You could say that LSU’s offense came of age last year in Tiger Stadium when it hung 14 points on Alabama in the second half and got in position to win the game. The offense we saw that night has been the one we’ve seen this fall. Nick Saban called this offense explosive this week, and I think he meant it. Alabama’s defense took a licking at Texas A&M, but the offense bailed them out. Since then the Tide has picked on inferior competition and steadily improved in the process. We’ll find out just how good this Alabama defense is Saturday night because I’m fairly certain that the LSU offense is legitimate.
LSU Offensive Line vs. Alabama Defensive Line
The Furman game allowed La’el Collins and Elliot Porter to rest up. It also allowed Jerald Hawkins to play a little left tackle. Hawkins will move back to the right side Saturday night as Collins makes his return to the left. Collins and Vadal Alexander still form one of the best left sides in the conference when healthy. It sounds like a bit of a broken record, but I really think Porter has played pretty well this year. I also can’t remember a single mishandled snap. Trai Turner continues to play at an All-SEC level up front as well. Zach Mettenberger has only been sacked 14 times this year which isn’t bad considering his mobility. When given the chance against manageable numbers, LSU has gotten a consistent push in the run game. Those numbers haven’t presented themselves too many times, though.
This Alabama defensive line does not feature a Terrence Cody or Jesse Williams. It’s still a big front, but that unstoppable force in the middle is missing this year. Brandon Ivory plays the nose at 6-foot-4 and 310 lbs. He’s only got 14 tackles, so his role is pretty clear. He eats blockers. The ends are Ed Stinson and Jeffrey Pagan. Both guys are 6-foot-4 and 290 lbs, and don’t play in the backfield much. They’re solid in contain and play the run well, but you won’t see them flying up the field. A good Nick Saban defensive front pinches the run and allows the linebackers to roam. These guys do that very well. True freshman A’Shawn Robinson is the outlier. He’s massive at 6-foot-4 and 320 lbs., but he’s a freak of an athlete who can get pressure off the edge. He leads the team with four sacks and is only getting better. He’ll come in on the end for pass rush spots. Sophomore Darren Lake is the first guy in relief at the nose. He’s well over 300 lbs., and plays a very similar role as Ivory.
Of course these breakdowns are elementary in the sense that they place each matchup in a vacuum, so clearly three on five is an advantage. That’s not the entire battle. Assuming Ivory and Lake occupy two blockers, which they will, it comes down to the two ends and however many blitzers Saban sends against the other three-plus LSU blockers. Honestly, I like LSU here at the point of attack. These Alabama down linemen are not gamechangers. The biggest concern I have if I’m LSU here is Hawkins’ 300 lbs., against ends from Alabama who approach that weight. Chris Jones from Mississippi State was that type of player, and he bull rushed Hawkins much of the game in Starkville. That leads me to believe Dillon Gordon will spend time with Hawkins on the edge. I think LSU’s guards can help Porter turn the Alabama nose guards. The problem there is that it’s difficult for anyone to get to the second level to pick up the linebackers. They’re the issue. Still, this LSU front is good, and they’ll handle the front three. I like the Tiger front five.
LSU Running Backs vs. Alabama Linebackers
Last year we found out which back Miles knew was his best. Jeremy Hill carried the ball 29 times in that game and had some success doing it. He was the only back to run for over 100 last year against the Tide. Hill told me after the Furman game that he needed the off week really bad. He got it, and he’s probably going to need the next one, too. He’s averaging 7.2 yards per carry. The rest of the Tiger backs are healthy. It seems the transition from Terrence Magee to Kenny Hilliard has happened. Hilliard hasn’t had much success against Alabama in three games, but he’s been running well. Magee still offers some speed on the edge. Alfred Blue is just a third down guy at this point. J.C. Copeland and Connor Neighobors should be available, and that’s important the way Alabama’s linebackers fill gaps.
For some reason C.J. Mosley decided he needed more schooling. He could have cashed a sizable check last spring, but instead he’s back at Alabama. Mosley leads the Tide in tackles, tackles for loss and quarterback hurries. He’s all over the field and rarely misses a tackle. He’ll play the weak side. Trey DePriest mans the middle. His tackle numbers are curiously low, but Alabama plays so many guys on defense that it’s not shocking. He and Mosley are veterans with a real understanding of the Saban defense. The strong side linebacker is Adrian Hubbard, and he’s a 6-foot-6, 252 lb., monster who has swatted a couple of passes away and really does a good job of sealing the edge. The fourth linebacker is Bastrop native Denzel Devall. He plays that Jack spot that basically qualifies as a defensive end. Courtney Upshaw was the best Alabama has had here. Devall’s three sacks are a team best, and he is very capable of beating a tackle off the ball. At 6-foot-2 and 250 lbs., he’s strong enough to engage offensive linemen but agile enough to get out and make a play in space. Xzavier Dickson will also see some time here though he’s not the athlete Devall is. These linebackers disguise blitzes well and really show up to stuff the run. They’re essentially given free rein to roam as the thick front absorbs blockers.
Big matchup here. Often the defensive line is tasked with stuffing the run, but Alabama really asks its linebackers to creep up to the line of scrimmage and take care of it. That’s why most say that Saban’s defenses are vulnerable in the middle of the field. The linebackers are NFL athletes with NFL frames. That’s what makes the defense work. You know who else is an NFL athlete with an NFL frame? Jeremy Hill. I think LSU has to go to Hill early to make those linebackers step up. Hill is shifty enough to make a few of these linebackers miss in the hole. The Tiger front just needs to give him that chance. I always think that LSU should try to make these linebackers move laterally as opposed to just allowing them to step up and plug holes. That hasn’t been the gameplan other than the option in 2011. I’d like to see a few screens and swing passes to get those linebackers moving. I think Hilliard will be the next guy up, but I don’t like him in this matchup. I think Magee for four or five carries is better. Bottom line, Hill needs it 25 or 30 times. Of course, that’s predicated on LSU being in the game or ahead. You can’t beat Alabama solely on the ground, but you can shorten the game that way and set up the playaction game with it. Mosley and DePriest are really special, and I think Devall will be, but I do like Hill every time he gets the ball. This won’t be where it’s won or lost, but it’s very important.
LSU Quarterback and Receivers vs. Alabama Secondary
Over the summer I watched the video of Mettenberger’s throws against Alabama and couldn’t help but think there was a good offense in those gold helmets somewhere. It just rarely showed itself. We’ve seen it consistently this year. Mettenberger is throwing for 276 per game and has thrown 19 touchdowns. The five picks over the last two games are troublesome. The Ole Miss throws were forces. The first Furman pick was a miscommunication. He was hit on the second. Whichever way, those can’t happen Saturday night. His two guys are Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham. They work the boundary as well as any tandem in the country, and every once in a while Landry will work the middle of the field. They’ll become the first LSU tandem to top 1,000 yards, and Landry will make that happen with 118 more yards. The third option went from not having a face to not existing over time. Kadron Boone hasn’t really shown up since Georgia. Travin Dural hasn’t developed, and James Wright doesn’t play offense anymore. The tight ends have eight catches in eight games. It’s a two man operation out there, but it’s a good one.
This is not one of Saban’s better secondaries. Texas A&M torched this group. Ole Miss didn’t have the success I envisioned, but the rest of the schedule is putrid offensively. Are there athletes back there? Yes. They just haven’t proven to be as good as the elite Alabama secondaries of the past. Deion Belue is the No. 1 corner. He’s a senior with average size and good athleticism. His ball skills are not great. On the other side, Cyrus Jones is the likely candidate. He’s a converted wide receiver playing for converted wide receiver Bradley Sylve who is dealing with an injury. Freshman Eddie Jackson is the next man up, and he’s skinny at 6-feet and just 175 lbs. None of these guys have more than two pass breakups. Jones does have two picks. At safety, Vinnie Sunseri is done for the year. Landon Collins is his replacement. When Collins got to college his ball skills were not good. He has improved them greatly. He’s joined by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Those two are second and third on the team in tackles. They’re freak athletes with NFL futures.
I wrote this the other way three weeks ago. This is LSU shot just like it was Ole Miss’. In Oxford Bo Wallace was 30 of 39 for 346 and no turnovers. That type of effort is what it’s going to take from Mettenberger. He’ll have to be special on third downs. He’ll have to take care of the ball. He’ll have to give Landry and Beckham a chance to run after the catch. Alabama tried to man LSU up last year, and Landry and Beckham had their way with one on one coverage. And that secondary included Dee Milliner. Landry worked intermediate routes during the second half, the fade touchdown being the exception. Beckham ran a number of outs. The point being, most of the completions were on the edges against the corners. Belue was right there for all of that. He’ll be on one of the two receivers. Whichever Alabama corner has the other will have help. I’d go at Belue in one on one until he made me stop. And if he has help too, then there are only seven at the line of scrimmage if you get my drift.
As you can probably see, I don’t think this is one of those elite Alabama defenses. I don’t think they have difference makers up front, and I think the corners are very average. Beckham and Landry aren’t average. I love the Alabama linebackers, and I love the Alabama scheme. I also love the Alabama home crowd. That place will be electric Saturday night. The LSU front struggled a little bit at Georgia when it got loud. They miscommunicated on a few blitzes, and Mettenberger paid for it. Alabama is the best in the county in disguising blitzes. Mettenberger has to get the play called and get the team set early so he can survey the defense. I think Landry and Beckham are open much of the night, and they’ll make plays. Hill will struggle to get a consistent running game going, but he’ll make a few plays as well. I think Alabama stuffs the box just like everyone else. The key will be keeping Mettenberger upright. He got hit a ton last year, but he stood in there and made the throws. As long as he takes care of the ball and plays well on third down, LSU will have a chance. I think he does. Finally, look for a trick or two. I’m allow to take a shot in the dark here, but Magee can throw the ball. Maybe he gets a look. Beckham ran a couple of end arounds early on. Maybe that returns. Saban’s defenses are disciplined and fast, but a trick play here or there might pay off. LSU will move the ball and score a little bit, but in the end it won’t quite be enough.
Prediction: Alabama 28, LSU 20