Les Miles has not spent much time as an underdog in his head coaching career, especially at home. It's only happened three times, in fact, during his seven and a half-year career at LSU. But even going back to his tenure at Oklahoma State, Miles has always shown a special ability to get his players to deliver something extra when facing enormous odds. In his last nine games coaching a home underdog (three at LSU, six at OSU), Miles' teams have won five times outright and almost won two more.
Two of his three home dog experiences at LSU have come against Nick Saban and Alabama. In 2008, Ricky Jean-Francois blocked a 29-yard field goal attempt to take the game to overtime before Alabama eventually prevailed. In 2010, Les Miles' "Mad Hatter" side had one of its most profound moments; LSU worked a perfect reverse on fourth-and-1 to set up the go-ahead touchdown, and Miles tasted some grass before the two-point conversion. (LSU also beat Alabama as a four-point underdog in Tuscaloosa last year, of course.)
Despite last year's BCS title game debacle, Miles has fared pretty well versus Saban through the years. Saban's dominance is based on speed, strength, order and The Process. Miles can match him in the first two categories while throwing a fun amount of disorder into the mix. His best teams are defiant, mean and a little bit unpredictable. But they haven't ever faced odds like the ones they will face on Saturday. LSU was just a three-point underdog in 2008, six points in 2010. On Saturday, Alabama will take the field as a solid, 9.5-point favorite. Two months ago, this was supposed to be the game of the year. Now, with LSU looking as flawed as ever on offense and Alabama looking nearly untouchable, it is seen more as a slightly inconvenient bump on the road to Bama's third title in four seasons. Do the Tide win this one handily, or does Miles have Saban right where he wants him?
Since this is a matchup with which we are quite familiar by now -- this is the fourth time Alabama will face LSU in 27 games -- let's start by taking a look at what has changed since last year's BCS title game.
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It's amazing what an incredible line can do for you. Alabama had to replace its All-American running back (Trent Richardson, who gained a combined 2,124 rushing and receiving yards), its top two receivers (Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks) and its tight end (Brad Smelley). In their place came career backups (running back Eddie Lacy, receivers Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, tight end Michael Williams) and precocious freshmen (running back T.J. Yeldon, freshman Amari Cooper). That typically isn't a great combination.
But thanks to quarterback A.J. McCarron and the best offensive line in college football, the Tide are rolling right along. They ranked seventh in Off. F/+ last year (their F/+ rating: plus-13.6 percent, meaning they had an offense 13.6 percent better than average); this year, they rank 12th, but with a plus-15.3 percent Off. F/+, meaning they are even better than they were last year.
In replacing the incredible Richardson with Lacy and Yeldon, the run game has lost a little bit of effectiveness. But only a little. Alabama ranked third in Rushing S&P+ last year; this year, they rank 13th. The running back position has regressed (temporarily), but thanks to a line that has improved from seventh in Adj. Line Yards to first, the regression has been tempered.
And any problems caused by a lesser run game have been completely eradicated by the fact that Alabama has the best passing downs offense in the country. Despite his youth, Cooper has been an incredible passing downs weapon, catching 14 of 16 passes for 158 yards on such downs. Bell and sophomore Christion Jones have combined to catch 12 of 19 passes for 260 yards on those downs, as well. And for the most part, McCarron has had more than enough time to find these weapons downfield. It wasn't impossible to see this young receiving corps treading water if one of the youngsters stepped up. With Cooper thriving, however, this unit is actually a couple of steps ahead of last year's. Alabama is still a run-first, run-second team (the run-pass ratios have actually trended more toward running this year), but the ability to dig out of trouble with the passing game is an enormous asset. Of course, they haven't had to do it against LSU's pass rush yet.
The primary issue for this offense: fumbles. The Tide have already fumbled 14 times in eight games; that's two more than they suffered last year in 13 games. They could do LSU serious favors with a couple of drops.
Shutdown Fullback previews Alabama-LSU
When you lose your two leading tacklers at linebacker and three of your top four defensive backs, you aren't supposed to improve defensively. But damned if Alabama hasn't done just that.
No Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron, DeQuan Menzie or Dre Kirkpatrick? No problem. Alabama ranked first in Def. F/+ last year and stands in the same place in 2012; however, last year's Def. F/+ rating was plus-22.5 percent. This year: plus-42.7 percent. I keep waiting for these numbers to go down, but they haven't.
Despite the fact that Alabama's defense ranks first in Adj. Line Yards (just like the offense), one could make the case that the Tide's run defense has gotten a little bit worse. They rank just second (behind Michigan State) in Rushing S&P+ and fourth (behind Michigan State, Florida and Oklahoma) on standard downs. But once they have leveraged you into passing downs, the drive ends quickly and unceremoniously.
Their passing downs defense is, basically, at least twice as good as anybody else's in college football. Corners Dee Milliner and Deion Belue have combined to pick off four passes and break up another 19, safeties Robert Lester and Vinnie Sunseri have picked off five passes of their own, and the pass rush has been selectively great. The Tide do not blitz frequently, but in the last three weeks, when they have sent more than four pass rushers, opponents have completed just 10 of 28 passes with two sacks and an interception. Average yards per pass attempt when Alabama blitzes: 2.8. Yikes.
In theory, a Bama defense that is slightly worse against the run could be something LSU welcomes. Despite a decent amount of turnover from last year, the Bayou Bengals still run quite a bit -- 70 percent on standard downs, 30 percent on passing downs. Those percentages are down from last year, but that was to be expected with the emergence of Zach Mettenberger as starting quarterback. The problem is, LSU is passing more and accomplishing very little. Mettenberger is completing just 57 percent of his passes, and LSU ranks just 97th in Passing S&P+.
It is difficult to blame Mettenberger too much for the drop in pass production. First, an offensive line that was one of the nation's best last year has fallen apart to a certain degree, thanks to the combination of graduation (last year's starting guards, Will Blackwell and T-Bob Hebert, are both gone), injury (starting left tackle Chris Faulk was lost for the season after just one game, starting right guard Josh Williford has missed the last two games with a concussion) and other issues (all-conference tackle Alex Hurst reportedly left the team with personal issues in October). LSU began the season with five offensive linemen with starting experience (103 career starts), but only two of those have been playing in recent weeks. As a result, LSU has regressed from third to 32nd in Adj. Line Yards and struggled mightily to protect Mettenberger. LSU is running less effectively (the Tigers have fallen from sixth to 16th in Rushing S&P+), leaving Mettenberger with more passing downs to convert. And unlike Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee last year, Mettenberger doesn't have Rueben Randle to help him convert said passing downs.
One of the oddest stats from last year was that LSU ranked third in Passing Downs S&P+. On the downs in which the Tigers had to pass, they did just fine, either sticking to the run or taking advantage of Randle to move the chains. The Tigers were typically ahead on the scoreboard and never actually had to take many chances offensively. When they did have to press, in the BCS title game against Alabama, they failed miserably. This year, a lot of defenses are treating LSU like Alabama did on passing downs. And Mettenberger's receiving corps has done him few favors. Odell Beckham, Jr., and Kadron Boone are strong deep threats on passing downs (31 targets, 17 catches, 436 yards), but Mettenberger doesn't often have time to find them deep. And the primary target underneath, Jarvis Landry, has struggled to make much noise on either standard or passing downs.
Alabama's defense dares you to throw deep, and despite the risk of sacks and picks, it might be LSU's best play, especially on some occasional standard downs. It matches Beckham's and Boone's skill sets, and quite frankly, the Tide swallow up shorter passes. In the last three weeks, opponent have attempted 26 passes thrown within three yards of the line of scrimmage. They have completed 18 (69 percent) but have gained just 76 yards, 2.9 per pass. Longer passes, of nine yards or more, have been completed at a terribly inefficient rate (15 for 41, 37 percent) but have connected just enough to average 7.3 yards per pass. You aren't going to be able to move the ball efficiently through the air no matter what you try, but even if Mettenberger gets hit a few times along the way, throwing deep on quite a few occasions might be the way to go.
And if you're throwing deep, you should probably do it early on downs, when Alabama might only be bringing four defenders toward the backfield. As mentioned above, Alabama tends to get to you when it blitzes, but in the last three weeks, Bama opponents have averaged a semi-healthy 6.1 yards per pass attempt when the Tide bring just three or four pass rushers.
Alabama has not allowed more than 14 points to an FBS opponent in nearly two years; the goal for LSU has to be to score twice on offense, perhaps get point contributions from defense or special teams, and hold Alabama to mostly field goals. They can do it, but despite a stronger showing in recent weeks -- since getting held to 200 yards and six points by Florida, the Tigers have averaged 361 yards and 24 points versus South Carolina and Texas A&M -- it is still a lot to ask of LSU's (or any) offense to move the ball too much against this ridiculous defense. Just avoid catastrophe and hope your defense and special teams can give you a chance.
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LSU has regressed overall in 2012, from second in the F/+ rankings to 10th. Most of that regression has been caused by the offensive issues mentioned above, but the defense has shown at least a couple of cracks. Like Alabama's offense, LSU's defense has seen its Def. F/+ ranking go down (from second to fifth) while its rating has risen (from plus-17.7 percent to plus-23.5). Despite the unexpected loss of cornerback (and Heisman finalist) Tyrann Mathieu right before the season, the Tigers still deliver the goods against the pass. They rank fourth in Passing S&P+ and fourth on passing downs.
If there is an exploitable weakness on the LSU defense, it comes at linebacker. The defensive line is still as frightening as ever with tackles Bennie Logan, Anthony Johnson, Josh Downs and Ego Ferguson making plays from the inside and ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery wrecking shop on passing downs. But the linebacking corps is quite young -- this week's starting OLBs (junior Lamin Barrow and freshman Lamar Louis) combined for just 10.5 tackles last year -- and susceptible to occasional breakdown. LSU has fallen from second to 11th in Rushing S&P+ and from first to 12th on standard downs as a result.
This defense is still rock solid, but it will have to raise its game a bit if it wants to pull the same "Hold Bama to nothing but field goals" routine as it did last year. In the first 7.5 quarters of their two battles last year, Alabama crossed LSU's 40-yard line 14 times, threw an interception and settled for an incredible 13 field goal attempts. The Tide missed them in the regular season loss and made them in the BCS title game win. This game will be determined by whether LSU can actually move the ball or not, but if Bama is suddenly scoring touchdowns this time around, LSU's offense might not matter.
All signs point to an Alabama win. Its offense is as good or better than LSU's defense, and its defense is much, much better than LSU's offense. Plus, LSU cannot lean quite as heavily on a major special teams advantage. The return game is still solid with Odell Beckham, Jr. (punts) and Michael Ford (kickoffs), but it is no longer spectacular. Plus, the Tigers' net punting average has fallen a bit, from 41.2 yards (third in the country) to 39.2 (32nd).
Honestly, in a game like this, LSU's biggest asset is its head coach. Les Miles frequently coaxes great efforts out of his team when expectations are low (a rarity these days), and you have to assume that he figures out a way to keep things close for a while. Being that Alabama hasn't really been challenged, you are free to wonder how the Tide will respond if the game is tied late in the third quarter, and Tiger Stadium is registering earthquakes with every solid LSU play.
Still, in the battle of proven, on-field dominance versus mysticism and "they might come up big" pondering, you go with the proven entity. Alabama is favored by nearly 10, and I think the most likely scenario is closer to something like Alabama 20, LSU 6.
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