A win Saturday night probably won’t propel LSU to the SEC Championship game, and dreams of a BCS National Championship are dead. In the recent past those two elements generally pointed to a lethargic LSU team. I don’t expect that this week. I think LSU plays exceptionally hard and exceptionally well Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. The players are talented. The coaches are good. And energy is high. That said, this Tiger defense is simply not as polished as some in the recent past, and these Tigers will have to play their best game of the season to slow down a potent Alabama attack. The good news for the Tiger defense is that this LSU offense is capable of putting up some points. LSU’s defense won’t have to be perfect Saturday night, but it will have to be better.
LSU Defensive Line vs. Alabama Offensive Line
We start with a Tiger defensive front that is not as good as the one that lined up against Alabama the last two seasons. The same goes on the other side, though. LSU’s front should be rested after a brutal nine-game stretch. Will it be better? That’s the question. It starts on the interior with Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson. These two have been more flash than frequent. That’s not good on the defensive front. Of his 42 stops, Ferguson only has three and a half in the backfield. Johnson has been in the backfield, making a team best 6.5 tackles for loss, but he’s only made 27 tackles. Johnson is getting up the field too quickly at times, and others he’s not shedding blocks like he should. Teams have run at him and had success. Ferguson has been better than Johnson, but you’d like to see him get back there and make a game changing play at some point. Obviously that can come at a price, like I talked about with Johnson, but those negative plays would really help LSU right now. Speaking of those negative plays, that’s where the ends are supposed to come in. Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco have combined for three sacks. Jordan Allen has just two. And honestly, I haven’t seen a ton of flash from Kendell Beckwith when he’s been on the field. Since the strip sack against Florida, Beckwith has been quiet. At this point, Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas are not much more than a timeout for Ferguson and Johnson. They have not contributed much when called upon. Teams are averaging four yards per pop on the ground versus LSU, and it’s worse in conference play. SEC teams are averaging 182 yards per game on the Tigers and four and a half yards per carry. Ugh.
Alabama’s 2012 offensive line may have been the best in college football history. Seriously. Three key cogs are gone, and it took some time for the Tide to figure that out, but things have run fairly smoothly as of late. Keep in mind, that’s been against below average competition. The left side of the line is made up of Kouandjio’s. Cyrus is the left tackle, and Arie is the left guard. Both are about 6-foot-5 and 315 lbs., and they have played really well over the last month. Taking over for Barrett Jones at center is sophomore Ryan Kelly. He’s a tall one at 6-foot-5, but he carries himself well on 290 lbs. Anthony Steen, the guy no one remembers from the 2012 group, returns at right guard where he’s started 30 games. He’s rock solid. The right tackle is Austin Shepherd. Of the five, he’s the guy who had to battle for his job. He and Arie Kouandjio flip flopped a few times before he took the spot. After Virginia Tech got to A.J. McCarron for four sacks, he’s been clean. Colorado State got to the quarterback twice, and Ole Miss did once. That’s it. The Tide runs for six yards per try and has run successfully on everyone but Virginia Tech and Colorado State.
Pros dominated this matchup last year. That won’t really be the case this year. Johnson and Ferguson must play their best games as Tigers to slow Alabama down here. Steen and Kouandjio are big guards, and Kelly is an emerging center. I think the middle is a slight edge to Alabama because LSU’s two tackles have not been consistent. LaCouture and Thomas may be totally outclassed here. On the edges, LSU is athletic enough to make some plays, but we haven’t seen much of that. Kouandjio should be able to handle Allen and Hunter. He’s better than those guys. You would think Rasco could make some plays if Shepherd gets isolated on the edge. That may not happen enough. Is this the week Beckwith shows up and makes a play? Gotta doubt it. Same with Tashawn Bower. Alabama will win this matchup, but just how wide the gap is will dictate how close the game is.
LSU Linebackers vs. Alabama Running Backs
At the very least this style suits D.J. Welter better than the spread. Welter admits he would rather face a downhill team. Well, here it comes. On the edges, Lamin Barrow and Kwon Alexander are the guys. Tahj Jones shouldn’t be expected to play. In a game like this where tempo doesn’t figure to factor in, LSU may very well go with just a four linebacker rotation. Lamar Louis will play some in the middle. Alexander is starting to get it. Early in the season he made plays and missed them too. He’s making more than he’s missing now. He made 14 tackles against Furman. Barrow is on pace for about 90-95 tackles. The question is how the platoon in the middle looks.
T.J. Yeldon isn’t knocking on the Heisman door. He’s not quite the college back that Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson were. Forget about the NFL, those guys were really good in college, and I don’t care how good the lines were. Eddie Lacy may not be as physically gifted as any of those guys, but he was damn good, too. Yeldon is a great talent, but he has a recurring tendency to fumble the ball, and he doesn’t seem to break the big play quite as often as the others. He does have 10 touchdowns on the season, and he’s running for more than six yards per carry, but it doesn’t feel the same. Yeldon loves to run between the tackles, but they’ll also pitch it to him wide where he can make some plays in space. The second man up is sophomore Kenyan Drake. He’s something serious, too. Drake is a little bit smaller than Yeldon, and he is a really good change of pace. He averages almost eight yards per touch. Jalston Fowler is the big 250 lb. fullback, hammer. He can carry the ball in short yardage spots as well as lead block.
If LSU’s linebackers don’t fill holes, it’s going to be a long night. Georgia pushed LSU around. Auburn out-quicked them in the second half. Ole Miss did the same. It’s just been a nightmare trying to stop the run, and that’s the first time you could say that since 2008. I actually think this group will show up early on adrenaline and energy. It’s a fresh unit that knows what to expect. The key is how long they can keep it up. Yeldon should touch it 20 or 23 times, and Drake will be right behind him attacking the edges. It may be tough for some to believe around Baton Rouge, but Alabama doesn’t use the backs a ton in the passing game. Yeldon catches about two balls per game. This is no trickery. It’s straightforward football. Alabama may run some counters, but much of the game will be single back power plays. I expect to see more Welter than Jones, and I’d expect good games from Barrow and Alexander. I still think Alabama is better here just like Georgia was.
LSU Secondary vs. Alabama Quarterback and Receivers
I asked Les Miles this week if Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson were ready to take that “Mo Claiborne, Tharold Simon, Eric Reid” step where they emerge as true freshmen DBs that look ready to play. He didn’t commit to an answer, but he hinted that both were improving. This is a lot for the two freshmen. The other guys had veterans all around them when they took to the field. Either way, the two rookies are going to be in there early and often in another live atmosphere. Jalen Mills will join them in his nickel role. Mills has been haunted by this game since he missed the assignment last year. He told me this week he was going to alert the freshmen about the magnitude of the game and how you can get carried away if you don’t watch it. Assignments are the most important part of the game. The dime spot was played very well by Dwayne Thomas against Furman. It was Furman, but Thomas notched a pair of sacks and swatted a pass away as a blitzer. I also contend that he can cover a little bit, so he may be useful out there. At safety, everyone appears ready to go. Craig Loston is healthy again, and Ronald Martin is back with the team full time. Corey Thompson has come on of late as well.
It seems like yesterday that A.J. McCarron was the worst player on the field in Tuscaloosa. He’s now a two-time defending champion, and he basically put the team on his back in College Station earlier this year. Like him or not, he’s a really good player. Alabama asks him to complete a high percentage of throws, hit the big one when it’s open, take care of the ball and get the team into the right play. He does all of that. This year he’s completing 70 percent with 16 touchdowns and three picks. He doesn’t have great mobility or a huge arm, but he plays with a calm demeanor and leads the team. On the outside, he’s got more weapons than usual to work with. Amari Cooper is the most talented, but he’s been slowed by injury this year. He’s got just 20 catches on the season for a rather pedestrian 43 yards per game. He’s still got great speed and smooth route running skills. He can beat anyone man on man. Cooper can run, but he can’t run quite like Christion Jones. He doubles as the punt returner, but he can catch the ball, too. His 27 catches lead the team. Kevin Norwood is often a forgotten man, but he’s got the best hands on the team. His three touchdowns are tied for first on the team with DeAndrew White. Kenny Bell is the fifth guy. Every one of these receivers is about 6-foot-1 and about 195 lbs. Some an inch taller or shorter and give or take 10 lbs., but there is clearly a mold. The tight end is O.J. Howard, a 6-foot-6 freshman with 10 catches on the year. At least, he’s the receiving threat. Brian Voglar does the blocking.
Nick Saban has gotten “throw happy” against LSU in recent years. It worked big time in the BCS game, but 2010, 2011 and 2012 regular season tilts have been razor close partly due to that. LSU won two of those games. This year he doesn’t have to do that because LSU isn’t as good up front, but he still might like McCarron and his multiple threats against a vulnerable secondary. LSU has been playing a lot of man to man since the Georgia fiasco. It’s been hit and miss. If there is one thing Alabama will do, it’s take a shot—especially at home. They love the flea flicker and the nine route. All of those wide outs run it. LSU has to be in position on those shots. Big plays will set that place on fire and make things very difficult. I think the Tigers go with Loston and Thompson at safety, and that worries me in the red zone. LSU’s safeties cannot, I repeat, cannot cover Alabama’s wide receivers in space. Watch for that in the red zone. Either White and Robinson step up to the plate, or Alabama has a big day through the air. McCarron is usually really good in these games. I think you’ll see more of that Saturday night.
Picking LSU’s offensive opponent in all three phases has now happened twice if I’m not mistaken. Georgia made that stick. Alabama is capable of doing the same. So how does LSU stop them? It starts up front. If Ferguson, Johnson and the front seven don’t slow the run down, LSU will have to walk a safety up. That’s going to create matchup problems on the outside, and McCarron will hit them. That’s what LSU has done to teams for the past few years. That said, LSU must slow the run first. Force some third and eights. The second key is turnovers. When LSU has won this game, it’s gotten huge turnovers. In 2010 Drake Nevis powered through and stripped Greg McElroy. In 2011 Claiborne picked McCarron off. Even last year in a loss, Yeldon coughed the ball up in the red zone and the Tide muffed a punt. Someone has to make a play. I think LSU should look in to some blitz packages to try to create pressure. Force McCarron out of the pocket. Make him throw it away. Get a sack. Who knows, maybe you get a turnover? Unfortunately for LSU, I just don’t feel like the defensive front can hold up after the adrenaline wears off. Alabama will wear the Tigers down and make plays through the air when it has to. I think the Tiger defense is respectable, unlike in Athens, but it won’t be quite enough.
Prediction: Alabama 28, LSU 20