Normally on Fridays, I analyze the three games I’m most excited about for the college football weekend. Well if you haven’t heard this isn’t a normal college football weekend. In fact, the majority of people believe the National Championship will be decided tomorrow night. Yes, I’m talking about LSU versus Alabama. With ESPN dedicating their programming to the two teams this week, I felt it was only right I do the same for my Friday blog. So here we go, my look at everything Tigers and Tide.
#1 versus #2, can’t get much better than the LSU Tigers traveling to T-Town to take on Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. On paper these teams are extremely even, on the field it might be even closer. I don’t think I’ve seen a game receive this much hype since USC traveled to Notre Dame, and rightfully so. Myself along with others, are planning their weekend schedule’s around this game, making sure that when 8:00 roles around we’re in a comfortable chair/couch with our favorite game time meal and some ice-cold “refreshments”. The Trojans’ and the Golden Domer’s lived up to the hype six years ago, but will the new “game of the century” do the same…and who’s to say the winner doesn’t go out and drop a game they shouldn’t in the coming weeks.
So let’s start with the LSU Tigers. While I would have Alabama at #1 myself, the Tigers are the team at the top spot for now. It’s hard to argue with the ranking either. The Tigers have been extremely impressive this year, outscoring opponents 311-92 in their first eight games, with an average margin of victory of almost 28 points per game. Their strength of schedule has been strong as well, with five matchups against ranked opponents this season. Led by their powerful run game and a dominating defense, the Tigers have fought off quarterback controversy and player suspensions, to start the season off 8-0.
At the quarterback position, LSU isn’t going to wow you. The starter is the unspectacular, and completely normal senior, Jarrett Lee. Lee doesn’t have an arm to make your jaw drop, and he’s just mobile enough to avoid the sack….most of the time. However, the physical tools he does lack, he more than makes up for with his decision making. He has only thrown one interception this season, which is the lowest number among quarterbacks in the SEC. He doesn’t put up points like Andrew Luck or Case Keenum, but his 13 touchdowns is tied for third in the conference. He will need to perform much higher though, as Alabama is the second best defense against the pass. The Tide are allowing just 135 passing yards per game, and have only surrendered four passing touchdowns all year.
LSU utilizes another quarterback as well, senior, Jordan Jefferson. Jefferson, who missed the Tigers first four games after being involved in a bar fight prior to the season’s start, is the more dynamic of the two LSU quarterbacks. While Jefferson has yet to be fully featured in the passing game this season, with no more than four passing attempts in a game, he does have two scoring tosses in ten pass attempts. Where Jefferson really shines though, is in his running ability. This scrambling ability has been fully utilized by Les Miles and the coaching staff since Jefferson made his return, resulting in 26 rushes for 111 yards and two touchdowns in a four game stretch. Look for Jefferson to be called on to make more plays Saturday, as the Tigers will struggle at times to move the ball in a conventional manner.
As I said before, LSU’s bread and butter is their ground attack, which ranks 32nd in the nation at 189 yards per game. Leading the charge, is sophomore, Spencer Ware, who should be well rested after an extra week off. Ware, the star in the backfield, was suspended for the Auburn game following a failed drug test, along with star corner back Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, and defensive back Tharold Simon. Without Ware, the Tigers had their second worst rushing performance of the year, gaining just 174 yards. With the 225 pound Ware back in the mix, look for the Tigers to try and establish a much more physical running game against the Tide. Ware leads the Tigers running backs with 128 carries for 512 yards and is tied for the team lead with six rushing touchdowns. Sophomore Michael Ford, who is the other back with six rushing touchdowns, has 79 carries for 441 yards this season, and fellow sophomore Alfred Blue, has added 252 yards and four scores on 57 carries. A player who should be featured a lot more this weekend is freshman tailback, Kenny Hilliard. Hilliard is LSU’s biggest back at 240 pounds, but he showed explosive ability against Auburn, where he broke out for 65 yards and two scores on ten carries.
At wide receiver, the Tigers have several capable playmakers. Junior Rueben Randle, has been exciting to watch every game. He’s tied with South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery for fifth in the SEC in receptions with 33, and his 638 receiving yards is good enough for third. He’s been LSU’s biggest scoring threat as well, his seven touchdowns are tied with Arkansas’ Jarius Wright for the SEC lead. Even more impressive is his average yards per catch, which at 19.3, leads all SEC receivers with 15 or more receptions, and is tied for the 13th highest mark in the nation.
Behind Randle is the surprising freshman, Odell Beckham. Beckham has taken the SEC by storm, recording 27 receptions for 334 yards and two scores, with all but 10 of the yards coming in six of the Tigers eight games. Beckham hasn’t been the big play threat that Randle has been so far, with only a 12.2 yard average per catch, but has shown explosive ability with a 52 yard reception this season. Junior Russell Shepard, was forced to sit out the Tigers first three games following an NCAA rules violation, but has performed solidly since returning. In five games, the explosive play maker from Houston, TX, has recorded just nine catches, but has turned them into 116 yards and two touchdowns. Look for LSU to try and get Shepard involved early Saturday, including on wide receiver reverses. His playmaking is something the LSU passing game has been missing all season, and the Tigers will need to be victorious in this game. The Tigers also have a tight end who is dangerous in the redzone in Deangelo Peterson. The 6’4 senior has been a valuable weapon inside the 20, with 12 receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown. In a game with a stout secondary like Alabama’s, Peterson could be a huge X-factor.
Even with all the weapons the Tigers have on offense, they have more on defense. To say the Tigers defensive unit is loaded would be a vast understatement. They feature arguably the nation’s best secondary, and a dominating front four. Sophomore Barkevious Mingo is the star in the trenches, the 240 pounder may be undersized for a college defensive end, but he’s used his speed to get around bigger offensive tackles resulting in four sacks, seventh in the SEC. He’s also 12th in the conference in tackles for a loss, with 7.5 this season. Another player to watch along the defensive front is Sam Montgomery. At 245 pounds, like Mingo, he’s undersized for the defensive end position, but has also racked up four sacks and has seven tackles for a loss this season.
The real star of the LSU defense though, is their incredible secondary. Not only are they great pass defenders, but they’re excellent in run support. Safeties Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid fall 21st and 32nd in the SEC for total tackles, at 48 and 43 respectively. Not far behind is the superstar corner Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu with 42. LSU is tied for 23rd in the country in takeaways, with 18 this season. Their turnover margin is a +15 which is the second best mark in the nation. They also are tough to convert third downs on, allowing just a 32% conversion rate this year.
For Alabama, the MO is practically identical. Pound the rock with a physical running attack to set up the play action pass, and play suffocating defense. There aren’t many teams that do this better than the Tide either. Alabama ranks 14th in the nation in rushing offense, at 229 yards per game, and has the best scoring defense in the country, allowing only a touchdown per game. Their passing offense is often forgotten, but has been able to put up 220 yards per game for three consecutive weeks. They also are averaging another 229 yards through the air, making this an extremely balanced offense. While they run the ball 10 times more per game, the passing game has been able to take advantage of the big play to put up yards in bunches.
Behind center for the Tide, is sophomore AJ McCarron. Much like LSU’s quarterback, McCarron isn’t going to wow anybody. He doesn’t have a big arm, isn’t very mobile, and is more of a game manager then playmaker. That’s o.k. though, and actually it’s exactly what the Alabama offense needs. They don’t require flashy quarterback play like a Stanford or a USC does. That’s not to say McCarron has played bad this season. He hasn’t, he’s been very solid. He’s second in the SEC in quarterback rating, with a 150 and third in passing yards 1,664. His 67% completion rate is tops in the conference, and his ten touchdowns is tied for fifth. More importantly, like Lee, he’s done a fantastic job taking care of the ball this year, with just three interceptions in the Tide’s first eight games. In fact, he had gone six straight games without throwing an interception until a contest against Tennessee two weeks ago.
The star of the team lines up behind McCarron, tailback, Trent Richardson. Richardson has put up some gaudy numbers to start the season, and has a chance to cement himself as the Heisman front-runner with a big performance. He’s eighth in the nation (tied for first in the SEC) in rushing yardage with 989 yards, and his 17 rushing touchdowns leads the SEC and is third in the country. His 6.6 yards per carry average is the most among any backs with 130 or more touches. But even more important, he’ a physical back that doesn’t shy away from contact, which I fully expect to see a large amount of tomorrow night.
Alabama doesn’t have just one capable running back though. They actually go four deep on the running back depth chart, including a safety who is given reps in the backfield. Sophomore’s Eddie Lacy, and Jalston Fowler are the main two guys. Lacy is second in the team in carries, with 58, and has contributed 465 yards and five touchdowns. He’s an explosive player, with deep speed, and his 8 yard per carry average leads the team. Fowler, a bruiser at 245 pounds, has 47 carries for 329 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman Blake Sims is listed as a safety on the depth chart, but his athletic ability has been utilized in the Alabama backfield. Sims has 22 carries for 107 yards.
At receiver, the Tide have several players worth mentioning. The big names are Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks. Maze leads Bama in receptions, with 39, and receiving yards, with 432. He also has caught one touchdown. Hanks is tied with Trent Richardson, with 18 receptions, and has racked up 230 yards and a score. Sophomore Kenny Bell, has recorded 13 catches for 167 yards and a touchdown, while freshman DeAndrew White, has 11 catches for 130 yards and is tied for the team lead with two scores. Tight ends Brad Smelley and Michael Williams have also contributed when call upon, combining for 26 receptions for 317 yards and three touchdowns.
Defensively, the Tide are perhaps the best in the nation. They are the best defense against the run, surrendering just 45 yards per game. They also have only allowed two rushing touchdowns all season, and give up just 1.7 yards per rushing attempt. Against the pass, they’re nearly as dominant, ranking second overall at just 136 yards per game. All-together, Alabama has the number one total defense in the nation, surrendering just 180 yards per game, and 3.2 yards per play. Junior linebacker Don’t’a Hightower, leads the way for the Tide with 47 tackles this season. The Tide have also been able to generate a good number of takeaways with 14 on the season, and rank third in the SEC in turnover margin with a +6. The secondary has been impressive, with defensive backs DeQuan Menzie, Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron credited with five or more pass breakups. Menzie and Kirkpatrick are tied for the SEC lead with eight. The Tide have been able to generate pressure on the quarterback, with 17 sacks so far this season.
My prediction, this will be an intense, and extremely physical game. It will certainly not be for the faint of heart, and there will be times where the sound of a collision will make you cringe. In a game where it’s so close at every position, I like to look at the X-factors. Fortunately for Alabama, the two biggest fall on their side. The fact that the game is at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and Nick Saban and his coaching staff have had two weeks to prepare I feel are HUGE advantages for Bama. Also, I like the fact that Alabama has an extremely balanced offense going up against a great defense, whereas LSU has struggled to throw the ball consistently and they are facing the number one rushing defense in the country. It will be close, but in the end I like Alabama to get the field goal win at home, 23-20.
Here’s some picks for the action that’s not quite as good…
#15 Michigan @ Iowa: 12:00: I like the Wolverines to take advantage of Iowa’s 69th best rushing defense and get a 31-27 win.
North Carolina @ North Carolina State: 12:30: I’m looking for the Tarheels to break the Pack’s winning streak, 34-21.
#9 South Carolina @ #7 Arkansas: 7:15: The Razorbacks are just a different team at home, I like Arkansas all the way in this one, 31-17.
#14 Kansas State @ #3 Oklahoma State: 8:00: The Wildcats keep falling. Pokes big, 44-20.
#8 Oregon @ Washington: 10:30: Husky Stadium will be cranked up on Saturday night. The fans are ready for the upset, the Huskies aren’t, Ducks win 55-27.