Casual college football observers and die-hard LSU faithful alike expected a season of struggles for the Tigers. No one imagined the team would make huge strides in the inaugural season of Brian Kelly’s landmark transition.
After a one-point loss to Florida State in the season opener, LSU most thought the season would be dominated by a theme so close, yet so far away.
Brian Kelly’s bunch are a little ahead of schedule with a 6-2 mark, but how far? This weekend may be a good benchmark.
No. 6 Alabama comes to Tiger Stadium this week. As usual, taking down the Crimson Tide would be a tall order. Just a few weeks ago, this might have been a game where LSU fans were looking to unload their tickets or just planning a fishing trip for this weekend. It’s a hot ticket now.
Both the Tide and Tigers look similar in several categories:
– Points Per Game — Alabama 43 | LSU 35
– Points Allowed – Alabama 16.6 | LSU 21.1
– Total yards — Alabama 485 | LSU 450
– Yards Allowed — Alabama 295.6 | LSU 346.3
– Yards Allowed — Alabama 201.8 | LSU 204.3
– Rushes Allowed — Alabama 93.9 | LSU 142
– Wiretaps – Alabama 3 | LSU 5
– 3rd Down Conversions – Alabama 46.5% | LSU 49%
– Red Zone Success — Alabama 89% | LSU 87%
– Red Zone TDs – Alabama 71% | LSU 74%
Let’s break down some of the key players for Bama:
Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs, a transfer from Georgia Tech, is the “X” factor for the Tide offense. He has 672 yards rushing at a 6.9-yard average with 6 touchdowns and 31 receptions for 301 yards and three more scores. Fellow junior Jase McClellan, who will spell Gibbs in the backfield, has 312 rushing yards (5.8-yard average) and 3 TDs.
Sophomore receiver Ja’Corey Brooks is Bama’s primary target with 21 catches for 376 yards and 4 touchdowns. Kobe Prentice, a 2022 signee, was a huge surprise with 28 catches for 279 yards and a TD.
As usual, Alabama’s defense is stellar. Jack linebacker Will Anderson is a big mismatch. Perhaps the best overall player available for the 2023 NFL Draft, the 6-foot-4, 243-pound junior has 12 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks. He will require a double team wherever he lines up.
Tennessee transfer linebacker Henry To’o To’o is the leader with 60 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
Senior free safety Demarco Hellams starts with 59 stops and a pick. Sophomore cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry is an excellent cover man with 11 pass breakups and 23 interceptions.
It’s no shock that Alabama has elite talent or that it’s listed as a 13-point favorite this week. Nick Saban will release billboard material for his troops to “not eat rat poison” and make it clear they have no room for error after the loss to Tennessee. It’s Halloween’s birthday, and the 71-year-old coach called Tiger Stadium one of the toughest places to play in the country during his press conference Monday.
LSU played better each week, with more confidence and fewer mistakes. Alabama is the better team overall, no doubt about that, but Jayden Daniels gives the Purple and Gold an above average chance if he plays as well as he has in the last two games.
Will Alabama put a spy on Daniels? More than likely, but that opens up someone else in the offense with favorable one-on-one matchups or allows the back to slip out of the backfield into open space. Daniels now absolutely understands the offense as a threat to make a big play by throwing or running.
Against Tennessee, Daniels threw 45 passes and ran 16 times. He was originally labeled as a run-first quarterback, but changed his style during the season. It required dedication and extra work. He’s a much better player overall now than he was when he first arrived. Daniels is creative, makes better decisions, and is willing to let it rip as a passer after coming across as too conservative. His ability to get out of danger quickly is what Saban said is the most difficult to defend.
Helping Daniels emerge is the development of LSU’s offensive line, a unit that has seemed to mature and take on an identity over the past month. Their performance will play a major role in determining the outcome. Blocking Anderson and company is key to any offensive success.
On the other hand, the Tigers defensive front led by BJ Ojulari, Ali Gaye, Mekhi Wingo and Jaquelin Roy will be called upon to wreak havoc. They can’t allow Alabama blockers to reach the second level on a consistent basis. It will be a tough job, but they will have to put pressure on quarterback Bryce Young. A sack or two would be great, but putting consistent pressure on Young is vital.
Young capped a sensational season last year by throwing for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns. The 2021 Heisman winner is nowhere near that this season. He has 1,906 yards with 18 touchdowns and three interceptions, completing 66% of his throws. He added 137 yards as a rusher with three scores, but Young isn’t considered a true dual-threat running back who would like more than capable mobility. He’s having a good season, but not a dominant one with the Tide’s smaller receiving corps compared to 2021.
Looking at Alabama’s depth chart, it’s still difficult to find a weak link. There aren’t many obvious weaknesses. Still, there are some matchup advantages that favor LSU.
– Alabama ran off a 20:19 win over Texas on Sept. 10 and a 24:20 squeaker in Tuscaloosa without an injured Young to beat Texas A&M. Which Tide team will show up?
– It will be a sunset game at Tiger Stadium. Despite the expected Hounds Tooth derby crowd and red and white shakers, a raucous and partisan crowd decked out in Purple and Gold can make a difference.
– Alabama committed an uncharacteristically high 69 penalties, the most in the SEC. Some were killers. That’s very un-Saban-like.
– LSU clearly has the better group of receivers. Malik Nabers, Kayshon Boutte, Jaray Jenkins and Brian Thomas combined for 103 catches, 1,311 yards and 10 touchdowns. Freshman Mason Taylor is emerging, adding 19 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown so far.
-LSU’s secondary can also tip the scales in its favor. As a group, the secondary has made huge strides, especially when you consider that injuries have forced many lineup combinations. Some of the walking wounded, specifically Security Major Burns, are due to return this week.
Brian Kelly proved in his first LSU campaign that he doesn’t get too emotional after a win and too low after a loss. His team began to adopt this way of thinking. Kelly put in the work to compete with the best and win. Will this be the next big step in the process?