Alabama-LSU: Derrick Henry, injury-riddled O-line face major test from LSU

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 Alabama’s offensive line and Derrick Henry versus LSU’s front seven.

David Ching: LSU handled this matchup well last season when Alabama had the superior offensive line and running backs. The Crimson Tide ran 29 times for just 106 yards -- its second-lowest rushing output of the season -- and Henry (eight carries for 24 yards) was a non-factor.

Of course that will have zero impact on what happens Saturday, but it does show that the Tigers are capable of handling Henry and Alabama up front. Defensive tackles Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux are both back after solidifying the center of the line against Alabama last season, although LaCouture’s health is a question mark after he sat out LSU’s last game against Western Kentucky. Linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Deion Jones -- both named this week as Butkus Award semifinalists -- will also be key performers as LSU attempts to stop the run.

It won’t be easy, though. Sure, Alabama’s offensive line has been banged up lately, but Henry has been the centerpiece of the Tide’s offense in recent weeks. He carried the ball at least 26 times in each of the last four games and rushed for 143 yards or more in three of those contests. LSU’s defense -- ranked sixth nationally by allowing 93.7 rushing yards per game -- has defended the run well all year, but it hasn’t faced a back of Henry’s quality.

Alex Scarborough: Oh, you thought the SEC was Leonard Fournette and a faceless supporting cast? Not so. There are running backs in this league that don’t wear the No. 7, and Alabama has a good one.

Henry may not be getting the same type of Heisman attention as Fournette, but he deserves to be in the conversation. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he’s a physical, bruising runner with the speed to make defenses pay when he gets to the second level. He’s already up to 1,044 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns -- and it’s only November.

But here’s the catch, we don’t know how well Alabama’s offensive line will perform. They’ve been awfully inconsistent this season. Cam Robinson’s been banged up and Ryan Kelly missed a game with a concussion. Instead of dominating the line of scrimmage, they’ve surrendered the fifth-most rushes for zero or negative yards in the country (79).

Those negative plays have resulted in a third-down offense that’s mediocre at best, converting only one-third of the time -- a success rate that ranks 110th in FBS.

If the line doesn’t clean up its act and give Henry some running lanes, it could be a long night.

The final verdict: We’ll call this one a draw. Alabama typically runs the ball well and LSU typically defends it well, and both teams have plentiful future NFL talent at their disposal. This could be one of the game’s deciding matchups as it looks so even on paper. Injury questions on both sides make predicting who has the edge even more difficult than it would have been otherwise.