A large portion of the analysis about tonight's one-versus-two matchup in Tuscaloosa has focused around Trent Richardson and whether LSU can stop him. I have proven in recent weeks that I am a huge fan of Richardson's, and the matchup between Alabama's No. 2 run offense (according to S&P+) and LSU's No. 2 run defense is going to be outstanding. Richardson has emerged as a serious Heisman contender, and LSU's front seven has improved significantly from this time last year.
But Alabama is also going to pass. And what happens when they do will likely determine the outcome of the game. The Tide throw 40 percent of the time on standard downs (right on the national average) and will have to do so tonight to keep LSU's front seven honest. But how do you attack what might be the deepest secondary in college football?
Two weeks ago, LSU demolished Auburn despite the suspensions of what were probably their No. 1 (Tyrann Mathieu) and No. 3 (Tharold Simon) defensive backs. The Tigers still had the great Morris Claiborne, but their depth was quickly evident. Cornerback Ron Brooks picked off a pass, broke up another, forced a fumble, took part in a tackle for loss, and generally played exactly like Mathieu; meanwhile, young safety Craig Loston eased into extra playing time with no drop-off.
When the Tigers' secondary is at full strength (as it should be tonight), it simply swallows up one target after another. This is likely a slight exaggeration, but for all intents and purposes, LSU does not have No 2-4 corners, they just have four No. 1s. Your No. 1 receiver may be able to play reasonably well against their No. 1, but your secondary options are going to be facing off against what is probably by far the best defenders they have seen. The Bayou Bengals make you one-dimensional in the passing game, then they start to pick you off if you lean too much toward one guy.
(Note: the stats below generalize regarding who qualifies as previous LSU opponents' No. 1, No. 2, etc., targets. As you will see, however, no matter who qualifies as No. 2 or beyond, the result is the same.)
No. 1 Receivers Versus LSU: 49 targets, 30 catches, 372 yards (61% catch rate, 7.6 yards per target)
Season Averages For These No. 1 Receivers: 62% catch rate, 8.3 yards per target
LSU has not faced a murderer's row of passing games, but they have taken on some interesting targets. Oregon's Lavasier Tuinei caught seven of 10 passes targeting him but was tackled virtually immediately each time and racked up only 47 yards. Kentucky's La'Rod King and Tennessee's Da'Rick Rogers had no chance; they combined to catch just five of 15 passes targeting them, though thanks to a 44-yarder from Rogers, they did manage 94 yards. West Virginia's Tavon Austin had by far the best day of any No. 1 receiver against LSU -- he was targeted 16 times and caught 11 passes for 187 yards. His game propped up the overall No. 1 stats, but they are still below these players' season averages.
No. 2 Receivers Versus LSU: 47 targets, 24 catches, 223 yards (51% catch rate, 7.7 yards per target)
Season Averages For These No. 2 Receivers: 60% catch rate, 7.7 yards per target
Here is where we begin to see the LSU effect. Mississippi State's Arceto Clark caught one of four passes targeting him for just 11 yards. Kentucky's Matt Roark: four of nine for 19 yards. Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas caught six of nine passes but gained just 47 yards and fumbled twice. These players have been decent in the right circumstances (Clark has averaged 9.1 yards per target this season, Thomas 10.9), but they had little chance of success against a secondary of LSU's caliber.
No. 3 Receivers Versus LSU: 30 targets, 16 catches, 134 yards (53% catch rate, 4.5 yards per target)
Season Averages For These No. 3 Receivers: 55% catch rate, 6.9 yards per target
Oregon's Josh Huff and Tennessee's Travonte Stallworth combined to catch seven of the nine passes targeting them ... but gained just 38 yards in the process. West Virginia's Ivan McCartney caught six of 13 for 59 yards. Tennessee's Zach Rogers: three targets, zero catches. The going gets tough when you advance down the depth chart.
No. 4-5 Receivers Versus LSU: 36 targets, 19 catches, 165 yards (53% catch rate, 4.6 yards per target)
Season Averages For These No. 4-5 Receivers: 64% catch rate, 6.7 yards per target
It is the same story even further down. Oregon's Justin Hoffman and David Paulson: five-for-13 for 43 yards. West Virginia's Devon Brown: one-for-three for 10 yards. Kentucky's Tyler Robinson: zero-for-three. Whereas some of these weapons might occasionally find a hole versus an opponent's random linebacker or fifth defensive back, they were finding themselves manned up by Ron Taylor, or swimming in a zone with what seemed like 14 defenders.
In terms of play-by-play stats, Alabama holds quite a few overall advantages in this matchup. But in the passing game, they rank only eighth in Off, Passing S&P+ while LSU ranks second on defense. This LSU advantage might be magnified by the fact that, after No. 1 target Marquis Maze (65% catch rate, 8.0 yards per target), Alabama doesn't necessarily know who its No. 2 is. More often than not, it has been Darius Hanks (62% catch rate, 7.9 yards per target), but neither he, nor tight end Brad Smelley (7.2 yards per target), nor freshman receiver DeAndrew White (65% catch rate, 7.3 yards per target), nor sophomore Kenny Bell (87% catch rate, 11.1 yards per target in just 15 targets), have proven they are ready to both take on a hefty load in the passing game and make something of it.
Alabama is going to focus on Maze, and if this year is any indication, he might have a solid game. But somebody else might have to do some damage at some point. Against a pass defense this spectacular, who is it going to be?