be the Tigers’ chance to “bet big.” Hurts has only thrown 17 passes on third and seven yards or greater all season. In fact, it’s only even happened in five of the Tide’s eight games. He’s only converted six of those 17 attempts, and he’s only picked up one first down in 12 rushing attempts at that distance.

Of course, this will also hold true for the Tigers’ offense as well.

Plan to Fail

On the other side of the ball, Bama doesn’t have the same dynamic defensive line of the last two seasons, but they make up for that with a deep and very athletic group of linebackers and the best safety tandem in the game in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison.

They’re physical up front and out on the corners, but they don’t have quite the same killers they’ve had in the past. Turns out Jonathan Allen is rare even by their standards.

Still, it’s a group that excels at taking away what an offense wants to do well. Fitzpatrick and Harrison give them a lot of flexibility versus one- and two-back teams to keep deep leverage, but still fill against the run when necessary.

Bama leads the SEC and ranks fifth nationally in third-down conversions allowed at 25 percent, and it should come as no surprise that it mostly comes from their ability to send exotic blitzes and pressures in third-and-long situations.

Of the 108 third downs the Tide defense has faced to date, 60 have been at a distance of seven yards or more. If an offense can manage to get into a short-yardage situation, teams have managed to convert eight of 11 third downs of three or less.

So — broken record alert — LSU needs to do everything it can to avoid third-and-long situations, and stay on schedule.

The bad news is that LSU hasn’t been able to reliably avoid third-and-long very often this season. The good news is that over the last few weeks, we’ve seen Matt Canada find increasingly creative ways to move the ball. Because he’s going to need all of them.

With the way Bama game-plans for option A, Canada needs to be prepared for every other option in the alphabet. Assume Bama will stop whatever you want to start with, and then adjust to your adjustment. Think almost in terms of multiple game plans.

Use shifts, motions and unbalanced looks to play with Bama’s checks and run fits. Jet-sweeps to stress their front laterally and create running lanes. Use quick passes into the flats to draw up coverage — and Bama typically inhales those types of passes, but do them anyway, at least a few times. Make them defend every player on the field. If you find an advantage somewhere, press it until they have to give something else to take it away.

Personally, I would lead with the pass on standard downs. Namely, short, high-percentage plays. Rollouts, quick hitches, screens, clearouts and picks. The kind of nagging plays that don’t do much damage, but can pick up three or four yards. If Canada can find the right mix, there’s a chance to avoid those third-and-long situations that Bama dominates.

Of course, if LSU struggles to get even a basic push, as it did the last time it traveled to Bryant-Denny, there isn’t much game-planning for that.

Do NOT Expect

The Konami Code

Over the years everybody thinks they’ve figured out The Secretto defeating Alabama. Things like “you gotta run a spread offense,” like the Tide haven’t handled spread teams like Texas A&M, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Auburn the last few years. Or “you gotta have a mobile quarterback,” except for the laundry list that they’ve taken down as well.

There is no single secret to beating a team, and a program, like Alabama. If you can’t beat them at the line of scrimmage, you need your best players to be better than their best players. You need a quarterback that can raise his game the way DeShaun Watson could in big moments, or receivers like Mike Williams that could win one-on-one pass plays.

In the past, LSU has needed talented reserves like Tharold Simon and Eric Reid to break through as freshmen. A little-used tight end to run a reverse on fourth down. Or a backup quarterback and running back to hit a handful of speed-option plays.

Winning this game is going to take that kind of effort across the roster. It’s going to take everybody contributing — winning the play when their time comes. It may be somebody like Foster Moreau, J.D. Moore, Tory Carter or Jamal Pettigrew making a big catch. A big play from Derrick Dillon, Stephen Sullivan or Drake Davis. Maybe even a freshman linebacker like Tyler Taylor or K’Lavon Chaisson. We don’t know who, and we don’t know when. We may not even figure it out until it is all over.

LSU’s coaches will have to find a way to turn 11 on 11 into a series of individual matchups. From there, it’s on the players to win the play in the moment. Make the block. Make or break the tackle. Hit the throw or catch the pass.

The money’s all on the house. There’s nothing really to lose.

Let’s go break something tasteful.