When LSU and Alabama hook up on CBS at 3:30 p.m. EST Saturday, it will be the last important game on the SEC football schedule. Rivalries aside, this one has SEC Championship Game (not to mention BCS Championship Game) implications. Blogcritics’ Jay Skipworth and Josh Hathaway present cases for both teams and offer their picks for the big game.
Jay Skipworth's Three Reasons LSU will win:
1) Red Zone Defense
It’s one thing to give up yards to opposing teams and it’s another to limit scoring opportunities when teams are in the red zone. LSU leads the SEC (tied with Arkansas) in red zone defense. Opposing teams have only mustered 14 scores (eight TDs, 6 FGs) against 21 opportunities. Alabama has struggled in the red zone in recent games and the way LSU shuts down teams in position does not bode well for the Crimson Tide’s chances of cashing in on the Tigers.
2) LSU’s Defensive Backs
The LSU DBs are big, rangy and good enough to go man on man with Alabama's receiving corps. That can create opportunities for the front seven to apply pressure and stack up against the run game that powers Alabama’s rather one-sided offensive strategy. The DBs have garnered nine of the team’s 11 interceptions. Only one of these players is less than six feet tall and they play an aggressive style. If Alabama wants to establish balance sorely missing throughout the middle of the season, they are in for a tall order against the LSU defensive backfield.
3) Jordan Jefferson
He is not a Heisman quarterback, but he does something every coach wants in a signal caller – he protects the ball. Jefferson's completion percentage rests around 63% and his 11/4 TD/INT ratio ranks LSU in the top 5 of the SEC in categories of passing efficiency. That permeates throughout the offense. Through eight games, LSU has only turned the ball over seven times. Jefferson can get the ball down the field– average yards per pass attempt is just over seven yards – utilizing two big playmakers at wide receiver who have speed and size to work against multiple defensive looks. Jefferson’s mobility should not be overlooked either. He’s not a Tim Tebow (Florida) or a Josh Nesbitt (Georgia Tech), but he make plays with his feet. More importantly, he can roll away from pressure and make throws on the run or outside of the pocket. That’s a great weapon to have when you are facing a team that likes to blitz.
Rebuttal by Josh Hathaway:
Jay brings up good points. LSU has been stingy in the red zone and they are the #4 rush defense in the conference; you don't come by yards or points easily against them. LSU has speed and physical play in their secondary, and that poses problems for a Tide passing attack that has been suspect for the past month.
The difference in this game remains this: LSU has not consistently moved the ball on anyone except Auburn, and Alabama is not the defense to get well against. Ryan Mallett of Arkansas and Jevan Snead, two highly touted quarterbacks coming into the season got dumptrucked by the Tide defense.
Mallett has lit up SEC defenses, but did nothing in Tuscaloosa. Jordan Jefferson is a good athlete. So was Tyrod Taylor of Virginia Tech. How did that work out for the Hokies? The Bama offense isn't pretty, but it is effective enough when paired with their defense. LSU has talent and still
has a chance to represent the SEC West in the SEC Championship in Atlanta against Florida, who has already clinched. They do present problems and could win this game, but the path to victory is straighter and clearer for Alabama than it is for LSU.
Three reasons Alabama should win by Josh Hathaway:
1) Alabama's Defense vs LSU's Offense
Football games aren't decided by statistics but they do help us understand why things are happening and are a good tool in predicting future results. Two months of the season have produced some trends that should give Alabama fans a reason to feel good despite a shaky performance the last time they watched their team.
Alabama is #2 in scoring defense and total defense, trailing only Florida in the SEC. They are tied for the league lead in sacks and are fourth in interceptions. LSU has the #10 rushing offense and #9 passing offense. There's no reason to think LSU is going to put enough points on the board to win this game. Did you watch LSU against Florida, the #1 defense in the conference, statistically? Nick Saban has. Bet that. LSU could do nothing with the ball. The Tiger defense is respectable, but they eventually yielded to Florida's relentless rushing attack and the Gators scored enough to win.
LSU never threatened the end zone in that game. Even if Alabama doesn't find their passing game, it doesn't take much imagination to think the Tide could follow the Gator gameplan and find similar results.
Alabama is coming off a bye week following their close — some would say lucky — win over hated Tennessee. You can say a lot of things about Nick Saban and they aren't all nice. If you're being intellectually honest, you have to concede he's one of the very best coaches in college football. Even if we set aside the lack of regard I have for Les Miles as a coach, giving Nick Saban two weeks to prepare for the biggest game (in terms of national spotlight) remaining on the schedule is a huge advantage for the Crimson Tide.
Alabama has a coaching advantage against nearly every team they will face on a weekly basis, and that's an advantage worth every dollar the university is paying for it. The Tide will be physically and mentally rested and there is every reason to think they will be impeccably prepared for this game.
3) Alabama Offense
Recent trends notwithstanding, they just aren't as bad as you think. The Tide is #4 is scoring offense and total offense. They're also #4 in rushing offense on the strength Mark Ingram Jr., the Tide's first legitimate Heisman candidate in a decade or more. What's wrong with the Tide offense is something that can be corrected. The pieces are there.
This is a fundamentally solid, balanced offense. Quality SEC defenses, inexperience at the QB position, and some peculiar playcalling have caused the offense to stall the last few weeks. If the Tide doesn't get these things fixed, they are still good enough on defense and do enough offensively to win. If they fix any of the trouble spots frustrating them, this team is a minimum of 10 points better than anyone they are going to play.
Rebuttal by Jay Skipworth:
There’s not arguing that Alabama’s defense is top notch and will be a formidable test for LSU. I would posit this LSU team, the offensive side of the ball, is playing very differently from the first of the season. The team that thwacked Auburn and Tulane is playing much more balanced football than its earlier incarnation and I’d argue Alabama has faced only one team with a real offense – Arkansas – and that team hadn’t hit its stride when it faced the Tide.
As far as coaching goes, I won’t argue that Saban is a master tactician and a workaholic when it comes to dissecting teams. Les Miles gets labeled as “crazy” by rival fans because he is unconventional and his gambles pay off more often than backfire. Say what you will, but LSU’s staff is no bunch of slouches by any stretch.
The Alabama offense is not special. The running game features a better than average line with a fantastic running back (Mark Ingram). The passing game features highly touted players who, for whatever reason, have failed to produce consistently. Against most teams that may not matter, but I think they’ll need it against the LSU defense who will sell out to limit that run game the way Tennessee did two weeks ago. Bye week or not, some things don’t get fixed in a couple of weeks in the season.
Jay Skipworth: Alabama 19, LSU 14
In the end, I do believe the LSU offense will be set up by some plays in the return game (Alabama’s weakness). However, Alabama’s defense won’t give up much even in bad position and the Crimson Tide running game can wear out the LSU defense enough to set up field goals and at least one score. LSU is not a bad team, but Alabama has been the most consistent team in the conference and this weekend, they’ll show everyone why that’s still true.
Josh Hathaway: Alabama 20, LSU 9
The placekickers are going to need massages because there will be many more field goals than touchdowns. We watch sports for the exceptions to the rule, but the better team usually wins.