Mitchell: 5 Reasons LSU Beats Bama
LSU's Les Miles
When head coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide take the field this Saturday against LSU, they will be 60 minutes away from their first loss of the 2011 season, and their second consecutive to the Tigers. CFN's Russ Mitchell on five reasons why.
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me on Twitter @russmitchellcfb
We'll save the most important reason for last, and start instead with the second biggest key to this game…
Defensive Front Seven. Bama's run defense has been simply remarkable this year. They've held opponents to a stunning 1.6 ypc, with just one run longer than 25 yards (out of 215 attempts). Impressive, right? Care to guess the mean of the eight rushing offenses that Alabama's defense has toiled against in 2011? Don't bother – we'll do it for you. Collectively, they rank a woeful 81 in the nation. On Saturday, the Tide face a far tougher test in LSU.
Yes, Bama's defense is exceptional, particularly its run defense…after all, it is ranked 1 in all the land. And as we noted before the Tide vs. Florida game, you can only play the teams on your schedule. But that doesn't mean we have to fawn over the wind-aided results.
Put another way, the best rushing team Bama has faced this season? The Vanderbilt Commodores…currently ranked 50 in the nation.
But it gets worse. If you're watched only ONE Alabama game this season, you've seen the recipe for why Capstone has the best run defense in America – they quite literally pound on opposing rushers, either knocking them out of the game or weakening them to the point of submission. The Tigers will run four good backs on Saturday – five if you include quarterback Jordan Jefferson. Russell Shepard has seen his carries drop given the crowded backfield, but the talented junior still averages nearly seven yards per carry, and is a sixth option. With that many choices, it will be very difficult for Bama's D to knock even half of them out, let alone all.
Offensive Line. On the other side of the ball, the best tailback in the country leads a Bama rushing attack currently ranked 14 in the nation. Richardson is a Heisman front runner, and for our money the best player in college football today, regardless of position.
But it doesn't hurt that the Tide have played eight teams with an average run defense of 60 in the nation. The three toughest run defenses Bama has played to date: Penn State (24), Vandy (34) and Kent State (35). No, that's not a typo.
They line up against the No. 3 run defense this weekend.
Again, just like before, Alabama runs up against another bad match-up; it's not just the ranking…worse for Bama is how LSU plays run defense. The Tigers rotate 10 defensive lineman regularly in their front four. Their leader in both sacks and tackles for a loss is Barkevious Mingo, and he doesn't even start. Think about that for a moment the next time you question the talent in that depth.
The Tide have controlled and won games this season by pounding on inferior run defenses and wearing them out in the second half. In this game, one could argue that Bama's starting five offensive linemen are indeed better than LSU's four defensive starters. For the first half. But eventually those five starters are going to tire, and that's when LSU's ten man rotation is going to start making a material difference. You're not going to wear out this LSU run defense, they simply play too many good athletes.
Moreover, if Richardson's backup (and Louisiana native) Eddie Lacy has not fully recovered from his turf toe, than it's likely even more of the burden will fall on the shoulders of Richardson, and even Superman would get tired of running on ten blisteringly fast defenders for 60 minutes.
Tide signal caller AJ McCarron will be a far more critical component in this game than many realize. More so than in any other game he's played in his brief career.
Tennessee held Alabama to 35 rushing yards in the first half two weeks ago...in Tuscaloosa. You think LSU saw that? The Vols didn't have the depth to keep that up for a full game, but the Tigers do.
LSU is going to sell out to stop the run, and when they do, McCarron's going to have to step up - and he's never faced a defense like this in his life; not even close. Practice?? Stop it; practice doesn't count. As long as the other guys are wearing the same uniform as you, and you know they're not trying to forcibly remove your head from your shoulders, it's apples to oranges.
We are by no means sold on LSU's quarterback duo of Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson, however, they have been better than proficient this season. Lee leads the SEC in passing efficiency - which is simply mind-numbing - and the Tigers have played a tougher schedule. Jefferson forces opposing defenses to spend cycles in preparation for a running quarterback; though it should be noted that while he's only attempted 10 passes this season, Jefferson has completed six for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
Perhaps most importantly, the fifth year senior Lee and senior Jefferson have seen nearly every great defense the SEC has had to offer during that 4-5 year stretch – most more than once. Indeed, they both faced the great 2009 Alabama defense IN TUSCALOOSA. It most certainly won't be a cake walk for them on Saturday, but it's not like they haven't been there before…literally
McCarron on the other hand has never faced a defense like this in his life. LSU is going to do everything necessary to take away the run, and when it does, McCarron must find a way to get it done. He'll have more passing attempts in this game than any other this season, and he'll face more sets/combinations, more speed, even more rotation then ever before.
And for those of you pointing to the 2009 SEC Championship Game, when Saban and Greg McElroy came out and stunned Florida by throwing in the first quarter, jumping ahead and never looking back…if you're pointing to THAT as some form of comparison, we remind you that McElroy had already played the LSU defense, and faced adversity in the Iron Bowl where he led Bama back from the brink of defeat on that famous final drive. McCarron has faced none of that. In a game where even one mistake could be the difference, look for at least one of them to result from McCarron's inexperience.
We've been over it a bit already, but it's prevalent at every position but linebacker. Two quarterbacks (three if you recall that high school QB Spencer Ware threw a touchdown pass in the state of Alabama last season). Five running backs (six if you include Jordan Jefferson). Perhaps the most underrated unit on LSU's team is it's offensive line, and if you look at the preseason two deep, all but one were redshirted upperclassmen.
We've discussed the ten defensive linemen. The back seven rotates just as many – particularly the secondary.
But here's the real kicker…one that few are talking about: LSU actually had five starters that missed the Auburn game: Ware, CB Tyrann Mathieu, DE Kendrick Adams, FB James Stampley, and the Tigers' center PJ Lonergan. Six, since one of the Ganja Three (Tharold Simon) "starts" on nickel/dime coverage. Yet the Bayou Bengals still rolled Auburn by 35 – and given the latter's only touchdown came with 2:22 left in a game LSU had all but stopped playing, it was even worse than that.
LSU gets all six starters back healthy for the Tide.
There are many ways to evaluate a coach. Past media presence and flair, there is recruiting and on-field results – be they wins against ranked opponents, top ten opponents, non-conference opponents, in bowls and on the road, etc.
Bama's Nick Saban is clearly one of the best in the business, and he's arguably the best recruiter in college football history. Only John Wooden at UCLA might be considered a better collegiate recruiter, and Saban reached his designation much faster than Wooden.
LSU's Miles on the other hand is a bit less put together. While he certainly recruits on par with the best, and his players and staff would run through walls for him, Miles has cultivated a bumbling style…a "Columbo-esque" personality that keeps one guessing, "Just how good is this guy really."
I can answer that question for you…really good. With even marginal quarterback play, Miles teams are virtually unstoppable. But there's one way we can quantify these two coaches in this game – one specific facet of this game that stands out for both coaches equally: they're respective performance coming off a bye week.
I've listened to countless talking heads this week espouse how with an extra week to prepare, no one in the SEC, indeed the country, is better than Saban. Care to do the actual work on that?
In his two stops in the SEC, Nick is 24-9 when having two or more weeks to prepare for a game (season openers, byes and bowls). That's 73%.
Miles is 16-3, or 84%. (If that's not already impressive enough for you, one could argue that two of those losses had extenuating circumstances: the postponed Tennessee Monday night loss immediately after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the 2010 Capital One Slop-fest Bowl vs. Penn State.)
Want more? In those 19 games, Miles has faced 14 ranked opponents and beaten 11 of them.
During his time at LSU, even with the National Championship year Saban was just 13-6, or 68%.
Let's take it a step further...opening season games are often against scrub opponents. If we factor out those openers against overmatched, unranked, non-BCS/SEC teams to get a better gauge of their coaching prowess, Saban's overall record drops six wins to 18-9, and his winning percentage drops seven points from 73% to 66%. Meanwhile, Miles only drops two wins to 14-3, and two percentage points from 84% to 82%.
Finally, Miles and Saban are 2-2 in their four head-to-head clashes. But one very interesting side note: in both of Nick's two wins, LSU did not have a bye week before playing Bama. In Miles' two victories…you guessed it, LSU had the bye week. Interestingly, so did the Tide, and yet Saban dropped both to Miles.
If you can only focus on one thing, forget most of everything you've read, as the single most important factor why the LSU Tigers will defeat the Crimson Tide is punting. Almost blasphemous to suggest given all the NFL talent littering these two teams, but in a game marked by teams very equal in terms of performance/success – if perhaps not styles – one searches for any area in which there are material differences in results. And LSU has a significant advantage in punting.
Freshman Brad Wing is averaging 41 net yards per punt. He's first in the SEC and fifth in the nation. His accuracy and hang time are largely to credit for LSU allowing just seven punt return yards through eight games. Not seven yards per game – seven yards period.
Bama's Cody Mandell is tenth best in the SEC with 36 net yards per punt.
I've heard some people say Special Team in general holds the key – they're wrong. There's nothing to suggest these two units will be anything but equal, other than punting. LSU coverage team is giving up 19.8 yards per kickoff; Bama's 19.9. LSU's kick return unit is averaging 23.7 yards per return; Bama's is 23.4. LSU's kicker Drew Alleman is 10-12. Bama appears to be 12-16, but starter Jeremy Shelley is on par with Alleman at 11-13.
Another red herring is Turnover Margin – Bama only has one turnover in SEC play (an interception against Tennessee). It's other four interception and three fumbles came early in the season against Kent State and North Texas.
But if you believe like I do that defense will control this game, that will result in more punting. Thus, if things stay according to performance to date (and it's November – for the most part we know what we've got in both punters), than LSU makes a healthy 10 yards in field position for each time the two teams exchange punts. LSU could drive down for a field goal just by punting.
That will be the difference in this one, as LSU wins by three or four. I'll say 21-17.
Follow Russ on Twitter @RussMitchellCFB
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Point/Counterpoint: McCarron v. Mathieu et al
LSU-Bama Preview: The Tiger Defense
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Point/Counterpoint: LSU's QBs v. Bama's D
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Point/Counterpoint: Les v. Saban's LSU Legacy
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Point/Counterpoint: Richardson v. LSU's Front 7
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