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Alabama-LSU: Healthier secondary could give Tigers defensive edge

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, we look at the battle between Alabama’s passing game and LSU’s secondary.

David Ching: In terms of experience and talent, this seems like a matchup that would favor LSU, which boasts one of the top collections of defensive back talent in the country.

We’re operating under the assumption that four-year starter Jalen Mills and three-year starter Tre’Davious White will both be good to go for the Tigers. Safety and nickelback Mills -- the key communicator in LSU’s secondary -- said Monday that he is healthy after foot surgery and a calf injury prevented him from playing much in the first half of the season. After Monday’s practice, White was out of the bulky knee brace he was wearing last week, and LSU coach Les Miles said he expects White, whom ESPN’s Todd McShay recently listed as the nation’s No. 3 draft-eligible defensive back prospect, to be available Saturday.

Their presences would bolster a secondary that has had a few too many coverage busts. Overall, opponents haven’t connected on many long passes, but when they have, there have been massive failures. Led by freshman Calvin Ridley (45 catches, 525 yards, three TDs), Alabama has a few pass catchers who can exploit LSU’s coverage breakdowns if the Tigers fail to clean up their act. But with guys like Mills, White, safety Jamal Adams and freshman cornerback Kevin Toliver on LSU’s sideline, the Tigers have to like their chances.

Alex Scarborough: Yes, LSU’s pass defense hasn’t been great this season, ranked ninth in the SEC for allowing an average of 222.1 passing yards per game. But that’s only one way of looking at things. I’m choosing to look at it from a pure matchup and location standpoint.

What does Alabama like to do offensively? Run the football, work off play-action and throw the ball deep. And in that respect, LSU’s secondary is actually pretty good, allowing the fewest completions of 20 or more yards (16) in the SEC.

What’s more, Alabama’s O-line is shaky and QB Jake Coker holds onto the football too long at times. And with 18 sacks and a pressure rate of 26.1 percent (when the QB is sacked, under duress or hit), LSU has a track record to make you believe it could force Coker into bad decisions, where he could add to his already high total of seven interceptions.

Finally, there’s the home-road splits, which paint a bad picture of the Alabama passing game in Bryant-Denny Stadium. On the road and at neutral cites, Alabama has the No. 1 pass efficiency in the SEC at 154.8 with a completion rate of 74.3 percent and no interceptions. But at home, Alabama is 12th in the league in pass efficiency (125.3) with a completion rate more than 10 points lower at 62.4 percent and nine interceptions.

The final verdict: Neither LSU’s secondary nor its pass rush is perfect, but the Tigers will be able to do enough to stifle Alabama’s passing game, which has struggled mightily at home. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin needs to manufacture another LSU coverage breakdown or two if the Tide is to win this matchup.