I got started on this little project a day later than I planned, so in order to cover everything I want to, we're doing this grab bag style today. We'll start off talking Special Teams, which I think are going to be huge in this game but also understand that no one wants to waste time talking about, and then move on to a random mix of matchups that will tip the scales one way or another on Saturday.
Special Teams: I think the biggest disparity between LSU and Alabama is right here on special teams. In terms of kick and punt coverage, they're both very good. Bama freshmen/special teams warriors Vinnie Sunseri and Trey DePriest have even developed something of a cult of personality this season. Place-kicking has been more or less comparable, with neither actually needing to kick too many field goals nor kick from too far away. And both teams field quality return men in Marquis Maze and Mo Claiborne & Tyrann Mathieu.
But then it gets lopsided in LSU's favor in a hurry. The Tigers' Aussie Brad Wing has been one of the top punters in the nation to this point. He gets good distance (leads the SEC) and is fantastically accurate in where he places the ball. He's so good, LSU's opponents are average less than a yard per return. He buries opposing offenses with awful field position. On Bama's end of things, Cody Mandell has been dreadful, averaging less than 40 yards per punt. The one good thing about his weak, erratic leg is that he rarely out kicks the coverage, so opponents get few quality return opportunities. But, man, he concedes a lot of field position. If Bama finds itself in one of those games where they're punting back and forth (a definite possibility in this game), that's not a game they can win.
By far the most frustrating thing for Bama fans this season has been Cade Foster's agonizingly short kickoffs. Foster had a legendary leg in high school, but it has yet to show up in Tuscaloosa. Of Alabama's 60 kickoffs this year, only 2 have been touchbacks. I shouldn't have to do the math for anyone, but I'll go ahead and say it: that's 1 every 30 kickoffs, surely one of the worst ratios in the country. By comparison, LSU has 8 touchbacks on 59 kickoffs, roughly 1 every 7.5 times. At this point, it's cause for celebration if he gets the ball inside the 5-yard line. Now, as I mentioned above, the Tide's kick coverage team has done a very solid job making up for the sorry kicks, but when you're kicking to a guy like Claiborne, you want to be putting the ball in the endzone as much as possible. One guy misses a tackle or gets out of his lane and it's a big play waiting to happen.
Okay, no more talk about special teams from this point forward. Promise.
Alabama Center William Vlachos vs. LSU's Defensive Tackles: Vlachos is perhaps the most decorated center in college football right now. Even at an unlikely 6', 300lbs, he has made regular appearances on nearly every All-Whatever team since taking over at that spot in 2009. But he didn't play well against LSU last year. Blame it on a nagging foot injury if you want, but the bottom line is he couldn't handle the athleticism of the Tigers' interior line. A particularly egregious whiff on Drake Nevis late in the game resulted in a strip sack that led to LSU scoring what turned out to be the winning field goal. If he plays that poorly this year, LSU wins again. Period. Alabama can't do what they do if they can't control the middle of the field. If he plays up to his usual standard, well, we've got a game.
LSU Receiver Rueben Randle vs. Alabama's Cornerbacks: While much has been made of Les Miles' daring 4th down calls against Alabama last year, I think Randle was the real difference in the game. He made 3 huge plays: a 70+ yard TD catch, a critical 2-point conversion to make it 21-14 LSU, and a big 3rd-and-long conversion that killed Bama's last, best chance to get back on the field and tie the game. It was sort of his "coming out" game, and this season, he has blossomed into the player everyone thought he would be when they were comparing him to Julio Jones coming out of high school. With his length and speed, he's a matchup problem for every corner in the country, even the Tide's crew, who are a big, physical bunch in their own right.
Most of the talk on this front will focus on Randle vs. 6'3" stud Dre Kirkpatrick, and they'll go one-on-one quite a bit. But with the way Alabama sets its defense, he'll likely spend just as much time matched up with DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner. As a Bama fan, the thing that most concerns me about Randle in this game is his nose for getting behind the defense. Of his 7 TDs on the year, at least 4 of those that I've seen have been the result of Randle blowing past the corner and getting either completely behind the defense or getting into that deep void between the safety and the sideline. Those plays were essentially over within a second. The Tide can NOT afford to make it that easy for him.
But unfortunately, we do have empirical evidence of Bama's corners doing just that, making it easy. Dre Kirkpatrick turned Andre Debose loose for a long TD pass on the first play from scrimmage against Florida. Two games later, a mix-up between Dee Milliner and Mark Barron led to Nicholas Brassel running free down to the 1-yard line in Oxford. Defending Randle will be hard enough without mistakes likes those. Bama's corners must play him physical at the line and be assignment sound on every down, or he's a threat to score. Bama can't make it that easy for him if they hope to win this game.
Alabama Defensive Lineman Jesse Williams vs. The LSU Offensive Line: Nobody is talking about this one, but it's something I'm concerned about. The Australian import Williams is an immense physical specimen who's only begun to scratch the surface of his potential due to his limited experience playing high-level competitive football. His inexperience was on display earlier in the season as he struggled to pick up the speed of the game, but he made notable strides in October once he got comfortable. But he's never been on the field against anything like LSU's offensive line. If the leap up in competition against the likes of Penn State threw him off his game, I can only wonder how he'll handle those monsters from LSU.
Bama defensive lineman don't typically generate big statistical numbers (barring the rare case like Marcel Dareus, and even his numbers were never as big as his reputation), but they play a crucial role in sponging up offensive linemen and keeping them from getting to the second level. If Williams finds himself over his skis on Saturday, it's going to be difficult for Alabama to stop LSU's violent downhill running game. And if you can't stop LSU from running (much like if you can't stop Alabama from running), you can't beat them. I bet LSU tests Williams' side of the ball early.
LSU's Fullbacks vs. Alabama's Linebackers: Speaking of LSU's downhill running game...Assuming Bama has success stoning LSU's offensive line, there's still a whole next level you have to deal with before you get to the back: their massive, hard-hitting fullbacks. Earlier in the season, I remember Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz saying of BYU's fullbacks something to the effect of, "They wan to block your soul." These LSU guys are cut from the same cloth. They're just nasty. And JC Copeland is big enough to play guard in Conference USA.
Fortunately, Alabama features monstrous linebackers in the middle like the 260lb Dont'a Hightower and 250lb Nico Johnson. They're built to shrug off offensive lineman, let alone fullbacks. What happens when Hightower meets Copeland in the hole is going to have a big impact on the outcome of the game.
Tomorrow: Unsolicited Advice!