1. So the Bama offense has been playing the game on Freshman-level difficulty to date. Is there anything really different about this unit besides Tua just being that good?
It is a very different team, and has a different identity than years past. That’s particularly apparent on offense: it’s a throw-first bunch, with three outstanding linemen who are better pass blockers than run blockers. The exchange of Lester Cotton at left guard for Deonte Brown promises a more balanced, old-school Saban mashing unit on the left side, but for now, this group wins by keeping jerseys clean and playing fast. And there’s simply no historical analog for what Alabama has in the receiving corps in 2018. There is very little difference in productivity, speed, or playmaking from Henry Ruggs III to Jerry Jeudy to DeVonta Smith, with Jaylen Waddle coming in to play Percy Harvin 2.0 and an O.J. Howard-type receiving threat at tight end (Irv Smith.) It’s hard to find enough balls for those guys and still feed Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Brian Robinson in the backfield. This is the offense that Saban has always alluded to wanting: one wide open that can score at will, but is physical enough to control the game, move the sticks, and shorten games as his conservative mood takes him. The amazing part is that for most of this passing attack, this trip to Baton Rouge will be just their ninth start — they’re still learning the offense. I’m not trying to gush, but it’s damned hard to watch this group and not be in awe: They’re playing a different sport than everyone else in 2018.
2. Obviously, it’s very good and talented, but with this defense seeing so much garbage time on a week-in/week-out basis, do you feel like you can even really assess it’s true quality?
Weirdly, we can assess it in bits and pieces. We always knew it was going to be a learning curve for the linebackers and secondary. The latter in particular, after they lost all five starters to the NFL. And, the unit has had some busts at times, particularly Saivion Smith, and lacking a Minkah / Eddie Jackson guy to get everyone’s head on the same page. Defensively, you’ll see a similar attack to last year along the front: It’s a very disruptive group, with exceptional interior push. But, after a particularly slow start by the linebackers, especially in match-up zone and in getting Mack Wilson to lead the group, they have regrouped and, when pressed and focused, the starters have allowed just 4.03 yards per play over the last two games (including Mizzou) — that would be good for fourth in the nation. It also generates many, many more sacks than last season. The health is a little better and the outside rush is cleaning up what Quinnen Williams and company are starting.
3. Is there any actual area of the team that gives you pause this week?
I think only the most oblivious Gump could look at this team and not be concerned in some respects: The kicking game has improved some the last week or two. But we had to actually bench a punter (!!!) and no one trusts that a field goal is a makeable down for the Tide. The injury situation is grim: Two linebackers, two corners, and a safety are out indefinitely. Speedy receiver DeVonta Smith has a hamstring injury that could linger all year. Jalen Hurts injured his ankle and had to have surgery; he may or may not be available for this game. Tua’s knee is the most valuable joint in the state of Alabama. Though a minor injury, it definitely affected his delivery the last two starts — he wasn’t able to step into his throw as usual and balls were sailing on him. Then there’s the fact that no one still is quite sure that the linebackers will be able to execute their responsibilities in the passing game. Dylan Moses has been the best of the bunch, and Mack has improved: but the middle and underneath has been eaten alive this year.
4. As tired as the “ain’t played nobody” bit is, is there any real concern how this team might respond if a game actually goes into the fourth quarter? Or is that just a silly internet #narrative.
I think it’s largely just a #take on the internet: Don’t forget, last year when Alabama was trailing by two scores against Georgia it was this core group of then-Freshmen who were asked to lead the comeback on the nation’s biggest stage: and they came up aces. They’ve seen big moments and responded down the stretch and into overtime in a hostile environment — and they’ve done so for stakes far greater than a regular season divisional game. I mean, what else is ESPN supposed to say? You either have to look for warts, manufacture them, or drop the regrettable “IS ALABAMA RUINING COLLEGE FOOTBALL” story. Of course they’re not. The Tide may (or may not) win the national title in 2018, but ask the other 129 teams if their season is diminished based upon what happens in Tuscaloosa? Think they care about that at Purdue or Pullman right now? For that matter, after the nice little run in Baton Rouge with this team, are Tiger fans’ seasons and memories made or destroyed based on three games in January? I’d hope the answer is by and large “hell no.”
5. What do you think it would take for Bama to actually lose this game?
It wouldn’t take as much as people suppose — but neither is it as precarious as some doomsayers believe either. Alabama would need to have a ton of turnovers and simultaneous offensive struggles, coupled with a defensive collapse. That collapse can come via deep shots to LSU’s wideouts, or they can be nickel and dimed with the tight ends and backs in space and simply never get their feet under them. LSU wants to shut down all running options and generate a pass rush with the front four and then drop six or seven in coverage: Greedy and Fulton and Delpit may be excellent, but even if they pitch a shutuout on their man, that still leaves two or three other options for Alabama’s offense — that must be neutralized. So, as usual, it will come down to which team’s defensive line can impose its will on the other. For Alabama to lose this game, it must lose this battle. It is a familiar refrain, but the last several meetings have been won because Alabama has won the battle up front: The Tigers must succeed there, be supremely efficient and careful with the ball, and then hope for unforced errors by the Tide while and forcing some turnovers on their own.