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Presnap Read: Breaking Down LSU at Alabama

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LSU at Alabama (8 ET/CBS) – College Football Armageddon is upon us. Alabama-LSU has provided us with several memorable games over the past quarter-century. This year, it provides us “The Game.” There are too many storylines here to count. It’s Saban Bowl V. It’s No. 1 vs No. 2. It could, and should, be a de facto play-in game for the BCS National Title. A potential – albeit highly unlikely – rematch could loom in January in that title game if things fall perfectly into place. Both teams are coming off bye weeks. With the decision to move this matchup to prime time two weeks ago, the final piece was added to the puzzle setting the stage for the most hyped regular season game of perhaps the past 20 years (if not ever.) Rumors abound on message boards about celebrities who may be in attendance. In addition to 102,000 inside the stadium and millions watching at home, tens of thousands of others are expected to show up for the party without a ticket. With the extra time to get ready and the number of future NFL stars set to be showcased, it’s the closest thing the college football regular season has to a Super Bowl. But can it possibly live up to the expectations that the fans and media have set? What needs to happen for this game to live up to the hype? And what will happen?

Pre-snap reads:

Statistics show that these defenses are among the best in college football. How similar are they, though? Much will be made about the defensive units on the field on Saturday night, and for good reason. Take a look at how good – and how even – they are this year in FBS statistical rankings:

                           Alabama                                        LSU
Scoring                  #1                                                #3
Total                       #1                                                #4
Rushing                #1                                                #3
Pass Efficiency    #1                                                #5

Clearly, based on performance and competition to date, these are the two best defensive teams in all of college football. The devil is in the details, though, and the way they get things done differs slightly.

LSU is built around a fast, ball-hawking group that uses its speed to force opponents into mistakes. They’ll give up yards, at times, but ultimately they rely on a front line that wreaks havoc and creates constant pressure from different areas, along with a backfield that plays the ball in flight as well as any group in America outside the NFL. They’re good enough to play you straight up, but they’re also good (and fast, did we mention they’re fast?) enough to take risks at times without being penalized for gambling on occasion. Tyrann Mathieu is the key playmaker in the secondary, but as good as he is, Morris Claiborne is probably the best lock-down corner on the field for the Tigers. Both will play at the next level, and they’re only two of the studs that will suit up for Miles and Defensive Coordinator John Chavis.

Alabama, on the other hand, is willing and downright happy to engage in a war of attrition. They’re not likely to force as many turnovers as LSU, but they’re still opportunistic enough to make opponents pay for any egregious miscues. The Tide is built around a massive front line that is big enough to stonewall a running attack while also caving in the pocket on passing downs. Despite Nick Saban’s reputation as a blitz-master, Alabama hasn’t needed to bring many extra bodies this year. For perhaps the first time since he’s been in Tuscaloosa, his front line has done a reasonably effective job of hurrying opposing quarterbacks on its own. That pressure hasn’t always resulted in sacks or turnovers, but it’s one reason Alabama leads the nation in pass efficiency defense as well as three-and-outs forced. This team just gets off the field when it needs to, and with versatile linebackers like Dont’a Hightower, Nico Johnson, and CJ Mosley, it’s stronger in the middle of the field in passing situations than it has been in recent years.

If LSU is the Porsche, Alabama is the tank. Rugged, durable, and ultimately, unmovable. LSU strikes with unmatchable speed. Alabama builds the Great Wall and then sits behind it for four quarters. Both groups are effective. Neither lacks for style or substance. But there are many differences alongside the similarities. One thing is for sure: both groups have guys who will be playing on Sundays. Both can, and will, stop the opponent more times than not.

Can either of these offenses move the football? If so, how?

LSU: The best way to silence a crowd and win a game on the road is the hit on a big play or two early, and Alabama’s defense has been susceptible to big plays early all season. If LSU is to score points in a hostile atmosphere, it will likely need to go through the air to do so. The Tide allowed passing plays of 60 yards or more on the opening drives of the game against Florida and Ole Miss. Both plays led to touchdowns (the only surrendered by Alabama during either contest.) Penn State marched down the field on its opening drive and scored a field goal – its only points until Alabama’s reserves were in with a minute left in the 4th Quarter. Tennessee moved the ball on the ground with relative success early against the Tide, leading to its only two scoring drives of the night. The Tide has allowed 30 points in the opening quarter this year. They’ve given up only 25 points in the other three quarters…combined.

The point? Alabama’s vaunted defense can be gotten to early. Nick Saban often speaks of opposing playcallers “being on the script” early in games. Alabama is most at risk when it faces an offense cycling through new sets and plays, and when an opposing offense is in a manageable third down situation. There may not be a better duo of defensive gameplanners in the country than Saban and Kirby Smart. Their adaptability to unexpected looks, though, leaves the secondary in some precarious positions, and it often leaves wide receivers with nobody in the same picture frame. You can be sure LSU will come out with new wrinkles after an extra week to prepare. If LSU can score a couple of quick touchdowns, it might be enough of a margin to win the game. Reuben Randle exploded against Auburn for two long touchdown catches that resulted from missed assignments or poor execution by the Auburn secondary. If Jarrett Lee can connect over the top with him early in Tuscaloosa, it could put Alabama back on its heels.

Alabama: Run, run, run. But how? Can Alabama block LSU’s quick front seven, and if not, will LSU have to commit more players to the box to stop Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy? Tennessee showed a blueprint for how to slow down Alabama’s offense in the first half two weeks ago. It’s actually the same blueprint Auburn used to nearly upset Alabama in 2009. The Vols came out almost exclusively in odd fronts, using Bear and Double Sink alignments to neutralize Alabama’s running attack. (Simplified: they brought more men along the defensive front than Alabama could block by moving their ends to an inside gap, and they stacked linebackers inside to disrupt any interior rushes or blocking assignments for outside runs.) Ultimately, Tennessee wasn’t able to shut Alabama down in the second half because its secondary wasn’t good enough to handle Alabama’s receivers in man coverage. Being down a man in the backfield, AJ McCarron shredded Tennessee through the air on the way to an easy win.

LSU ain’t Tennessee, though, and their defensive backs are likely good enough to hold their own even if LSU does have to use an extra body to account for the Alabama run. If LSU can create pressure and slow the Tide rush with a base package, the Tigers will almost assuredly shut down Alabama because it will allow Chavis to become more creative in an effort to confuse McCarron with a variety of zone blitzes.

The key for Alabama? If it wants to run late, it needs to pass early. That sounds counterintuitive, but if McCarron can come out and establish an intermediate passing threat early, LSU will have to respect the Tide’s tight ends and slot receivers as legitimate weapons, and with Alabama’s mammoth front going against a smallish defensive line, the running lanes should part like the Red Sea for Trent Richardson. Alabama won’t be able to just lean on LSU for four quarters like it has other teams. It has to have a serviceable passing game to move the ball, and that needs to happen early.

In a game so evenly matched, where are the notable advantages? It’s hard to find many areas where these teams significantly outpace one another. Both teams match and counter the other’s strengths well.

For LSU, their special teams play has been a real weapon this year. Punter Brad Wing has been phenomenal, often keeping opponents hemmed in deep in their own territory. LSU ranks fifth in the country in net punting average. Alabama ranks sixty-seventh. Field position will be huge, and in a game where one score or one mistake could be the difference, consistently flipping the field will be important.

For Alabama, one of their best assets is the venue where the game is being played. The Tide has been nearly unbeatable in Bryant-Denny Stadium over the past three-plus years going 25-1 in Tuscaloosa since the beginning of the 2008 season. In those 26 games, they’re outscoring opponents by an average margin of 34-8, and during that run they’ve allowed 14 points or more on only three occasions. They’ve held 17 of the 26 opponents to single-digit point totals. The lone blemish was last year’s Iron Bowl, when Saban and Co. surrendered a 24-point lead in a 28-27 loss.

How will it play out? In a game with so much on the line, with so much talent on display, the night can turn in an instant on one or two plays. In this one, though, expect LSU’s methodical ability to slow down Alabama’s running game while flipping the field with Wing to be the deciding factor. LSU is good enough to match up with Alabama on the outside, and when that happens, McCarron is likely to make one too many mistakes. He’s been very good this year, but he’s never faced a defense like the one he’s about to see. If he can’t rely on Richardson and Lacy to shoulder most of the load, the Tigers’ aggressive defense will key on any slip-ups for a big play.

A recurring theme in this series has been LSU’s ability to force Alabama quarterbacks into late-game misfires. In 2007, John Parker Wilson was sacked and fumbled the ball deep in his own territory, which led to an LSU score that sealed it. In 2009, LSU’s Patrick Peterson very nearly baited Greg McElroy into a critical interception along the sideline. The controversial play saw Peterson ruled out of bounds, and the call was reviewed by instant replay but video evidence was insufficient to overturn it. Alabama held on for the win, but the call still has LSU fans fuming, and it was a mistake that could have cost Alabama dearly. Last year, in a replay of 2007, Alabama’s quarterback was sacked deep in his own territory and LSU jarred the ball loose to set up a game-clinching score.

Time will tell, but this may be the best team Alabama has ever fielded. Few opponents would have enough confidence and ability to go into Tuscaloosa and emerge with a win this season – maybe as few as one. It will take a gamebreaking play or two for LSU to get the W, but we’ve learned to expect the improbable from Les Miles, and right now, LSU simply has more playmakers across the board than Alabama. In a game for the ages, the grass should taste sweet for Miles on Saturday night. Let’s just hope none of his players try to smoke it.

OKTC Prediction: LSU 21, Alabama 20

Other predictions:
Arkansas 27, South Carolina 21
Florida 24, Vanderbilt 10
Ole Miss 30, Kentucky 24
Georgia 49, New Mexico St. 17
Mississippi State 44, Tennessee-Martin 20
Tennessee 24, Middle Tennessee State 9

Byes: Auburn

Season Prediction Record: 36-8
Season ATS: 20-21-3

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.