In the midst of all the amazement at Mississippi State ranking No. 1 and No. 3 Ole Miss being the favorite against the LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge, few are accurately capturing the flow of history. What we are seeing in the SEC West is a natural consequence of football's growth in the region.
Alabama, Auburn, and LSU have always been programs with tremendous ceilings, and for the last decade have all been major figures in the national title picture. Their home states are fertile with prized recruits, they border states with even more appealing targets, and the fan bases are passionate about football. It's simply a manner of putting the right people in charge.
What's some are missing is that the Mississippi schools weren't short on potential either. Although they aren't sitting on talent goldmines as deep as New Orleans, it's absurd to think Mississippi State shouldn't be able to field top teams now and then, whenever it has a few stars who are surrounded by upperclassmen.
It's hard to point to anything other than past poor coaching hires as the reason why the 2014 SEC West's unexpected ruling class doesn't have competitive seasons more often. With Hugh Freeze in his third season in Oxford, it's finally happened, and it's caught Les Miles' LSU Tigers at the perfect time.
The three big questions that will determine this game involve a young team hoping to build for the future against a squad of established veterans looking to lay down the law. It just so happens that the team with hope deferred is the one that normally sits on the throne.
1. Can LSU's young interior handle Ole Miss' misdirection?
For the most part, Ole Miss could not run the football against Alabama, which was entirely predictable. What was unexpected was that this didn't result in the total destruction of the Rebel offense and that Ole Miss still managed to score enough to overcome the Tide.
LSU isn't as steady up the middle as Nick Saban's bunch, with the whole unit ranking No. 31 in F/+. The Tigers have inexperienced young players at key positions through the heart of their defense.
The starting tackles? A sophomore (Christian LaCouture) and a freshman (Davon Godchaux) with another freshman (Maquedius Bain) acting as a third tackle to spell them. Sophomore middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith has started to take over in place of senior D.J. Welter, and the Tigers' safety most likely to carry on their tradition of NFL stars is freshman Jamal Adams.
LSU's elite defenses over the last several years have been keyed by having stout players up the middle. The 2014 roster is young and unready to play at a championship level.
All that said, there is still great talent here. The Rebels will need to make heavy use of their misdirection and isolation tactics to make headway in Baton Rouge. They don't have a great inside runner, like the kind that LSU can stash on its bench, but they do have a few ways to help their line punch holes in a defense.
They do their best work with plays that pull defenders out of the box, meaning power against a reduced front. One of their favorite options is to flare out the RB, get a linebacker to give chase, and then run QB power into a five-man box:
From this formation, the Rebels borrow a tactic from some other spread teams influenced by I-formation tactics, using a massive H-back in Jeremy Liggins, who stands at 6'3 and 296 pounds. He nearly pancakes Alabama's Reggie Ragland here, opening a huge crease for Bo Wallace to fly through.
The play they ran previous to that punch up the gut also featured a degree of misdirection and option, allowing the Rebels to isolate and attack a soft spot:
In this instance, the threat of a sweep gets Alabama's defenders flowing the wrong way while the Rebel linemen are pulling to the opposite edge.
Finally, the Rebels will also use motion to clear up coverage reads for Wallace and set him up to attack in the passing game:
LSU's young defense is going to have to be well-prepared with film study and disciplined with its eyes to avoid getting caught by Freeze's endless leverage traps.
Another issue demonstrated by that throw to Ole Miss' favorite matchup problem, tight end Evan Engram, is how LSU chooses to defend the Rebels, personnel-wise. Defensive coordinator John Chavis has shown a strange interest in playing more 4-3 base personnel, which puts strongside linebacker Lamar Louis on the field and keeps emerging star Adams on the bench.
Although Ole Miss will play TEs like Engram, LSU would be better off matching him with their nickel package and getting their young stud on the field. The Tigers need Adams' open-field tackling to deal with the Rebels when their option/misdirection offense inevitably creates a few opportunities for their playmakers in space.
2. How does Ole Miss stand up to the pounding?
It's strange that LSU should feature a true freshman at running back, and even have a game in which they feed him 27 times, given their annual depth at the position. Despite his youth, Leonard Fournette is the favorite son at Power-I University and the main cog to their downhill run game.
Although the Tigers have struggled to get Cam Cameron's deep passing game going to complement the run, they still have a massive line with a load of size and experience, particularly along the left, where junior guard Vadal Alexander (6'6, 342) and senior tackle La'el Collins (6'5, 315) dwell. Carrying on the tradition of their previous plus-sized bludgeon, J.C. Copeland, the Tigers have settled on Melvin Jones as the new fullback, and his 6'2, 258pound frame is well-suited to their lead zone run game.
When Fournette is in the game, their best schemes are their stretch-and-hammer concepts that attack the weakside interior gaps with a lead block ...
... or their zone slice play that hits all the way to the backside:
Much like fellow bowling ball freshman Samaje Perine at Oklahoma, Fournette is at his best running with the OL flow, baiting the linebackers with him, and then using a jump cut to power downhill.
Standing against that moving wall of flesh, pads, and sheer force lies the Ole Miss defensive line. Those Rebels have already done a credible job of handling Alabama's similarly brutish run game. They were gashed by T.J. Yeldon's slashing style, but held big Derrick Henry to only 37 yards on 17 carries.
The keys to the Rebel run defense are a lightning-quick defensive backfield that flies to the football in numbers and a defensive line that excels at penetration:
The LSU run game is designed to control penetration with long and wide linemen thundering ahead. Whether that approach holds up against Ole Miss' exceptionally athletic DL will go a long way toward determining this contest. Suffice to say that LSU wants to be able to control time of possession, keep the score down, and keep the up-tempo Rebel offense off the field.
How hard will the Rebel athletes run to tackle a big LSU ballcarrier on the 40th lead run of the game? That's a question LSU really wants to ask.
3. Can Anthony Jennings handle the pressure?
LSU has two main offenses: a shotgun-read set that best suits the sophomore QB, and the power-I set that features Fournette. Without a marriage between these two offenses, the Tigers are limited. What's more, the shotgun-spread sets aren't likely to find a good deal of room to run on the edges, with the Rebels' speed in the secondary.
The Tigers are in their comfort zone when lining up in the I-formation and delivering a million body blows. However, without Zach Mettenberger following that up with vertical strikes to Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, their ability to score quickly is hindered.
There is a ton of young talent on the roster that will eventually be able to do just that, but Jennings is not that comfortable in Cameron's offense and lacks the ideal arm for it. Brandon Harris is a better fit, but he's a true freshman who's not ready to shoulder the load against the Ole Miss defense, as Auburn demonstrated when he went three-of-14.
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LSU wants to make this game about its rushing attack and protect its passing game from having to win the game. But there will be those inevitable moments when Jennings has to make a play to keep the Tigers on the field and competitive on the scoreboard. In those times, he's going to have to navigate a good pass rush and a secondary that closes windows quickly.
This is the kind of game in which a young team with definite strengths can turn in a big-time home performance and beat a favorite. But in all likelihood, this just isn't the Tigers' year and they'll have to wait until they are older and wiser up the middle of their defense and at QB. Their middle backer, best safeties, defensive tackles, quarterback, guards, fullback, best receiver, and running back should all return in 2015, so their future looks bright.
In the meantime, this season belongs to those older teams from Mississippi, who've finally found their footing.