You know it's a unique week when a) Alabama-LSU is the third-biggest game of the weekend, and b) it's still the biggest game on Saturday. Regardless, despite Thursday night's heavyweight fights, there's still a Saturday night headliner to look forward to in Tuscaloosa. But don't necessarily count on it being closer than Thursday night's games were most of the way (the last three quarters in Waco, the first three quarters in Palo Alto).
Pressure and time
We always say that Alabama's defense chokes the life out of you. The Tide are less worried about making huge plays in the backfield than they are about clogging lanes, swarming to the ball and dog-piling, forcing you to consistently convert on second-and-9 and third-and-7, constantly pinning you inside your 30, and watching you eventually falter. You're allowed a big play here or there, because Alabama knows you cannot succeed in the mundane. Eventually the geology defense -- pressure and time -- will get to you.
LSU's success at the mundane has varied in 2013. For as much attention as quarterback Zach Mettenberger and his two-man receiving corps have drawn this season, LSU still wants to run the ball as much as possible. The Tigers run 63 percent of the time on standard downs, 29th-most in the country. In six games vs. BCS conference opponents, LSU tailbacks have averaged 32.3 carries per game; their success on those carries has varied drastically. LSU backs averaged 7.2 yards per carry against Mississippi State (25th in Rushing S&P+) and 6.4 per carry vs. Auburn (32nd), but they also averaged 4.6 at Ole Miss (27th) and 3.8 against Georgia (3.8). Perhaps not surprisingly, LSU lost those latter two games.
For the season, LSU's running game has been solid but unspectacular. But its success is directly tied to LSU's success.
And here's where I mention that Alabama's run defense is as good as it's ever been.
Mettenberger has been fantastic on passing downs this season -- just ask Georgia -- but part of his success is in not having to face many of them. When he does, we know he's going to one of three players: Jarvis Landry (29-for-37 for 483 yards on passing downs in non-garbage time), Odell Beckham, Jr. (17-for-28 for 312), or Anybody Else (19-for-34 for 312).
Alabama is not in the league of teams like Florida or Michigan State on passing downs, but the Tide force as many of them as anybody, and if LSU cannot establish the run to any reasonable degree, Mettenberger is likely to eventually falter, just as any quarterback would be. Having an advantage on passing downs is great, but you're still more likely to succeed on standard downs. You will typically only convert so many times.
Alabama isn't much of a sacks threat -- the Tide currently rank 116th in Adjusted Sack Rate -- and the run defense is definitely the strength here, but you just cannot rely on two receivers to consistently make big plays in clogged passing lanes, even if those two are among the nation's best. Texas A&M sent Mike Evans deep over and over again, but that was two months ago. It probably won't work to the same degree again.
If LSU scores, it will likely be in reasonably quick fashion. Even when LSU is running well, it's not in any sort of methodical fashion -- using Brian Fremeau's drive stats, we see that LSU is 11th in the nation in Explosive Drives (drives that average at least 10 yards per play) but only 62nd in Methodical Drives (drives that last at least 10 plays). But that's just as well: Alabama doesn't allow methodical drives anyway. LSU's run success will have as much to do with the field position battle as anything. The Tide are the best in the nation at tilting the field in their favor, creating short fields for themselves, and forcing you to repeatedly go the length of the field.
As with facing too many passing downs, you are likely to eventually wear down and falter if you don't get any easy scoring opportunities. Pressure and time.
Value in experience
If this year in the SEC has taught us anything, it's that experience still matters. Elite SEC defenses (outside of Tuscaloosa) didn't have much of it this year, and the league's overall defensive performance has suffered because of it. Case in point: LSU.
The offseason narrative for LSU was that the offense would improve and the defense would regress because of personnel losses, particularly up front. I was skeptical of regression -- I thought the line still had enough talent to play at a high level, and that any regression up front would be countered by elite play in the back -- but I was mostly incorrect. LSU's stalwart defense, one that had only once finished worse than 23rd in Def. F/+ since 2005, currently ranks 50th. The Tigers have an average pass rush and pass defense and are at BEST average in defending the run.
You can crank out a five-yards-at-a-time drive against LSU pretty consistently if you're patient. And Alabama's patient. The Tide's new offensive line has gelled for the most part, and while it's not as consistent as last year's line (an all-time great), it's probably good enough to open holes for T.J. Yeldon and the underrated Kenyan Drake.
Of the 22 spots on LSU's two-deep, 13 are occupied by freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or sophomores. The secondary was so young last year that it would have STILL been young this year even if true freshman Tre'Davious White weren't a starting cornerback. Despite disruptive forces at tackle (Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson have combined for 9.5 tackles for loss), the line play hasn't been consistent enough to keep pressure off of the secondary.
Be it because of misplaced aggression or simple lack of technique, LSU's front four gets pushes around more than it should, and the trickle-down affects the rest of the defense. Play-action passes work a little too well (4-for-6 for 67 yards, with a fifth open pass dropped, against Georgia, and Georgia wasn't even running the ball well), there are fewer blitz opportunities, and the whole unit plays a step slow.
With only two senior starters, the Bayou Bengal defense is almost guaranteed to be better next year. But that doesn't help right now. Defensive coordinator John Chavis knows what he's doing against the Tide, as evidenced by Alabama's 17 points per game in its last three contests vs. LSU, but this is a unit in flux. For every sign of growth (3.5 yards per play vs. Florida), there is a setback (6.3 vs. Ole Miss, 7.0 vs. Mississippi State). It's difficult to imagine LSU making the requisite stops in this game without a season-best effort. And without the stops, either Mettenberger has to play at a Manziellian level, or the turnover bounces have to go severely in LSU's favor.
The numbers say something in the neighborhood of Alabama 41, LSU 21 is likely, and while you never feel too comfortable in trying to predict what a Les Miles team is capable of, when "Yeah, but Les Miles" is your No. 1 reason for predicting a close game, there's trouble.
Other SEC games
No. 9 Auburn at Tennessee
Over the last month, Tennessee has proved two things:
The Vols are salty enough at home to take advantage if you make mistakes (as evidenced by their near-upset of Georgia and their upset of South Carolina), and they are not in any way ready to beat a good team that isn't making mistakes (Alabama 45, Tennessee 10; Missouri 31, Tennessee 3).
The message for Auburn, then, is simple: tread carefully. In terms of the F/+ rankings, Auburn is, at 22nd, a couple of steps below not only Alabama (first) and Missouri (11th), but also Georgia (14th) and South Carolina (17th). The Tigers are 4-0 in one-possession games, and they are unlikely to falter late, but they can be had if UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs makes smart decisions and the Vols avoid the passing downs upon which Auburn feasts.
Tennessee has allowed at least 5.2 yards per carry in each of its last four games, and as it proved against Arkansas, Auburn will run all day until you prove you can stop it. For that reason alone, Auburn is and should be a solid favorite, but this game is not a slam dunk. Beware, AU.
Mississippi State at No. 15 Texas A&M
Texas A&M has allowed a total of just 527 yards (3.8 per play) over the last two weeks. Granted, the Aggies were taking on Vanderbilt, UTEP, and two backup quarterbacks, but there is at least a small sign of hope that the dreadful defense that showed up for the first seven games of the season is starting to grow up a bit.
Mississippi State is not awful offensively; at the very least, the Bulldogs should be able to test A&M's iffy run defense. Still, MSU is almost certainly too shaky to mount a serious challenge against an A&M team that is somehow playing its eighth home game in 10 games this season. As with last week, Johnny Manziel probably won't have to play the entire 60 minutes.
No. 8 Missouri at Kentucky
Kentucky's got a solid pass rush and a good stable of running backs. Of course, the Wildcats also have a sieve for a run defense and little in the way of dangerous receiving threats. They have been competitive at times, losing only once by more than 17 points, but they've still lost six of eight games this season.
With just a one-game East lead over South Carolina (and a head-to-head loss), Missouri's motivation shouldn't be an issue. Unless Tiger quarterback Maty Mauk (still the starter until Gary Pinkel announces that James Franklin is ready (and he hasn't yet)) contracts a random case of the Freshman Yips -- he teetered against South Carolina but looked mostly great after a slow start against Tennessee -- the Tigers should cruise into a bye week at 9-1.
Vanderbilt at Florida
On paper, Florida is a better team than Vanderbilt. The Commodores are still starting redshirt freshman Patton Robinette at quarterback and, even with star Jordan Matthews, probably don't have enough weapons to consistently test a Florida secondary that is still fast and mean. And while Florida's offensive line is disintegrating in a pool of injuries and relative incompetence, Vanderiblt's defensive line isn't as strong and active as that of any of the three teams that have recently beaten the Gators (LSU, Missouri, Georgia). But...
...Florida has quite a bit to prove here. The negativity surrounding Will Muschamp's program, a loser of three straight games and five of nine, is increasing exponentially with each loss. If James Franklin's Commodores can beat you with nothing but motivation and sound play, they will. Florida has to prove the 'Dores can't.
Arkansas at Ole Miss
Your running total: Since going up 24-7 in the third quarter against Rutgers, Arkansas has been outscored, 235-67, in the last 21 quarters or so. (Average four-quarter score: Opponent 45, Arkansas 13.)
The Razorbacks didn't completely roll over against Auburn, but it's been a while since they truly played well; as long as Ole Miss didn't spend the bye week patting itself on the back for the upset of LSU, this game should only stay close for a couple of quarters. Ole Miss isn't yet good enough to dominate by simply walking onto the field and going through the motions, but the Rebels still have enough to offer on both sides of the ball that a B-game should be enough against Bret Bielema's Hogs.
Appalachian State at Georgia
Let me just stop you right there. The Mountaineers are 2-7. They rank two spots ahead of Yale and two spots behind The Citadel in the Sagarin rankings (but still 20 spots ahead of poor Eastern Michigan). Armanti Edwards isn't walking through that door.
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