Well, the big day is here.
Already this week, I've talked turnovers and a bit about the running game (two things we usually skip in the Advice column), as well as quarterbacks, special teams, and some other odds and ends.
Today, I've got just a few brief thoughts to add in the form of my customary pre-game Unsolicited Advice for the Crimson Tide. So let's get right to it. I'll throw my pick in at the end...
Keep two Tight Ends on the field as much as possible. I say this for two key reasons. First, Alabama has a big size advantage over LSU's front 7. In a conference known for it's defensive speed, the Tigers are by far the fastest, and it's no accident. They're built that way. They've got linebackers the size of safeties, defensive ends the size of linebackers, and defensive tackles the size of ends. It's all scaled down with the intent to create havoc at lightning speeds. The average LSU defensive lineman is roughly 265 pounds, and the average weight of their starting linebackers is 218 pounds. By comparison, Bama's starting OL averages out around 312 pounds per man, and their contributing tight ends go about 250. It's to the Tide's advantage to play this game in a box. Speed, particularly on the second level, means nothing if there's nowhere to run and a big body is on top of you. If Bama can keep 2 tight ends on the field and win that initial push at the line of scrimmage, they'll squash LSU's linebackers and safeties all night.
Secondly, it provides a strategic advantage against LSU's best defensive player, Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu plays a role very similar to Bama's own DeQuan Menzie: he plays corner in the base defense and slides inside to cover the slot in the nickel package. It's when he's at nickel back that he becomes such a big factor attacking runners in the backfield, pressuring quarterbacks, and generally creating chaos wherever he goes. He's still a big problem to contend with when he's out on the edge at corner...but he's a long way from the quarterback out there. Alabama can negate a big part of his game simply by staying in their 2 TE sets and forcing LSU to stay in it's base defense. They really don't even need to get out of those sets in passing situations. Both of their starting TE's, Michael Williams and Brad Smelley, can run and catch, and Bama regularly splits one or both of them out wide. They're not just filling space out there on pass plays. As long as the Tide can stay out of really long 3rd downs, keeping those guys on the field will force LSU to respect the run threat and keep the Honey Badger in timeout.
Of course, I suppose there's nothing stopping LSU from gambling and going into their nickel sets against 2 TEs in order to get Mathieu some opportunities, but that's something that can be checked at the line of scrimmage and audibled around to make them pay. I like my odds with Michael Williams coming downhill on all 5'9" of Mathieu.
Rip all your slow developing run plays out of the playbook. I know this is going to hurt, but that outside zone play has got to go. The same goes for all those languid runs out of the shotgun. They won't work against LSU's defensive front. As inviting a target as their size makes them for some ol' fashioned downhill running, it makes them a major threat to blow up any and all run plays that take too long to develop and/or are designed to hit outside. It's not even worth running one every now and then to "keep them honest," so just forget about it. Keke Mingo and Sam Montgomery will run it down and blow it up for a big loss.
In fact, if you'd like video evidence of how badly this Bama offensive line is capable of struggling against an undersized defensive line, go check the tape on the Kent State and Tennessee games. Both feature little guys frequently running down that outside zone and dragging down Trent Richardson in the backfield for losses. LSU will do much, much worse if they get the chance. STAY BETWEEN THE TACKLES.
Get the Tight Ends involved in the passing game early. Can you tell I think Bama's tight ends are going to be a big factor in this game? If you go back and watch the tape on AJ McCarron's first 8 games as the starting quarterback, you notice that he tends to play his best when he's able to connect with his TE's early in the game. When he starts off going downfield to his receivers too much, he seems to have a hard time getting into a rhythm. He hits some, but there's not much efficiency to his game. He seems to find his comfort zone quicker when he's able to take some quick drops and throw 5-8 yard hitches and outs to the tight end. And obviously getting him comfortable and in rhythm as soon as possible is going to be crucial against a defense that plays faster than anything he's ever seen before.
Even though I know the first instinct is going to be to attack downfield to loosen up the anticipated 8 and 9 men fronts, it would probably be a good idea to script some early plays that are designed explicitly to target a tight end. It may not yield jaw-dropping results early, but I think it will pay off in how McCarron plays late, when the game is being decided.
My only advice to the Defense is start strong and don't bust. Here's a factoid for you: Of the mere 55 points the Crimson Tide defense has surrendered this year, 30 of those were scored in the 1st quarter. It's also probably worth noting that only 10 of those 1st quarter points were scored at Bryant-Denny stadium where this game will be played, but still...these guys have had some issues starting strong this year.
While I won't go so far as to say that if LSU scores first, they'll win, I will say that it will be a significant advantage for their style of play if they can get an early lead. The longer the Tigers can go without having to break out of their run-run-run-run-pass-run-run rhythm, the more the likely they are to win. And if they have the lead, they really don't have to. So controlling the opening frame will be crucial for Bama, and the key to that will be NOT BUSTING COVERAGE.
In a game like this, you really can't afford to be giving up easy scores because of mental mistakes. I understand some of that is inherent in the complexity of Saban's defensive scheme (they're going to happen), but there have been too many of these busts early in games that put the offense in an early hole. This game is going to be difficult enough without putting McCarron in an even more difficult situation.
Fortunately, there are a few factors on Bama's side in that regard. First, as I mentioned, it's a home game. Unlike when the Tide gave up quick early scores to Florida and Ole Miss on the road, there won't be a hostile crowd mucking up communication in the defense. Second, for the first time this season, they'll be playing a team that doesn't feel inferior and thus won't be compelled to "throw the kitchen sink" at the defense to start the game. For all the talk concerning "What will Les do?" in this game, I think LSU is going to be very content to simply do what they do to start the game.
I've been agonizing over this pick for weeks now, and I'm still not sure if I'm all that confident in it. For all the talk about LSU's advantage at quarterback, I think McCarron will be up to the moment. If Alabama loses this game, I bet his play ends up being way down the list of the reasons why. No, the thing that continues to haunt me is how badly Bama's interior offensive line, William Vlachos in particular, played in this game last year. Bama has to win by running between the tackles, but if they can't control the middle of the line, how can they expect to do that? This might be the pessimist in me, but until I see it, I'm having a difficult time believing it's going to be much different this year. So seeing as how I had Alabama pegged at 11-1 in the preseason, and this looks like the last lose-able game on the schedule, I guess this is it. Bummer.
LSU 24, Alabama 20