The takeaway from Tuesday night was fantastic: in the Toledo-Northern Illinois game on ESPN2, each team scored more points (63 and 60, respectively) than the Alabama defense has allowed all year (55).
The Tide are suffocating and increasingly effective as the game progresses. But since they have allowed just 10 scoring drives in eight games this season, it offers us the opportunity to look at each drive to see what it may tell us about the most vulnerable components of a nearly invulnerable defense.
Drive No. 1: Kent State
Time Of Possession: 0:11
This drive was the result of an interception thrown by Alabama's now-backup quarterback Phillip Sims. Kent State's best offense is its defense -- incredibly, they rank sixth in the country in defense and 120th, dead last, in offense -- and a turnover was the only way they were going to score points against the Tide. For the game, the Golden Flashes gained all of 90 yards in 70 plays, but turnovers got them on the board.
Alabama has shored up its turnover-prone tendencies since the first week: they suffered five turnovers against the surprisingly strong Kent State defense, but they have lost just three turnovers since then. LSU, meanwhile, has forced 15 for the season, second-highest in the country behind Oklahoma State. The Tigers will probably need at least a couple of takeaways to take out the Tide.
Drives No. 2 and 3: Penn State
Result: Field Goal
Time Of Possession: 7:32
Time Of Possession: 4:16
Rob Bolden and the Nittany Lions got by via the skin of their teeth on this drive, converting passing downs of third-and-8 (15-yard pass to Justin Brown) and third-and-6 (eight-yard run by Silas Redd) to advance inside the Bama 30 before settling for a 43-yard field goal. This drive featured a hefty dose of Redd (eight carries for 32 yards), something LSU might attempt to pull off themselves. The Tigers are not incredibly effective in the run game -- they rank just 38th in Rushing S&P+ -- but they are persistent with it. Thanks to their defense, the LSU offense is rarely, if ever, in a position where it has to score, so it is more than happy with the thought of playing things safe, attempting a few bombs, and punting if things go awry.
Despite the early success, Penn State quickly saw the life choked out of them. They were down 27-3 by the time they pulled off another methodical drive, converting passing downs via Rob Bolden's legs (a 15-yard run on third-and-10, a nine-yard run on second-and-10) and a pass to rarely-used Shawney Kersey (26 yards on third-and-20). Redd eventually scored from one yard out, but it took PSU four minutes to do the deed when they had just five minutes to make up a three-possession deficit.
Drives No. 4 and 5: Arkansas
Time Of Possession: 5:28
Time Of Possession: 1:03
Like Penn State, Arkansas was able to scope out and take advantage of some holes early in the game before finding later on that those holes had closed. The Hogs took over at their 37 after a kick catching interference penalty on a 'Bama punt. They converted a couple of unlikely passing downs -- a 15-yard pass from Wilson to Greg Cihlds on third-and-10, a 16-yard pass to Jarius Wright on third-and-11 -- before scoring on a 10-yard pass to running back Dennis Johnson. The drive consisted almost entirely of passes; they ran twice in their territory (two Ronnie Wingo, Jr., carries picked up three yards), then ripped off nine straight passes (there was a run in there, but it was called back via holding penalty). As they approached the end zone, Wilson started leaning on passes into the flat. He found Marquel Wade for six yards, Jarius Wright for one, and Johnson for the 10-yard touchdown.
By the time the Hogs got on the scoreboard again, they were down 31-7. Wilson found Wingo in the flat (again) for 39 yards, then found Cobi Hamilton for a 19-yard touchdown on third-and-10.
Alabama's defense ranks third in the country on passing downs, but you can still occasionally (10 to 25 percent of the time) convert on such downs against them. The teams that score on the Tide are the ones that pounce on the second chances given to them by such passing downs conversions. Of course, "Hope you score on the rare occasion that you convert a third-and-long" isn't a strategy that holds much hope of succeeding more than once.
Drives No. 6 and 7: Florida
Time Of Possession: 0:19
Result: Field Goal
Time Of Possession: 4:28
Hey, look, another early score. Two of them, actually. Florida took a 7-0 lead on the first play of the game when John Brantley found little-used (for some reason) Andre DeBose for a 65-yard bomb, then scored again on their next drive. The second score was set up by a 30-yard pass to Deonte Thompson. DeBose almost had a second touchdown, but his tiptoe catch in the end zone was ruled out of bounds on replay. Still, Florida managed to score 10 points on their first two drives of the game. They would advance into Alabama territory just once the rest of the game.
Drive No. 8: Ole Miss
Time Of Possession: 2:27
This is how you develop a reputation. Ole Miss scored once against Alabama ... and it came a) on their first drive and b) prompted by the long ball. Randall Mackey found Nickolas Brassell for a 59-yard strike on the third play of the game. Jeff Scott found the end zone two plays later, and Ole Miss was up 7-0. They would penetrate Alabama's 40 just twice more all game, and the Tide would score 52 unanswered points in an easy win.
Drives No. 9 and 10: Tennessee
Result: Field Goal
Time Of Possession: 6:37
Result: Field Goal
Time Of Possession: 5:03
Perhaps to their detriment (or perhaps because they were too banged up to even pretend to have a deep threat), Tennessee did not attempt any early long balls against the Tide. Nine of their first 12 passes were rushes (including a draw play on third-and-13 that inexplicably worked); aside from Tauren Poole's 15-yard gain on the aforementioned draw play, their other eight rush attempts generated just 21 yards, but thanks to an 11-yard pass to Da'Rick Rogers on fourth-and-3 from the Alabama 35, the Vols were able to squeeze out an early field goal.
After going three-and-out on their third drive, the Vols converted a third-and-10 (a 21-yard pass to Rogers) and a fourth-and-4 (five yards on a fake punt) to set up a 52-yard Michael Palardy field goal. The Vols may not have been very daring with their play-calling, but they showed they were unafraid of taking risks on fourth down. Of course, as with everybody else, this approach only got them so far. They would not advance beyond even their own 40-yard line the rest of the game.
So what have we learned from this exercise?
1. Alabama will give you a deep ball. Once. Maybe twice if you're really lucky (and good). If anybody can take advantage of this tendency, it is LSU. Thanks in part to their persistent run game, the Tigers rank seventh in the country in Passing S&P+ and 11th on passing downs. Jarrett Lee is succeeding, in part, because the offensive line and play-calling are taking pressure off of his shoulders. But in the few occasions where he has had to step up and find a man downfield, he has done so. Rueben Randle has played like the All-American he was supposed to be in high school, and I would be quite surprised if he didn't come down with at least one longball. If not Randle, then Odell Beckham, Jr., might have a chance. LSU has done a nice job of using Beckham both as a horizontal possession man and occasional deep threat. Randle and Beckham have been targeted by a whopping 50 percent of LSU's passes in 2011, so chances are, it will be one of those two going deep.
2. Strike early. I have likened Alabama's defense to The Warlord all season -- they'll allow you to catch them with a clothesline or dropkick early on, but before too long, you'll find yourself in a bear hug. The Tide just ratchet up the pressure as the game progresses, and if you are going to find any holes, it will probably be in the game's first 10 or 20 (or two) minutes. After that, the going gets much, much tougher. The Tide rank 28th in First Quarter S&P+, then first, sixth and sixth in the final three. They have allowed just three scores all season after the 20-minute mark, and in all three of those scores, the opponent was down at least 24 points at the time.
3. Take chances, especially on passing downs. Penn State and Tennessee proved that you might be able to get away with a grind-it-out drive against Alabama, but you will be required to convert a couple of passing downs along the way. And while you might get away with a draw play on third-and-long, you won't get away with it twice. You must be fearless and attack them downfield, even if that opens the door for disaster. Alabama's secondary is quite good, but it is still the weakest unit they've got; the front seven has been damn near perfect this year. Attack downfield, and you are not only exploiting their only relative weakness, but you are also putting the ball into areas of the field where nine defenders are not swarming to obliterate you.
Needless to say, Les Miles' previous actions suggest a tendency toward fearlessness, bordering occasionally on foolishness. Of course, this tendency is one of the main reasons his team has been so good against great teams through the years. Passes to Randle and Beckham on passing downs have found their mark 18 of 33 times for 317 yards (9.6 per target), but a key role player in this game could be No. 3 man Deangelo Peterson. He has caught nine of 11 passing downs passes thrown his way this season (for 85 yards) and could be a key third-and-6 guy tomorrow night.
4. Have a good field goal kicker. I'm just saying, it might be a good idea. Three of the four field goals Alabama's opponents have made have been at least 40 yards in length. LSU's Drew Alleman has made three of four field goals of greater than 41 yards -- he has hit from 41, 42 and 44, missed from 50 -- so he might pass the test here.
5. Brace yourself. Alabama has physically dominated every opponent on their schedule. Even if opponents have found something that worked, it almost never worked twice. Opponents have yet to score more than 14 points on the Tide this year, and only two (Tennessee and Florida) have scored twice while within 20 points. The only team that seems capable of competing with them in terms of physical play and athleticism are LSU's Tigers.