Baton Rouge is the epicenter of college football’s Week 10 slate, as Alabama travels to Death Valley to take on LSU in a clash between two of the SEC’s top teams.
The Tigers are rejuvenated behind interim coach Ed Orgeron, winning their last three games and sporting an improved offense in the process. A win over Alabama would certainly help Orgeron’s case to keep the job on a permanent basis. The Crimson Tide enter Saturday night at No. 1 overall in the College Football Playoff rankings and on a mission to repeat as the national champion. This is a difficult road trip for Alabama, but this is the final away game for the Crimson Tide in 2016.
En route to an 8-0 record, Alabama has defeated Texas A&M (No. 4 in the playoff committee rankings) and won at Ole Miss, Arkansas and Tennessee. The Crimson Tide are still winning with one of the nation’s best – if not No. 1 – defense, but the real storyline has been the play of the offense behind freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. Alabama ranks second in the SEC in yards per play (6.8) and leads the conference in scoring (43.9).
As mentioned above, Orgeron has provided a spark for LSU since taking over the job on an interim basis after Les Miles was fired on Sept. 25. The Tigers are 3-0 under Orgeron’s watch and have opened up the offense to alleviate some of the pressure on the ground game and defense. However, Alabama is by far the toughest opponent LSU has faced under Orgeron’s watch. Beating Missouri, Southern Miss and Ole Miss (a great matchup for the Tigers) is one thing. However, Alabama – the No. 1 team in the nation – is a completely different test.
Alabama leads the all-time series 50-25-5 against LSU. The Crimson Tide have won the last four meetings against the Tigers and seven out of the last nine. Additionally, Alabama has claimed two in a row in matchups played in Baton Rouge.
Alabama at LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Leonard Fournette Against Alabama’s Defense
The battle in the trenches is going to play a huge role in the outcome of Saturday night’s game. In last year’s matchup, Alabama dominated LSU at the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide defense held Leonard Fournette to just 31 yards on 19 carries, and the Tigers averaged only 2.1 yards per rush. Fournette has been limited in 2016 due to injury but looked healthy in the win over Ole Miss, gashing the Rebels for 284 yards and three touchdowns on just 16 attempts. For the season, the junior has rushed for 670 yards and five touchdowns on 83 carries, averaging a healthy 8.1 yards per rush.
Will Fournette struggle to get on track once again versus the Crimson Tide? Alabama leads the SEC by limiting offenses to just 70.1 yards on the ground per game and a paltry 2.2 yards per rush. Additionally, the Crimson Tide have allowed only three rushing touchdowns in 2016. The front seven is the unquestioned strength of coach Nick Saban’s defense. End Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster are the headliners, with Tim Williams (6.5 sacks) and Ryan Anderson (4.5) bringing the pressure off the edge. A full two weeks to heal should help Fournette get back to 100 percent, and the LSU offensive line also benefitted from the time off with a couple of players dealing with injuries.
Fournette doesn’t need 100 yards against Alabama to be successful. However, the Tigers have to generate something out of their ground game to keep the Crimson Tide defense off balance. Will Alabama win the battle up front and force LSU to stay in third-and-long situations on a consistent basis? Or will the Tigers utilize their passing attack on early downs to open up the offense and reduce some of the pressure on the ground game? LSU isn’t going to have a ton of success on the ground, but Fournette and Derrius Guice have to get their share of opportunities and prevent the offense from staying in long-yardage situations.
2. LSU’s Passing Game
As mentioned in the previous section, LSU may need to utilize its passing game to take some of the pressure off of the ground attack and keep the offense out of third-and-long situations. Are the Tigers capable of doing so? The jury is still out on LSU’s offense under Orgeron. The Tigers have averaged at least 7.7 yards per play in each of Orgeron’s three games and threw for 276 yards in a win over Southern Miss. However, Alabama’s defense is a completely different animal for LSU to go against. The Crimson Tide uses the front seven to swarm the ground game and get after the quarterback (32 sacks). The secondary has been opportunistic (eight interceptions) but has been prone to giving up some yardage and big plays. Alabama’s defensive backfield isn’t as deep as it usually is, and this unit lost standout safety Eddie Jackson to a season-ending injury against Texas A&M on Oct. 22.
LSU quarterback Danny Etling has provided stability and more production since replacing Brandon Harris as the team’s starter. Etling is completing 60.5 percent of his passes and has connected on seven passes for scores on 147 attempts. The junior hasn’t been the starter for a full season, but Etling has connected on five throws of 40 yards or more. When Orgeron was promoted to head coach, he wanted to tweak the offense to be more aggressive and take a few shots downfield. So far, LSU is accomplishing that goal. However, finding time to throw and completing passes against Alabama will be the toughest assignment Etling has faced in 2016. Receivers Malachi Dupre, D.J. Chark, and Travin Dural should test the Alabama secondary, with Fournette and Guice also factoring into the gameplan out of the backfield.
Etling has helped this passing game take a step forward in recent weeks. Is he ready to deliver on a national stage against Alabama on Saturday night?
3. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
The Crimson Tide offense is often lost in the pregame hype for this matchup. After all, most of the attention is on Alabama’s defense against Leonard Fournette and the LSU offense. However, the Crimson Tide are no longer just a defensive juggernaut. Coordinator Lane Kiffin has pieced together a deadly attack that is more versatile and dangerous than any offense Nick Saban has coached in Tuscaloosa. Alabama is averaging 42.6 points and seven yards per play in SEC contests. The ground game has remained a staple for Kiffin and Saban, but it’s the play of quarterback Jalen Hurts taking the offense to the next level. Hurts – a true freshman – can be inconsistent as a passer or miss a few throws. However, he’s still having a outstanding season. Hurts has accumulated 1,578 yards and 12 scores through the air, while rushing for 521 yards and nine touchdowns. The freshman’s ability to make plays with his legs will be tested against a stout LSU defense, which ranks second in the SEC against the run and third in fewest points allowed per game.
Hurts hasn’t made a ton of mistakes (only five interceptions), but his mettle will be tested in Baton Rouge. The LSU defense is the best unit Hurts has faced this year, as this group holds offenses to just 4.5 yards per play. Additionally, LSU’s secondary has limited opponents to just four passing scores in 2016. Coordinator Dave Aranda was one of the nation’s best assistant coach hires for 2016, and under his watch this fall, the Tigers have allowed only one opponent to score more than 20 points (Ole Miss).
What should be expected of Aranda’s defense? Look for LSU to keep Hurts in the pocket, forcing the freshman to beat the defense with his arm. The Tigers would like to utilize a similar approach to Alabama’s defense: Force Alabama into obvious passing downs and contain the ground game.
The atmosphere on Saturday night in Death Valley is going to be electric. And with both teams coming off a bye week, Alabama and LSU are going to wage in another physical matchup with significant implications on the playoff and SEC title race. Combine the crowd and the players rallying around Orgeron, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see LSU jump out to an early lead. However, once the game settles in, that’s where Alabama will make its move. The Crimson Tide offense will eventually get on track in the second quarter with Hurts making a couple of runs to open up the passing game. Fournette and Guice may hit on a couple of runs, but Alabama’s defense puts the clamps on the ground game and Etling will struggle to consistently hit on enough passes to win. LSU has to find a way to get production out of its passing game, as well as win the turnover battle. The Tigers keep it close, but Alabama leaves Baton Rouge with a 9-0 record.