Alabama’s greatest strength under Nick Saban has been its ability to extinguish hope.
The Crimson Tide find themselves in one-possession finishes from time to time, and hey, they even lose games occasionally, believe it or not!
But their ability to sever your will from your game plan has been staggering.
Last year’s 30-16 win over LSU might have been the paramount example. This was technically a close game; it was tied at 10-10 late in the second quarter, and Alabama couldn’t build distance until late in the third. But it was clear from LSU’s first possession that the Tigers’ offensive game plan was never going to work and that an easy win was just a matter of time.
LSU snapped the ball 14 times in the first 20 minutes. Star running back Leonard Fournette, at that point a Heisman favorite, gained 6 yards in six carries, quarterback Brandon Harris completed one of five passes and got sacked once, and the Tigers committed two delay-of-game penalties.
A couple of 15-yard Bama penalties and a 40-yard bomb to Travin Dural helped to earn the Tigers 10 second-quarter points, but it was clear where this was headed. LSU's first five second-half possessions resulted in an interception and four punts, and Bama clinched the game with a 20-0 run.
That game’s in the back of our minds heading into Saturday’s battle in Baton Rouge. The story lines for this game are tantalizing — Does LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron get the full-time job with a win? Can the Tigers still make a run at a Playoff bid? Would Alabama fall out of the top four in the CFP rankings with a loss (spoiler: no)? — but they mostly require a Crimson Tide loss. An Alabama win would simply be business as usual.
If you’re hoping for an LSU win on Saturday, well, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
That’s typically what happens when you root against the Tide. But S&P+ gives the Tigers a 36 percent chance of victory; that’s not zero.
Saban told media this week that there is “no magical potion” for winning games like this.
But if LSU were to win on Saturday, here’s how the Tigers would probably do it.
1. At least four gains of 30-plus yards
LSU has gotten its act together offensively since head coach Les Miles’ September dismissal. The Tigers are up to 18th in Off. S&P+ and have averaged 42 points per game and 8.6 yards per play in Orgeron’s three games in charge. They are first in the country in Rushing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of your successful plays), and even with a limited passing game and only seven games played, they are 36th in the country with 22 gains of 30-plus yards.
They’re still inefficient, though. They rank 57th in success rate and 30th in opponent-adjusted Success Rate+. While quarterback Danny Etling has been steadier than Harris, he’s still completing just 60.5 percent of his passes and mostly missing on deep balls. Harris’ passer rating topped 150 five times in 2015, and Etling’s has done so just once this year, against Southern Miss.
Compare this with Alabama’s defensive stats, and you see what needs to happen.
The Crimson Tide defense is about as good as ever; Bama ranks second in Def. S&P+, behind only Michigan, and second in success rate allowed. They crush you with three-and-outs and turnovers, and they’re willing to give up a few big plays in the process because they know you won’t get enough of them.
The result: big plays against Alabama are infrequent, but big. The Tide have given up only 86 gains of 10-plus yards (11th in FBS), but 14 have gone 30-plus (27th). The rate of big big plays has slowed — the Crimson Tide have been almost impossibly good at most things since their tight win over Ole Miss in Week 3 — but they are still willing to trade occasional big plays for extreme efficiency.
This is something LSU must exploit. Etling must complete at least one pass over the top, like Harris did last year, and however the Tigers do it, they must create the occasional running lane for Fournette and Derrius Guice. The two are averaging 8 yards per carry, but Fournette was averaging 7.7 heading into last year’s Bama game.
There is speculation that LSU might come out passing a little bit, hoping to stretch Alabama from side to side to pull defenders out of the tackle box. It would be a very Lane Kiffin-esque game plan, to pass to set up the run, and it might not work. While Alabama is technically worse at defending the pass than the run, it’s relative: the Tide are second in Passing S&P+ and first in Rushing S&P+. Early passing might mean early three-and-outs and a deficit that forces LSU to pass even more.
Still, you have to try something, and with Alabama safety Eddie Jackson out with injury, it might make sense. If it frees up Fournette or Guice two or three times, maybe that’s enough.
2. At least nine tackles for loss
Alabama's offense has been disturbingly impressive in 2016. Despite going with a true-freshman starter in quarterback Jalen Hurts, the Tide are up to third in Off. S&P+; they have scored at least 33 points in every game and have only twice averaged under 6.2 yards per play.
Hurts has his freshman moments, but he has still completed 63 percent of his passes and has kept both his interception rate (2.5 percent) and sack rate (4.2 percent) in acceptable ranges. Alabama ranks only 34th in Passing S&P+, but that only hurts you so much when nobody can force you to pass. The Tide are fifth in Rushing S&P+ and 14th in Standard Downs S&P+.
This has been the best performance of Kiffin’s career. Despite quarterback youth, the Tide needed only a couple of games to hit full-speed, and as Orgeron so seductively put it this week, Kiffin has kept Hurts in advantageous situations with “nakeds, waggles and boots.”
There are glitches, though. Texas A&M recorded 12 tackles for loss, sacking Hurts three times and stuffing the Alabama run at or behind the line 26 percent of the time.
Negative plays kill drives, especially when you're asking a freshman to catch up to the chains. Alabama ranks just 76th in stuff rate and a fallible 57th in Adj. Sack Rate.
LSU's defense is 12th in Adj. Sack Rate, but only 88th in stuffs. The Tigers aren't nearly as disruptive as the Aggies, but they have to figure out a way to take advantage of Alabama's glitches all the same. They swarm to the ball near the line of scrimmage as well as anybody, but they'll probably have to get behind the line occasionally.
3. Five points per scoring opportunity (preferably more)
This is no longer 2011. Field goals will not defeat Alabama.
Saban’s program has fully adapted to college football’s up-tempo stylings and is more than comfortable with winning a shootout. And while the Tide aren’t exactly Baylor in the tempo department, they are above average.
LSU is not. The Tigers have the third-slowest tempo in the country and create the second-fewest solo tackles. They are still big and plodding, and they will attempt to minimize snaps and possessions.
In a slowed-down environment, finishing drives matters even more than normal because you’re going to end up with fewer scoring opportunities inside the 40-yard line, and Alabama is typically even more devastating the closer they (or you) get to the end zone.
- Offensive points per scoring opportunity: Alabama 4.7 (45th), LSU 4.7 (51st)
- Defensive points per scoring opportunity: Alabama 3.3 (seventh), LSU 3.4 (12th)
Mash those averages together, and you have a bar set at about 4.1 points per opp for Alabama and 4.0 for LSU. That won’t do. LSU has to top the Crimson Tide here, in part because Alabama will probably create more opportunities. That will probably take at least an average of 5 points per chance.
For perspective, that means two touchdowns and two field goals in four chances. Three TDs and one FG would mean a 6-point average. You might want that instead.
4. A field position win (or at least a draw)
If we’re talking about Alabama-LSU, we probably need to talk about the punters. JK Scott and Josh Growden will have roles.
It probably isn’t a surprise that both Alabama and LSU tend to create excellent field position for their defenses; on average, opponents begin drives against Alabama at the 27.1 (19th in FBS) and against LSU at the 27.4 (26th). Feld position is dictated not only by special teams but also by things like turnovers and efficiency, but punting has been a strength for both teams. Scott’s Alabama ranks 14th in net punting, Growden’s LSU 27th.
Be it through whatever combination of punting, turnovers, and converting an extra first down or two, LSU must prevent Alabama from tilting the field in its favor. The Tide will have successful moments — their by-committee run game was an issue for a couple of early weeks but has moved into wheat-thresher mode — but the more LSU can force them to go 75-plus yards, the better.
Hitting all four of these benchmarks might not be enough.
Alabama’s rushing trio of Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs, and Bo Scarbrough (plus Hurts) might simply create too many big plays for it to matter, and Alabama’s defense, maybe the most opportunistic since LSU’s incredible 2011 collective, might put points on the board to counter a couple of big LSU gains.
But without hitting these benchmarks, it’s hard to see Orgeron’s Bayou Bengals having a chance.
Spread: Alabama -7.5
S&P+ projection: Alabama 29, LSU 23