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LSU-Alabama: Special teams biggest question mark for Tigers, Tide

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Clark picks LSU to win over Alabama (1:52)

ESPN's Ryan Clark shares why he believes LSU will go into Alabama and defeat the Crimson Tide 24-20. (1:52)

In an effort to get you better prepared for Saturday night’s prime-time matchup between No. 4 Alabama and No. 2 LSU, we’re spending every day this week breaking down a key factor in the game.

In today’s final piece, our writers look at the intangibles that could decide the outcome.

Alex Scarborough: This is going to be a game of hidden yardage and missed opportunities. So pay close attention to special teams, where both of these teams have struggled.

On one hand, I think Alabama will be fine in the punt and kickoff areas. But in terms of field goals, I still worry about the leg of Adam Griffith. He has been perfect in his past two outings (4-for-4), but he’s 1-for-4 on attempts of more than 40 yards this season. LSU’s Trent Domingue, on the other hand, is a perfect 2-for-2 from 40 or more and 3-for-3 from 30-39 yards out.

If the defenses play well and the game is played between the 30s and not the red zone, that could come into play.

Other than special teams, my X-factor for this game is Tide tight end O.J. Howard. While he hasn’t set the world on fire this season, he has quietly set a career high for catches with 26. The problem is he has no touchdowns, and that needs to change soon if Alabama’s offense is going to thrive.

If the offensive line struggles and LSU’s defense can pressure quarterback Jake Coker, Howard could become an important passing outlet. If he can be a safety blanket for Coker, pick up some yards after the catch and show up in the red zone, LSU could be in trouble.

David Ching: I absolutely agree with you about special teams, Alex. We know so much about what these teams can do on offense and defense, but the kicking game is a total wild card.

LSU already has surrendered a kickoff return and a punt return for a touchdown this season. The Tigers are 119th in the nation in net punting (33.06 yards per kick). And overall, they haven’t done a heck of a lot in the return game aside from a Tre’Davious White punt return for a touchdown against Syracuse.

I’ll be interested to see whether the Tigers let speedy freshman Donte Jackson remain as the punt returner even if White returns from injury this week. Jackson had a long return called back on a penalty in LSU’s game against Western Kentucky, and he looks like he could add an explosive element to the return game.

As far as an LSU X-factor, I’m sticking with quarterback Brandon Harris’ need to stretch the field with at least a couple of long completions. Alabama understandably will key in on Leonard Fournette and the running game just as the Crimson Tide did against Georgia with Nick Chubb.

In that game, Georgia tried to attack Alabama defensive back Marlon Humphrey early with star receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- although the Bulldogs were mostly unsuccessful despite Mitchell’s beating Humphrey down the field. Once the Tide shifted Cyrus Jones exclusively onto Mitchell and neutralized his playmaking ability, Georgia didn’t find a consistent second receiving option.

The difference here is that LSU has at least two receivers with big-play potential: Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre. The Tigers also have a quarterback who is much better equipped to exploit coverage breakdowns than was Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert.

There’s a huge difference between having the potential to do it and actually executing once the lights are on and the crowd is watching, however. If Harris and his wideouts can effectively complement Fournette’s rushing production, LSU has to like its chances Saturday.