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LSU vs. Alabama: What to Watch For

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Here we go again...

NCAA Football: Georgia at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Here was an example of how a tiger can move through the jungle. From the sound she had made I knew her exact position, had kept my eyes fixed on the spot, and yet she had come, seen me, stayed some time watching me, and then gone away without my having seen a leaf or a blade of grass move.

- Jim Corbett, The Best Hunting Stories Ever Told

Corbett was a renowned hunter in Colonial India, who wrote books on his adventures pursuing man-eating tigers and leopards. He hunted the animals to help out the local populace, and later spent the late part of his life fighting for conservation efforts in the country.

He spoke — respectfully, almost lovingly — of the way tigers could turn the tables on any hunter. To say nothing of what they could do at night.

Many times, it wasn’t enough. After all, Corbett did live to tell these tales. Doesn’t speak much to the success rate of these tigers vis a vis he himself.

That’s been LSU against the Alabama Crimson Tide in recent years. And this year’s task is no less daunting. This year’s version of the Red Bastards has mauled through everything in their path. The chances are slim. And in the long-run, conquering the Nick Saban Death Star goes beyond any one year or one game.

But this Saturday is about one game. LSU doesn’t have to win the long game. At least not yet. They just have to win the one on Saturday night.


What To Watch For On Saturday

Discovery

There remains something of a debate as to just how “good” of a team this year’s LSU squad is.

Accomplishments be damned.

Alabama, meanwhile, has the opposite perception. They’re universally considered the best team in the sport, because they have utterly demolished a slate of weak opponents.

Note: that is not to say that they aren’t as good as they look. It’s completely possible, and almost certainly likely, that this team is both the best team in the country, yet still unproven in comparison to any other good team.

The “ain’t played nobody” argument has become one of the more tired elements of college football. But this much is true: Bama hasn’t been tested. Not for four quarters.

Maybe it won’t matter. Hell, LSU’s pushed Alabama to the brink with teams that were overmatched in each of the last three meetings — to the very final minute in two of them — and in each instance, the Tide were able to make that final push. The big pass. The big play. Maybe they do it again. But we’ll never know if we don’t push them to it.

Just to put it all into perspective, Alabama:

  • Has beaten their eight opponents by an average of 40 points
  • Has scored more than 50 in six of those eight games; two games, more than 60 points
  • Has thrown 13 touchdown passes in the first quarter alone this year; LSU has just nine first-quarter scores on offense running AND passing
  • Has 161 plays this season of 10 yards or more; LSU had 168 through all of the 2017 season
  • Has yet to see a single snap on defense trailing — and seen just nine total snaps with so much as a tied game; six pass attempts, and three runs (for a combined 79 yards)

That last stat in particular, raises some of the uncertainty. It’s been brutally difficult to scout the Bama defense, because...well...they have an average lead of 28-7 by halftime every week. Fifty percent of every game, and more than that in many instances, is garbage time, with offenses frantically bombing away to try and come back while the defense can just pin its ears back and try to limit any big plays. That’s an easy way to skew statistics, both for the positive and negative. For example, the Tide have allowed 93 plays of 10 or more yards this season, which sits right in the middle of the pack in the SEC. But they’ve still allowed just 22 red zone appearances on the year, one more than LSU’s defense.

It’s Bama, so they’re certainly a high-quality unit to some extent. There’s far too much talent here for the Tide to ever be anything less than very good on defense. But on the level of some of the other units LSU’s seen? It’s hard to be sure.

Of course, discovery is not always a positive thing.

Is It Safe?

LSU’s offense hasn’t been consistent enough to feel completely comfortable against any defense of any good quality right now. They’ve found ways to do different things at different times, but I’m not sure there’s one thing that they can hang their hat on. One thing they can lean on doing.

But that also leaves them the freedom to try some different things. Attack different areas. Poke around, and see what hurts.

Use every weapon that you have. Throw to set up the run. Run to set up the pass. Use backs and tight ends in addition to receivers.

Most importantly, any offensive coordinator facing a Nick Saban-coached defense has to be prepared to think a few moves ahead. Have counter-punches in mind.

Saban has a counter-intuitive approach to his defense. Versus spread passing teams, he prefers to keep a single deep safety and use his pattern-match Cover-3 and keep a safety near the line to defend the run and “rob” the middle of the field. Against a run-heavy team, he’d much rather keep two deep safeties to guard against play-action, and trust his front seven and cornerbacks to handle their run fits. And he’s not going to adjust out of either of those defaults unless the offense makes him. A passing team will have to win down the field to force him back into keeping both safeties back, and a running team will have to be successful enough to make him roll that eighth defender down.

So as a play-caller, Steve Ensminger has to be prepared to try multiple things, and then be ready to exploit Alabama’s counter to whatever works.

If you run wide or attack the flats, Bama’s corners and safeties will start to fly up, so you’ll have to attack the hook/curl area behind them. Run inside, be prepared to throw some quick passes behind the linebackers over the middle, in front of the safeties.

Again, scouting this unit has been difficult, but to my eyes the Bama front — aside from nose tackle Quinnen Williams, who is incredibly disruptive — looks more like some of the early 2010s units. A big, thumping front seven that plays downfield well, but doesn’t excel running sideline to sideline. Ensminger may want to try and isolate the linebackers in coverage early on with backs and tight ends. Get them back on their heels, then work the zone running game.

The key for Joe Burrow will be hitting those early down passes and staying ahead of the chains to negate opportunities for Bama to throw exotic blitzes in obvious passing downs. Bama’s currently allowing 4.65 yards per carry in short-yardage situations; if LSU can stay on schedule, they may be able to get some push in the running game.

But it won’t happen if you can’t create some conflict.

Margin Call

The one thing you can say about Ed Orgeron teams here, through his first two-ish years, is that they generally avoid the big mistake. LSU sits 10th in the nation in turnovers lost, and had the country’s lowest total last season.

The little mistakes could certainly get better, obviously: dropped passes, missed tackles, missed blocks, penalties, etc... But for the most part, they avoid the big, game-killing type of error that can completely turn a game.

This week, that may not be enough.

Against a team with Alabama’s talent level, the margin is already razor thin. Last year’s game turned on a missed tackle on a blitz on Jalen Hurts that allowed him to scramble out of a third-and-long situation.

And this year’s team is much more dynamic on offense. As Seth detailed yesterday, the Tide haven’t really changed much on offense, but this year’s quarterback has been so good that a simple approach has been deadly.

Alabama’s playbook could be called 1-800-BLU-CHIP, because their play-calling philosophy mostly involves dialing up a different play for a five-star and just letting the talent shine through. And Tua Tagavailoa has been preternaturally accurate to date this year.

Defensively, LSU has the defensive backs to slow down the passing game for a time, but the defensive front will still have to win at the line of scrimmage against a running game that features two former five-star recruits in Damien Harris and Najee Harris.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Alabama maybe came out a little run heavy early on to try and model Georgia’s early success against the run a few weeks ago. And to set up some play-action shots down the field.

I suspect Dave Aranda will alternate between man-free and some read-quarters coverages to try and keep an extra man up near the line of scrimmage, and take away Bama’s RPO game. That should slow the receivers down some, but there’s still the matter of getting pressure on Tua and actually getting him on the ground. To date, he’s only throw 31 passes (out of 152 total attempts) on third down and long-yardage, but he’s completed and outstanding 74 percent and converted 18 first downs on those attempts.

If the offense can’t find ways to score points, the defense will only be able to hang for so long. The luxury of a true game-breaking passer like Tua is the same as having a game-breaking running back like a Barry Sanders or Reggie Bush. My default comparison is always Darren McFadden when he was at Arkansas — stopping him on nine carries in a row was fine, but that 10th could still be an 80-yard touchdown. The margin for error is just that thin.

One thing that stands out on film: Tua will take some chances when he his under pressure, and will also trust his receivers in tight coverage. It’s pretty obviously paid off for him (and to be sure, as a coaching point anytime you have a stud quarterback and receivers, you want him to take risks) but he also hasn’t seen a group of defensive backs like what the Tigers will have out there on Saturday. If there’s a ball that’s up for grabs, LSU has to find a way to come down with it.

Empty the Clip

Everybody knows the trope. The bad guy takes a bullet, or a crazy electro shock or gets throw over a cliff or something and everybody’s just so relieved that all the drama is over!

Always double-tap.

Alabama is every bit that movie monster, and they are not dying on one blow. The big mistake coaches have made in almost every tight game Bama has played in recent years — Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart certainly both did it last year. If you have a chance to put the Tide away, you HAVE to take it. There is no “hold on and try to bleed the clock.” No “punt and trust your defense one last time.”

This team has too much talent at too many positions, and on a long enough timeline you aren’t winning enough individual match-ups.

Ed Orgeron has been aggressive in big moments this year, particularly fourth-and-short situations, and that has to continue. Settling for field goals will be problematic as well. If it’s fourth-and-nine inside the 20, that’s one thing. But just getting points won’t be enough. And if you have Bama on the run, you have to stay aggressive and keep pushing with anything that can work. LSU will have to take some chances here as well, maybe with a trick play or two if the opportunity presents itself.

If you pull ahead, mash down the accelerator to the floor and don’t let it up until until the final whistle.


I find myself thinking back to what I wrote about this game last year:

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.

Obviously the details of the players are different — and Devin White will face long odds to make 20 tackles in just one half of football — but the overall point remains the same.

Alabama has the more talented roster. They have possibly the greatest coach in the history of this sport. And now they may have the sport’s best quarterback, to boot. LSU faces some long odds in this one.

I say all that, in hopes, that maybe we all just try to sit back, have some fun and just take this game for what it is. Avoid the post-game catastrophe syndrome (again, insert “but it’s how we lost” here). There’s still a lot of football left to play, for a team that has been well ahead of expectations. One that has put the program in a good position to continue to build.

And make no mistake, beating Alabama is about much more than just one game. They’re the Walmart of football. You don’t take them down with one day of big sales. It takes time, and it will continue to take more, regardless of what happens Saturday night. Auburn took it to Alabama last year and beat them, and all that did was give the Crimson Tide a free pass into the College Football Playoffs without having to risk anything in the SEC title game. And if LSU pulls it off this year, Bama will still be in the same situation.

Once the game kicks off, none of that matters. It’s not about the big picture. It’s not about the gap, or the process, or any of that. It’s about everybody in that stadium doing everything in his or her power to take down the No. 1 team in the country. Give that your attention. Be loud. Stay loud. Have fun.

Let’s go break something tasteful.