The 2017 version of Alabama-LSU doesn’t have the hype of some of the previous matchups, but there is still plenty at stake in Saturday night’s showdown in Tuscaloosa. Just how important has this matchup been in recent years? Since 2007, every matchup between the Tigers and Crimson Tide featured both teams ranked inside of the top 25. The 2017 season will be no different, as Alabama checked in at No. 2 in the CFB Playoff poll and LSU ranked No. 19.
If LSU had its pick, the CFB Playoff rankings would have been released after Saturday’s game in Tuscaloosa. That’s largely because Alabama ranked No. 2 behind Georgia, providing plenty of motivation for Nick Saban’s team. While LSU has a tough assignment against the Crimson Tide, coach Ed Orgeron’s team is headed in the right direction after a sluggish start. The Tigers beat BYU and Chattanooga to start 2-0 but was dominated 37-7 in a road loss at Mississippi State. After a win against Syracuse, LSU suffered a disappointing 24-21 loss to Troy in Baton Rouge. While the defeat caused the temperature under Orgeron to heat up, the loss forced the team to evaluate and the coaching staff to get on the same page. Since that game, LSU is 3-0 and staged a second-half rally to defeat Auburn 27-23.
Alabama hasn’t faced the toughest slate so far this season, but Nick Saban’s team has rolled to an 8-0 start. The Crimson Tide defeated Florida State 24-7 in the opener and dominated Fresno State and Colorado State by a combined score of 82-33 in the next two weeks. In SEC play, Alabama easily handled Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Tennessee and defeated Texas A&M 27-19. While the No. 2 ranking will be used as motivation for Saban, the Crimson Tide won’t have trouble taking over the top spot with their November slate. Alabama takes on LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn in SEC play – all three ranked opponents - and has a looming showdown with Georgia in the SEC Championship (if it wins out).
Alabama owns a 51-25-5 series edge against LSU. The Crimson Tide have won five in a row and eight out of the last 10 versus the Tigers.
LSU at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama - 21
Three Things to Watch
1. LSU’s Offense
A big selling point of Ed Orgeron taking over as head coach was the ability of LSU to go out and hire a big-time offensive coordinator. Under former coach Les Miles, the Tigers lagged in producing passing attacks capable of helping topple Alabama in the SEC West. While one game isn’t going to prove anything for Orgeron and coordinator Matt Canada, this is a good showcase opportunity.
Under Canada’s direction, LSU is averaging 6.2 yards per play in SEC games and is coming off its best effort on the scoreboard in conference action (40 points) against Ole Miss. Canada’s philosophy is to utilize the entire field by incorporating motions and shifts to create favorable matchups. And his offense seems to be taking hold over the last couple of games, especially when it comes to establishing the run.
Running back Derrius Guice was less than 100 percent for most of the season but gashed the Rebels for 276 yards on 22 attempts. With a bye week since that performance, Guice should be close to full strength for the first time since early September. However, it’s no secret the rushing attack will find limited room against Alabama’s defensive front. The Crimson Tide rank first in the SEC against the run and limit opponents to just 2.3 yards per carry. In the last two meetings between these two teams, LSU has managed less than 100 rushing yards in both games. As if those odds weren’t enough to overcome, the Tigers won’t have left tackle K.J. Malone due to injury
Guice and the rushing attack is the strength of this offense, but in order for LSU to knock off Alabama, the passing game has to find success. Look for Canada to utilize the motions and shifts to create matchups with Guice and the other running backs in the passing attack, but a receiver or two will have to make plays downfield. Quarterback Danny Etling has passed for 1,452 yards and nine scores this year and has back-to-back efforts of more than 200 yards. Of Etling’s nine completions against Ole Miss, zero went to a receiver. LSU won’t win if that happens again versus Alabama.
LSU’s offense with its limited playmakers on the outside and a passing game still in development figures to have its hands full all night against an Alabama defense holding opponents to just 9.8 points a game. Can Canada create enough mismatches to keep the chains moving?
2. Alabama’s Rushing Attack
New play-caller Brian Daboll wasn’t going to reinvent the wheel when he was hired to replace Lane Kiffin. While Daboll has made a few tweaks, one constant remains: Alabama’s rushing attack.
Alabama leads the SEC with an average of 298.8 rushing yards per game and averages a healthy 6.3 yards per rush. The Crimson Tide are led by Damien Harris (697 yards) and Bo Scarbrough (377) at running back, but there’s no shortage of depth with freshmen Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, along with sophomore Josh Jacobs. Quarterback Jalen Hurts (572 rushing yards) is also another factor LSU’s defense will have to account for on the ground.
In addition to the sheer volume this group churns out, Alabama is also adept at generating big plays on the ground. The Crimson Tide have six rushes of 40 yards or more and two of 70 yards or more. The running backs get the attention here, but Alabama’s offensive line is as good as any in college football. LSU’s defensive front is giving up 145.8 yards per game on the ground but gave up less than 200 yards to Auburn (189) and held Ole Miss to 153. Coordinator Dave Aranda’s depth chart for LSU’s defense is filled with underclassmen, and top pass rusher Arden Key was limited due to injury earlier this year.
Stopping Alabama’s ground game is going to be a tough assignment. However, LSU needs to prevent Harris, Scarbrough and Hurts from hitting on big plays and force this trio into small gains to get into obvious passing downs.
3. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts Against LSU’s Secondary
Alabama sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts has been under the microscope this season. While Hurts was the SEC’s top freshman in 2016 and one of the league’s top quarterbacks, his development as a passer could be the difference between another runner-up finish or national championship trophy.
However, since Alabama has been in so many blowouts, it’s hard to gauge just where Hurts is in his development. From the eye test, Hurts looks more comfortable and seems to be taking a step forward. The stat sheet seems to back that up as well, as Hurts is completing 62.9 percent of his throws and has 1,223 yards and nine scores on 151 attempts.
Even though Hurts seems to be more comfortable, what will happen with the passing game in a close contest? Hurts likes to lock on to No. 1 receiver Calvin Ridley (41 catches). Can LSU’s secondary take away Ridley and force the secondary targets to win one-on-one battles? The Tigers feature a couple of freshmen – safety Grant Delpit and cornerback Greedy Williams – in starting roles, but the standout performer of this group remains junior Donte Jackson. LSU ranks third in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only five passing scores all season.
Is Hurts an improved passer and how will this attack perform against a standout defense? We should have some answers by Saturday night.
As we mentioned earlier, Alabama isn’t going to be hurting for motivation. Additionally, with two weeks to organize, Saban and his staff will have this team prepared on both sides of the ball. LSU’s defense has the personnel and talent to keep this one close for a half. The Tigers’ pass rush and secondary should keep Hurts in check and create a few problems around the line of scrimmage. However, keeping Alabama’s offense in check for all four quarters will be tough. The Crimson Tide simply have too much talent and will eventually break through in the second half. And even if Alabama’s offense is slowed early on, it’s hard to envision LSU’s attack doing enough to pressure the Crimson Tide defense. Alabama rolls to a 9-0 start.