With No. 5 Alabama (7-1, 4-1) preparing to visit No. 16 LSU (7-2, 3-2), LSU writer David Ching and Alabama writer Alex Scarborough take a look at some key factors in Saturday’s game.
LSU stats to watch
506 rushing yards by QBs: Only five FBS teams have surrendered more rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks than LSU. That is not a particularly encouraging sign against Alabama and Blake Sims.
The converted running back has performed well in his first season as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, but he still possesses the ability to break long runs. Sims accelerated for a 28-yard touchdown run in Alabama’s last game against Tennessee and broke a 43-yard touchdown run the previous week against Texas A&M.
LSU has done a better job defending the quarterback run since Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, New Mexico State’s Andrew Allen and Auburn’s Nick Marshall all broke the 100-yard mark in consecutive weeks against the Tigers. If the Tigers can limit Sims’ running opportunities, they will likely give themselves a much better chance of slowing down Alabama’s offense.
50 rushing attempts: Les Miles insists the Tigers want to be balanced on offense, but the numbers prove otherwise. LSU is unquestionably a run-first offense, having kept the ball on the ground 69.4 percent of the time this season.
LSU’s rushing totals will almost certainly indicate whether the Tigers are competitive in this game. During their three-game winning streak, the Tigers ran at least 50 times for at least 195 yards in each game. They’re coming off a win over Ole Miss where they ran 55 times for 264 yards -- and that’s the blueprint for success for LSU.
If they eclipse the 50-carry, 200-yard mark on the ground, things will be going according to plan for the Tigers. If they fall behind like they did against Mississippi State and Auburn -- when they ran 35 and 36 times, respectively -- they’ll have to pass more often. The next time they win by leaning heavily on the pass will be the first time they’ve done so in 2014.
Alabama stats to watch
49 percent: Can Sims spread the ball around? That’s the chief question facing Alabama.
So far, Amari Cooper has been responsible for a whopping 49 percent of the Crimson Tide’s total receiving yards this season, which happens to be the highest percentage in all of college football.
While he’s explosive, leading the country in receptions of 20-plus yards, there has to be more to the passing game than him. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis will do everything he can to make sure Cooper doesn’t beat him. That means Sims getting guys such as Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and O.J. Howard involved. If he can’t make the offense more dynamic, LSU will make him pay.
2.71 yards per carry: With space eaters A'Shawn Robinson and Brandon Ivory on the defensive line and big-bodied Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland at linebacker, Alabama is built to stop the run. In fact, the defense ranks first in the SEC and fifth nationally in yards per rush allowed (2.71).
To take it one step further, Alabama has allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns (two) in the country. Against an Arkansas rushing offense that’s similar to LSU’s, the Crimson Tide held Jonathan Williams to less than 100 yards and Alex Collins to a grand total of 13 yards on six carries.
While LSU’s offensive line is arguably better than Arkansas’, that’s a sign Alabama’s defense will be able to handle Leonard Fournette and Tiger rushing attack
Why LSU pulls the upset
David Ching: The Tigers’ 10-7 win over Ole Miss essentially provided the blueprint for how LSU can win this game: Keep the chains moving with a power running game, play tough defense, avoid major mistakes. That last part was nearly the Tigers’ undoing -- they turned it over four times and missed a short field goal, which was the only reason the score was so close -- and they probably can’t beat Alabama with a minus-three turnover margin. But if that trademark Les Miles game plan is working on Saturday night, this is a game that the Tigers can win.
Alex Scarborough: There’s something about Death Valley at night. Since 2010, LSU is 21-2 in home games that start at 4 p.m. or later. The crowd starts rocking. Sometimes the fog rolls in. The environment plays tricks on you, and I think Alabama will succumb to the pressure. The offensive line will commit a few ill-timed penalties and Sims, who was avoided a number of interceptions thanks to some stone-handed DBs, will finally face a secondary that can take advantage of his mistakes. LSU gets a few key turnovers, controls the tempo on offense with its running game and pulls off the second straight upset at home.
Why LSU’s upset falls short
David Ching: If the Tigers fall behind early or struggle to move the ball on the ground, they are not efficient enough in the passing game to hang with Alabama. Anthony Jennings and Travin Dural have combined for some huge pass plays, but Dural’s position mates haven’t accounted for much production this season.
Alex Scarborough: Unfortunately for pundits, there’s no near-INT statistic. The fact of the matter is Sims has thrown only three picks all season, so while he may have been lucky with some poorly thrown passes in previous games, you can’t assume his luck will change. Actually, the numbers indicate that LSU is more likely to throw an interception than Alabama. The Tide rank eighth nationally in interceptions per pass attempt (1.2 percent) compared to LSU’s standing of 99th (3.6 percent). But to make your head totally spin, consider this: Despite a relatively high percentage of interceptions thrown, LSU is plus-4 in turnover margin while Alabama is minus-2.
LSU offensive X-factor: Anthony Jennings. LSU’s quarterback hasn’t completed better than 50 percent of his passes against any Power 5 defense. If the Tigers run the ball better than anyone else has against Alabama’s defense, maybe they won’t need much from Jennings. But our bet is they’ll need him to make a few big throws -- and avoid any crippling mistakes.
LSU defensive X-factor: Kendell Beckwith. It’s no coincidence that LSU’s defensive turnaround started with Beckwith’s introduction to the starting lineup. The sophomore middle linebacker seems to be getting more comfortable in his new role and will be a central figure in the Tigers’ efforts to slow down Alabama’s running game.
Alabama offensive X-factor: O.J. Howard. No defensive coordinator wants to look over and see Cooper on the other side of the field. But there’s another player on Alabama’s roster who can give opposing coaches fits: Howard. An athletic tight end who can run after the catch, Howard’s a matchup nightmare. He has only six receptions, but he made the play of the game last year against LSU with a 52-yard touchdown catch.
Alabama defensive X-factor: Brandon Ivory. What Ivory does best doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. In fact, he has only three tackles and has started just two games this season. But that’s because he’s a throwback in today’s game: A true nose guard who sits in the middle of the defensive line and eats up blockers. If he can help take away LSU’s power rushing game between the tackles, Alabama’s defense will be in great shape.