In an effort to get you better prepared for Saturday night’s prime-time matchup of No. 7 Alabama and No. 4 LSU, we’re spending every day this week breaking down a key factor in the game.
Today our writers look at the battle of LSU’s offensive line and running back Leonard Fournette vs. Alabama’s defensive front seven.
David Ching: There is a boatload of interesting matchups in this game, but this is my favorite. I think LSU quarterback Brandon Harris is the X-factor Saturday, but that opinion is contingent on Alabama slowing down Fournette and LSU’s running game -- which I expect to happen to some degree.
With a nasty defensive front and veteran group of linebackers, Alabama is allowing 2.6 yards-per-carry (third in the nation) and leads the FBS by having surrendered just 19 runs of 10 yards or more. They’ll go head-to-head with an LSU offensive line that ranks among the nation’s best, blocking for arguably the best player in the sport.
Fournette leads all Power 5 rushers in both yards-per-carry before contact (792 yards) and after contact (560), which speaks to his breakaway ability and to the quality blocking he’s been getting. But Fournette hasn’t had to run against a front seven as good as Alabama’s, which is what makes this matchup so fascinating.
A note to keep in mind on Saturday: LSU has had just one player rush for at least 100 yards against Alabama since Nick Saban’s 2007 arrival: Jeremy Hill with 107 yards in 2012.
Alex Scarborough: Great players play their best in big moments, which is why I give Fournette, a borderline transcendent player through this point in the season, a chance at overcoming what is the best front seven in all of college football, in my opinion.
You’re talking about eight quality defensive linemen, of which Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen could all be high draft picks next year. And that’s not to mention Reggie Ragland, who is in the conversation for the best linebacker in the country, or Reuben Foster, who is starting to really come into his own alongside Ragland at middle linebacker.
But it’s hard to overlook Fournette’s talent. Against a similarly spectacular defense in Florida, he ran for 180 yards and two touchdowns. If Alabama’s offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders, that kind of production could be the difference in the game.
Overall, though, I see the determining factor in the matchup being LSU’s offensive line. If they keep Alabama’s front seven out of the backfield, Fournette will do his thing. And, frankly, nothing I’ve seen to this point makes me believe they won’t hold up their end of the bargain. Not when Vadal Alexander is in at tackle and Ethan Pocic is holding down the fort at center. They get overshadowed by Fournette too often, but Alexander, Pocic and Co. are about as good as it gets , allowing the ninth-lowest percentage of rushes for zero or negative yards in the country (16.6) while simultaneously generating the seventh-most yards before contact (1,252).
The final verdict: We’re going to call this one a draw. Fournette will get his yards, but it would be a surprise if LSU can beat Alabama by relying almost exclusively on his running like it did in several early wins. The Tigers probably need to make at least a few big plays through the air to keep the heat off Fournette.