BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU football games don’t get much more anticipated than this.
Tomorrow night at 8 p.m. ET, No. 13 LSU (5-2, 3-1 SEC) will host No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) in a rivalry game that just might decide the fate of LSU’s season. A win possibly could vault the Tigers into the top 10 in the College Football Playoff standings and keep an SEC title in the realm of possibility, but a loss most likely ends all title hopes.
The pressure is evident, but LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron has maintained all week that his players are treating this game like they would any other. Mental focus will be paramount, but so will playing at a high level. So, with that in mind, here are five key questions that need to be answered for Saturday’s game.
1. Who wins the trenches?
Alabama has a vaunted defensive front seven that leads the nation in sacks and allows the fewest rush yards in the country. LSU has an offensive line that’s graded out among the 10 best in the country by Pro Football Focus and has led the Tigers to a top-20 rushing attack in the nation, even with Leonard Fournette missing three games.
It’s hard to imagine Alabama’s pass rush can be stopped, but look for LSU’s line to battle well in the run game, or at least better than last year.
2. Can Fournette carry this team?
The line “19 carries for 31 yards” must be etched into Fournette’s consciousness like a cattle brand. Alabama shut him down last year. Now, in what almost certainly will be his last game against the Tide, Fournette has a chance to make up for the most embarrassing game of his college career.
He won’t be held to 31 yards again this year. Will he get to 100? That’ll be tough. This Alabama defense is allowing only 70 yards per game. But don’t expect that to be LSU’s ceiling. The Tigers will look to establish the run early and continue it throughout.
3. Can the Tigers contain Alabama QB Jalen Hurts?
The freshman QB is tied for the SEC lead in rushing touchdowns and is the Tide’s second-leading rusher, a stark change from the quarterbacks of Nick Saban’s past teams. He’s an electric runner, an accurate passer and a gifted anticipator, making him difficult to corral in tight spaces.
Expect defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to turn loose the likes of Lewis Neal, Davon Godchaux and Arden Key, dialing up edge pressures from a four-man rush to try to collapse Alabama’s pocket. And I wouldn’t be shocked if Aranda kept safety Jamal Adams in or near the box to make sure Hurts doesn’t scramble away. The defense will be keyed into Hurts. It’s just a matter of whether he can will his way out.
4. Who are the unsung X factors of this game?
I’m going to give this nod to nose tackles Greg Gilmore and Ed Alexander. As I mentioned before, the edge rush will be there and it will be aggressive. But LSU’s defense needs to undercut some of that aggression with some calculated conservatism, and that’s where interior defensive line push comes in.
For as spread out of an offense as Alabama has become, the Tide are still an up-the-middle run team at their heart, so stout run-stopping will be a huge key.
5. What’s the most important factor to LSU winning this game?
Not falling behind early. It’s been OK for LSU to fall behind Southern Miss and Ole Miss, because those teams aren’t built to last. Alabama is. If you let Alabama take a 7-0 or 14-0 lead in the first quarter, it will start draining clock and feeding off your desperation.
More importantly, LSU needs to seize an early lead to get the Tiger Stadium crowd into the game. The crowd will be loud, but it’ll be at its loudest if it has something to cheer for. Orgeron knows this. Expect him to go for broke early with gambles on offense and defense to try to get the atmosphere to its peak.
And, if that happens, LSU has a chance. As good as a chance as anyone will have this season.