The stakes are high Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, as Alabamaand LSU meet for the third time in five years ranked as top-five teams. In the first release of the College Football Playoff Committee’s Top 25 rankings, the Crimson Tide checked in at No. 4, while the Tigers ranked No. 2. Considering the 2015 rankings, recent history between these two teams, SEC, Heisman and national title implications on the line, this matchup between Alabama and LSU is one of the most important (and must-see) games of the 2015 season.
Although this meeting between SEC goliaths is critical in the conference and national title landscape, both teams still have work to do in order to finish in the top four. Alabama ranked as the top one-loss team in Tuesday night’s release, but the Crimson Tide do not control their own destiny in the West Division. Ole Miss defeated Alabama 43-37 in September and has the inside track to win the West Division. LSU still has to play the Rebels, Arkansas and Texas A&M in November. And of course, there’s the SEC Championship in December. While this game is important, neither team can afford to see this matchup as the final statement before the playoff games.
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There’s also another storyline in play on Saturday night. LSU running back Leonard Fournette is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy with five weeks of games remaining. If Fournette has a huge outing against one of the top defenses in the nation, how much of a cushion would that provide him in the Heisman race?
Alabama has a three-game winning streak against LSU and three out of the last four matchups were decided by a touchdown or less. Alabama also leads the all-time series at 49-25-5. Additionally, these two teams have set the standard in the SEC in recent years. Four out of the last six SEC titles have been claimed by Alabama or LSU.
LSU at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette and the Matchup in the Trenches
It’s unlikely Alabama’s Derrick Henry and LSU’s Leonard Fournette are on the field at the same time on Saturday night, but this is easily one of the most-hyped battles between two running backs in recent years. Henry and Fournette are two of the most physically gifted players in the nation and take the top two spots in the SEC in rushing yards per game. Fournette averages 193.1 per contest and has scored 15 times on the ground, while Henry ranks second at 130.5 per game. While both players are two of the nation’s best in terms of raw talent, the success for both starts up front in the trenches. LSU’s offensive line is one of the best in the nation, headlined by standout tackles Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins. This unit has cleared the way for LSU rushers to average 6.7 yards per carry and allowed only eight sacks through seven contests. Alabama’s front five isn’t as strong, but this group isn’t far behind. The Crimson Tide average 4.5 yards per rush and allowed 13 sacks in eight contests. Left tackle Cam Robinson has been dealing with a knee injury for part of the season and has not performed up to preseason expectations. The bye week before this game should help Robinson recover, but right tackle Dominick Jackson is dealing with a high ankle sprain. It’s no secret both offenses rely on the run to setup the pass. But how much running room can the Tigers and Crimson Tide find on Saturday night? LSU is No. 2 in the SEC against the run (93.7 yards per game), while Alabama is No. 1 (78.5 yards per game). Which team wins the battle in the trenches is likely to emerge as the winner on Saturday night.
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2. Quarterback Play
As we mentioned in the previous section, both teams prefer to use the run to setup the pass. While winning the battle in the trenches and gaining yardage on the ground is critical, both quarterbacks have to make plays on Saturday night. With the depth and talent in the trenches, it’s difficult to envision a team imposing its will over another up front on Saturday night. If that holds true, then making plays on first down to get into manageable second or third-down situations, as well as making timely plays is critical. Which quarterback steps up on Saturday night? LSU’s Brandon Harris is averaging only 156.9 yards per game, but the sophomore seems to be getting better with each snap. Additionally, Harris does not have an interception this season and has connected on eight plays of 40 yards or more (tied for second in the SEC). Alabama’s Jake Coker has attempted 96 more passes than Harris this year but has tossed seven picks and does not have a touchdown in his last two games. But Coker has completed at least 68.8 percent of his throws in each of the last four contests and made several clutch throws against Tennessee. In addition to the quarterbacks, both teams need their receivers to get separation against talented defensive backfields. True freshman Calvin Ridley is Alabama’s go-to option (45 catches), while LSU counters with two deep threats in Malachi Dupre (18.9 ypc) and Travin Dural (17.8 ypc).
3. Special Teams
History and the Vegas line suggest the margin of victory will be around a touchdown or less. With that in mind, the small things – turnovers, special teams and third down/red zone conversions – should be play a huge role in the outcome. But the special teams are especially worth noting, as Alabama kicker Adam Griffith has connected on four straight attempts after missing two against Arkansas. Griffith is just 10 of 16 for the season. LSU kicker Trent Domingue has made all nine attempts so far in 2015. Considering the strength on defense for both teams and the limited possessions (both teams over 32 minutes in time of possession), every scoring opportunity must be capitalized. Punts and field position are two under-the-radar areas to watch, as LSU’s Jamie Keehn averages 39.7 yards per punt, while Alabama’s JK Scott 43.3 per kick in 2015.
Points will be at a premium on Saturday night. No, we aren’t expecting a repeat of the 9-6 defensive slugfest from 2011, but it’s hard to envision one team scoring more than 27-30 points (barring overtime). Expect the defenses and ground attacks to control the flow of the game. However, both offenses need plays from their quarterbacks. Can Brandon Harris continue to deliver big plays and no mistakes? Or will Jake Coker pickup where he left off against Tennessee? The guess here is Fournette and Henry are slowed a bit by the defenses, while Coker connects with Calvin Ridley on a couple of clutch plays in the second half to give Alabama just enough for the victory. One stat to keep an eye on: Turnovers. The Crimson Tide have forced 17 this year, while the Tigers have forced nine. In a close game, small things like field position, field goals and turnovers add up. LSU has the necessary ingredients to win on the road, but Alabama wins this one in the fourth quarter.