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LSU vs. Alabama: What To Watch For

The Tigers head to Tuscaloosa for a top-5, SEC Championship elimination game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Auburn at LSU Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So begins the final act of LSU’s 2019 season. The climax.

And much as in the tradition of our generation of Peak TV dramas, the penultimate showdown will take place a few episodes before the big finale, as the Tigers head to Tuscaloosa.

Yep, LSU versus Alabama again. No. 1 versus No. 2.

Sarah Connor versus Skynet.

The Avengers versus Thanos.

The Scooby Gang versus Stuart Wetherby.

Delta House versus Dean Wormer.

Father Merrin versus Pazuzu.

What To Watch For On Saturday

The Monster At The End Of The Book

Shoutout to my fellow 80s kids who had this read to them.

The reality of the Alabama football program is enough. The most talented roster in the country led by the greatest coach of his generation, flanked by an army of coaches and support staff. No matter how successful your business is, this is Amazon or Google or pick your designated mutli-national corporate supervillain.

Alabama puts more of an emphasis on this game than most want to admit — Nick Saban admitted that over the summer — and they’ll always bring their A game. LSU hasn’t been able to match that. But on top of that, the eight-game losing streak has come to dominate the conversation that surrounds this game, making it a bellwether of success to the extent that the focus got in the way of the rest of the schedule. LSU became its own monster, just as Grover discovers in his own story.

(Sorry for the spoiler.)

It ultimately played a big role in the exit of Les Miles. And Ed Orgeron has at least picked up the rest of the plot. In 11 games against top-10 teams in two-plus seasons, Orgeron is 8-3. All three of the losses have been to Alabama.

Last year, it seems safe to say that LSU was beaten when they got off the bus. The team seemed almost too prepared. Wound too tight. When Alabama’s Quinnen Williams dominated from snap one, the whole team just got, to steal a Nick Saban term, “the brook trout look.” Even Joe Burrow seemed just completely overwhelmed by what he was facing.

I can’t speak to the team’s mindset coming into this from the outside looking in, but the bye week seems well-timed in terms of getting the players some rest. This team also has more reason to feel confident in what they do and how they do it. Namely, in their ability to score points on anybody. To answer the bell when needed.

We’ve seen LSU pass the ammunition and keep firing in shootouts, or dig deep for the handful of big plays needed. There’s no reason for this group to be intimidated Saturday.

I’ve maintained that the talent gap in this match-up has been the biggest issue for a few years now, and I still believe that. But this team has LSU’s best version of it in a few years. There isn’t a Williams to overwhelm Lloyd Cushenberry, or a Rueben Foster or Tim Williams around here to dominate the match-up physically. But the Tigers can create a lot of different match-ups with the receivers, tight ends and running backs. And Burrow has the wherewithal and the confidence to find the right advantage.

Thin Sliced

The Gentlemen in the Desert have this game tight as well — under seven points for the first time since the Tide were a six-point favorite in 2015. Well under the -21 and -14 that Bama were favored the last two years.

These teams are evenly matched in a lot of ways:

LSU vs. Alabama in Statistics

Category LSU Alabama
Category LSU Alabama
SP+ (overall/off./def./Sp.Tms) 3rd/3rd/18th/4th 2nd/2nd/8th/78th
FEI (overall/off./def./Sp.Tms) 4th/3rd/28th/25th 2nd/1st/10th/18th
Scoring (off./def. points per game) 46.8/20.0 48.6/15.3
Yards Per Play (off./def.) 7.55/4.65 7.72/4.54
Success Rate (off./def.%) 55.2/63.57 54.7/59.7
Third-down Conversion Rate (off./def.%) 50.5/32.5 55.2/34.7
Explosive Play Rate* (off./def.%) 14.4/8.9 16.3/8.9
* Explosive plays defined as runs of 10+ yards, passes of 20+ yards.

Offensively, LSU is slightly more efficient, but the Tide are slightly more explosive. Defensively, the Tigers produce a little more havoc, but Bama’s produced more turnovers and is a little more efficient against the pass.

So if the whole No. 1 vs. No. 2 thing didn’t already clue you in, it’s entirely possible that the loser on Saturday may still be one of the four or five best teams in the country, but second in their own division. Whether that will translate to a playoff spot down the line is for others to decide.

For the Tigers, this will almost certainly come down to the big players making big plays. For Burrow, if there’s going to be a Heisman moment, it’s going to come on Saturday. The receivers have to be special when their time comes. And on defense, the Grant Delpits and the Derek Stingleys have to be prepared to make big things happen when opportunity presents.

But even then, remember that the last time LSU had success in this match-up, it took special plays off the bench. Jordan Jefferson running the ball with Michael Ford in 2011. Jarrett Lee completing a pass late in 2010. Young talents like Eric Reid and Tharold Simon subbing in at big moments. This year, maybe it’s a big run from Tyrion Davis-Price, or a freshman defender like Jay Ward or Marcel Brooks — or a reserve thrust into a bigger role, like Damone Clark.

Small edges can make for deep cuts in a game like this.

Hidey Hole

Much like with Gus Malzahn, we know what to expect out of an Alabama defense under Nick Saban. A modified 3-4 front with a combination of man-to-man and pattern-matching zone coverage.

The front hasn’t been as dominant as past Bama groups against the run — allowing more than 4 yards per carry in conference play so far — but we all know the secondary will be what tells the story of this game for both teams.

When not in man coverage, Saban prefers to operate out of cover-three, particularly a “Cloud” look with a short corner to the boundary:

Or a more basic three-deep look with their “Rip/Liz” adjustment, which is a set of rules for alternating a cover-three look (with an eight-man box) between man and zone coverage based on how the offense attacks.

Obviously, LSU will want to attack that short corner with high-low concepts like Smash, with Burrow finding the man in between the corner and safety.

Against the other coverage looks, Alabama’s typically willing to surrender short throws into the flats — counting on their ability to tackle quickly — or deep throws down the sideline. Again, counting on their ability to win one-on-one match-ups and pin receivers tight to the boundary (Clemson’s big successes have come by attacking this successfully).

Burrow is going to have to put on his point guard shoes to a degree. Think distributor first and take what the defense gives. The Tiger backs, tight ends and receivers will have to hold up their end after the catch. A ton of broken-field runs is likely too much to ask, but a swing pass to the flat on first and 10 needs to pick up four or five yards. Guys will have to fight and fall forward for extra yardage where they can. Likewise, when that single-coverage shot is available, they’ll have to win 50-50 throws.

LSU needs to be what it’s been from the jump; spread the field, use tempo and attack Alabama every which way possible. Attack linebackers in coverage. Force safeties off the hashes and be ready to solve the puzzle as Bama moves to take away whatever’s working. Every defensive adjustment has a cost.

Against Trips formations, Saban usually moves to his “Marble” check, which is essentially cover-three to the three-wide side, man coverage away. LSU usually likes to isolate JaMarr Chase to the opposite of three-receiver groupings. Personally, I might consider using Terrace Marshall some in that situation.

Tactically, I expect that Alabama will scheme to congest the middle passing routes, especially the slants that Chase and Justin Jefferson have been so effective on. Don’t be surprised if they try to use 6-7 defensive lineman Raekwon Davis in almost a shot-blocker role, by having him use more of a cage rush and try to keep his hands free in passing lanes. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he tries to shade towards Jefferson.

The Bama pass rush hasn’t been particularly dynamic this season, but edge defenders Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings have plenty of talent. Look for them to try and contain Burrow some, to force him to step up towards Davis and his massive reach.

Squatter’s Rights

Alabama’s made their living mostly throwing underneath this year — just 35 percent of Tua Tagovailoa’s 2,166 passing yards this year have actually come through air yards. They’ve made a pretty good living on slants, screens and shallow crossers to their loaded receiving corps. Frankly, if Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs or Devonta Smith take a slant 60 yards for a touchdown, there just aren’t as many opportunities to throw it to them down the field.

With Tua’s ankle injury, don’t expect that to change much. That means LSU’s defense will have to roll coverage up on those short routes, try to fill the passing lanes and tackle to prevent yards after the catch. Kristian Fulton and Stingley should match up fine outside, but defending the slots will be where the rubber meets the road. Kary Vincent has struggled a bit this year, so don’t be surprised if Dave Aranda tries to help him with Delpit and Jacoby Stevens underneath.

As for the oft-discussed right ankle, Tua will likely be fine so long as he’s throwing from his spot and on rhythm. His right leg is his plant leg — the one he steps into for throwing — and in talking with some folks that understand throwing mechanics, the weight transfer is pretty limited on a typical pass set and throw. Unlike baseball pitchers, who put a ton of force on that plant leg, quarterbacks rely more on hip rotation than leg drive to get power behind a throw. However, if LSU can force Tua to throw more on the run, that would involve putting a lot more weight onto the injured ankle when squaring up to throw. That could potentially affect his throwing ability.

Of course, Tua was supposed to be gimpy in this game last year, too.

So that means pressure will be at a premium, particularly up the middle. Tyler Shelvin needs to control the A-gaps, and Aranda may want to consider bringing Jacob Phillips or Patrick Queen as well at times. Plus some stunts from Brooks or K’Lavon Chaisson. Tua’s been a great scrambler when it’s on his own terms, but in last year’s SEC Championship Game he struggled when Georgia was able to get him off his mark.

The Bama running game has more potential than it’s shown to date, but we’ve yet to see if they can truly commit to that kind of gameplan. And LSU’s been able to contain most running games to date. Again, having numbers near the line of scrimmage will be a key for both the run and the pass.

I’ve probably had enough doom and gloom about this match-up to last me for a while.

Bama’s the favorite here, and they should be. As I’ve said before, they have the better team, and the better coach. They’re in the midst of probably the greatest dynasty the sport has ever seen. They have an army of assistants and every bell and whistle you can imagine for a football program. Hell, they even have a six-figure light show to put on in their stadium because the damn game just isn’t enough for them anymore.

They expect to win. They take it for granted. And even if they don’t, they know it won’t matter, because they’ll just get into the playoffs anyway.

Beating them isn’t about one game. Alabama didn’t become what it is by winning one game. They did it year after year, loading up on talent and resources. Beating them once won’t change that on its own. Hell, the last time LSU went in there and beat them the college football establishment collectively watched and said “nah, that wasn’t good enough.” And it probably won’t be this time around either. They have the benefit of the doubt that comes from decades of old money and recent years of success at the highest level.

Let’s not lie to ourselves about any of this.

But let’s not forget one thing — none of this matters once it all kicks off on Saturday.

Sixty minutes. Us versus them and 100,000 of their closest friends. I’d say let’s break something tasteful but we all know Tuscaloosa is the land that taste forgot.

They are a heck of a football team.

Let’s go beat ‘em.