Alabama rolls into Baton Rouge as the No. 1 team in nation, dropping a hammer on every opponent it has faced this year. But this Saturday is far from a sure thing.
Let’s look at three schematic approaches that will be crucial if LSU is to pull off an upset:
Isolate Alabama’s safeties
Alabama’s defense is as special as it gets. The Tide currently are second in the nation in S&P+ and they turn that defense into offense, consistently scoring off turnovers.
One of the best ways to attack Alabama is isolating its safeties in coverage and moving them off their spots. That’s where Ole Miss found success earlier in the year. Eddie Jackson and Ronnie Harrison were both forced to move and make decisions against pump fakes, switch routes (receivers crossing at the snap) and misdirection plays. It resulted in multiple blown coverages, particularly when Alabama used late rotations and tried to bluff its coverages.
With Jackson out for the season, attacking the safeties and going straight at his replacement, Laurence Jones, will be LSU’s path to gaining big chunks of yardage.
The Tigers can force movement through their formations, as well as late motions or shifts such as lining up with heavy sets and flexing to spread looks.
In the Ole Miss game, Alabama’s safeties were forced to move right across the defensive alignment, with Evan Engram creating mismatches in 1-on-1 coverage. And the Rebels used the same package of concepts over and over again, setting up fakes and catching the safeties in no-man’s land.
That style is a good road map, but it also requires time (or moving the pocket), with the offensive line needing to hold up in pass protection against a ferocious Alabama front seven.
Taking those isolated shots are best suited coming off heavy play action, keeping extra blockers in to protect Danny Etling. When Tennessee played Alabama, it tried to take some deep shots off play action, but it failed to keep extra guys in to give Josh Dobbs more time. Those concepts were too slow to develop and Alabama’s front ate the Vols’ offensive line alive, punishing Dobbs on deeper dropbacks.
Guice and Fournette on the field at the same time
Of course, LSU’s best chance is to have Leonard Fournette go nuts. But that’s not really something a team can plan.
Last year, Fournette struggled, consistently being dropped in the backfield and getting gobbled up by Alabama’s front.
In that game, he got zero help from his offensive line. It was understandable, the Tigers linemen just weren’t as talented as the defense they were playing. But there was also little help from then-offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
New offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger has spoken about expanding the playbook and utilizing more spread offensive concepts. Indeed, the running game has increased its number of zone concepts — putting the emphasis on the backs reads — and he has been more liberal with the alignment of his tight ends and pair of stud running backs.
Getting Fournette and Derrius Guice on the field at the same time is an absolute must. LSU cannot run traditional misdirection plays. Alabama’s front is too athletic and the play designs are too slow to develop. But the Tigers can misdirect and force assignment busts by utilizing creative formations that promote confusion and wrapping them up with a whole bunch of window dressing.
They flashed some of that in their last game vs. Ole Miss.
On this play, Fournette lines up as a pseudo fullback in a three-point stance, with Guice lining up as the traditional running back. Fournette runs to the flat and is uncovered as the Rebels bring a slot blitz.
They’re able to get the ball to their best player in space, with the receivers clearing out the boundary cornerbacks.
Advancing that, they could build in more split-back sets (opening up the option game) or bring in a fullback as an additional blocker from full-house formations.
The Tigers need Fournette to have a big game. If they play straight-up vs. Alabama’s defensive line and its linebacking duo, it’s not going to happen. His success will come down to the creativity of Ensminger and where Fournette gets his touches.
Sell out with a single-high safety and press-man coverage
Alabama’s offense has almost been as tough to stop as its defense. Lane Kiffin continually challenges the eye disciple of opposing defenses with lots of horizontal play designs, option football and pre-snap movement.
The whole goal of the offense is to move the ball on the ground, stretch out the defense, then hit it with a big play down the field.
It has been highly effective, but it has faults. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has been excellent in his true freshman year but has really struggled with the deep ball. Hurts is completing less than 30 percent of throws 20 yards or more, with 52 percent of his attempts being thrown behind the line of scrimmage, per College Football Film Room.
Given those struggles, defenses have played with two-deep safeties, forcing Hurts to take short throws underneath or attempt to make sideline throws that he has to squeeze through tight windows.
LSU should play it differently. Two deep safeties limit what the Tigers can do with their pressure packages and how they stop the run. They’re one of the few teams in the country who can matchup talent-wise with the Crimson Tide’s skill position talent and should be comfortable leaving their secondary 1-on-1 on the outside. As a result, they’ll free up an extra defender to drop into the box against the run or blitz from all different angles.
It’s certainly a boom-or-bust type of approach. But the Tigers have the talent to pull it off.