LSU-Bama Preview: The Tide Offense
Alabama RB Trent Richardson
Alabama RB Trent Richardson
Posted Oct 31, 2011

Both teams can rack up points - perhaps more closely than you'd think. They have dominant offensive lines, big backs - and plenty of them - and quarterbacks that are underrated as far as 2011 goes. CFN's Rich Cirminiello and Phil Harrison deep dive into both units, and not surprisingly, balance appears to be the order of the day.

Phil Harrison – Alabama's Offense

While this game's main feature is going to be defense, not to be overshadowed, there will be two offenses on the field in Tuscaloosa that will have just as much to say about the outcome. After all, unless the defense does everything, it's exceptionally rare that a team wins without its offense scoring points. Rich has already taken a look at the LSU offense, now let's roll with the Tide's.

It seems no better place to start than where the discussion begins with most offenses: quarterback play. At the beginning of the year, it was anyone's guess as to who the signal-caller would ultimately be. On one hand was the sophomore with little experience--AJ McCarron. On the other, there was an even more unproven, yet supremely talented, freshman in Philip Sims. Both were highly touted, and both were cut out of the same proto-typical drop back tapestry, if Sims was perhaps slightly more nimble. The battle in spring was tight and when the cork was popped on the season, there still wasn't a clear cut starter. It looked to be a QB partnership in the making.

That's all changed after week one, and McCarron is the guy. He's taken the reigns and not looked back ever since the start and solid showing in Happy Valley. He hasn't been asked to do anything special, but what he has done is bring much needed balance to the offensive attack. He's been more than adequate for a first year starter, ranking 25th in the country in pass efficiency, and being solid enough with 204.5 yards of offense per game.

It's likely his numbers would be better if unsaddled a bit, but he fits the system. As David Sweigart pointed out Sunday in his column Who is QB AJ McCarron?, AJ's numbers are identical to, if not better than, Greg McElroy's through eight games of the 2009 championship season.

What McCarron's play has done is allow the Crimson Tide to keep teams honest by spreading out darts to the likes of Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, so that teams can't load up and key in on one of the most explosive rushing attacks in the country (think the first half of the Tennessee game, where the Vols sold out to stop the run, and held Bama to 35 rushing yards - the operative word being "first").

There was emphatically no battle for the starting running back slot. Many clamored for Richardson to get as much time as Mark Ingram last year, and now the junior has vaulted himself directly into the Heisman race--and for good reason. The running game is the staple of any Nick Saban offense, and it has been no different this year. The Tide average almost 230 yards on the ground, with Richardson carrying the lion's share of the load as the sixth most productive back in the country--averaging 123.62 ypg.

Behind him, the stable of horses is far from bare as both Eddie Lacy and Justin Fowler have played integral roles this season as well. Perhaps nothing drives this home more than this simple fact: the Crimson Tide, in a conference of twelve teams, have two of the top nine backs in terms of yards per game (Richardson and Lacy). Whether its high tide or low tide, Alabama has been able to eat up chunks of yards on the ground; its bound to continue and could be a tilting catalyst against a stern yet fast LSU defense.

Of course, in order for a team to be as balanced as Alabama (229 ypg rushing vs. 228 ypg passing), things have to be set up front in the trenches. No issue there. There is arguably the best run blocker in America in Barrett Jones, and one of the best centers in the country calling shots in the person of senior center William Vlachos, but the sum of all of the line parts has been very solid to boot. While the pass protection has not been quite as good as the down-hill running (a concern given LSU's speed at the ends), it has been good enough to allow McCarron time to make some big plays downfield. When given that shot, he has not disappointed, all while only throwing three picks on the season.

For Alabama to walk off their home field with a win, it'll have to be more than a one dimensional team. As good as the Tide's defense has been (and it has been great), LSU's is no slouch either. The Tigers are third in the country in both total and scoring defense, and there doesn't seem to be a weak link with both the pass defense and run defense ranking in the top five statistically.

Despite these impressive numbers, there have been some cracks in the LSU dam. West Virginia, for instance, didn't go Mountaineer wild on the ground, but it did enough damage to open the field to the sour tune of 463 yards through the air. Likewise, Oregon was able to outgain the LSU offense by mixing in some well timed runs and then throwing down the field consistently for 240 yards--well above the 175 average the Tigers are giving up per game. Of course, LSU absolutely destroyed both of those teams, so it might not be the best example; but largely because turnovers doomed them. This is another staple of the LSU D (second in the nation in turnover margin), but Bama has been very good controlling turnover since week one.

If Capstone can establish the run (you know they'll try) and force LSU to bring some extra defenders up, McCarron is going to get his chances to make plays. It may just be the game he has to go win one, not unlike McElroy's coming out party in the 2009 SEC Championship game. Everyone expected a heavy dose of Mark Ingram in that game, and the first half was all McElroy, all the time. What McCarron does with those chances and how careful the Crimson Tide can be with the ball will set everything in motion.

To live to fight another day, Bama must remain balanced and keep LSU on its heels with its offensive play-calling, while winning the turnover battle. Anything short, and it could be a discussion of what-if's.

Let the countdown continue...

Follow Phil on Twitter @PhilHarrisonCFN

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