LSU-Alabama has rarely been a simple game to dissect. An annual rivalry that often features plenty of future pros and normally carries intense SEC West impact can rarely be defined by one play, one concept or one unit.
Saturday’s tilt between No. 2 LSU and No. 4 Alabama shouldn’t be any different from the ones before it. In fact, this weekend’s meeting could be one of the most evenly-matched games in recent history. Think about it: Both teams have incredibly gifted offenses, talented, but unproven quarterbacks, stout front sevens and hit-or-miss secondaries.
And don’t forget about these two premier coaches. Nick Saban and Les Miles have combined to win 321 games, seven SEC titles and five national championships.
There are plenty of storylines to discuss within the renewal of this historic rivalry. Here are five burning questions leading up to the game:
1. Can Leonard Fournette find room against Alabama’s front seven?
This could be the question to end all questions. The old cliche would call this an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. That might be an excellent way to describe the battle between Fournette and the Alabama front seven.
Fournette will enter the game as the Heisman Trophy favorite. A strong performance against the Crimson Tide may secure him the award after just eight games.
It won’t be easy for the nation’s leading rusher. Alabama possesses one of the most ferocious front sevens in the nation. The Crimson Tide have allowed more than 100 yards rushing in two games this season. UGA’s Nick Chubb was the only tailback to exceed 100 yards against the Crimson Tide and the Tide still won that game 38-10.
Fournette might have to become the second back to break the century mark against Bama to give the Tigers a shot at victory.
2. Can Brandon Harris outduel Jacob Coker?
Both quarterbacks have plenty of talent but have been slow to show it this season.
Harris may need to pick up the running game if it struggles to find holes against Alabama’s front seven. The sophomore has played much better over his last three games and has thrown for 716 yards and seven touchdowns during that span.
Coker has also been respectable the last few weeks, passing for 647 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions during the last three games.
Plenty has been made about the tailbacks for both sides, but one of these quarterbacks will need to step up. Harris has been the better player at times this season, but can he beat Coker on the road in the biggest start of his young career?
3. Will Alabama expose LSU’s porous special teams coverage?
LSU’s special teams have been atrocious. The Tigers rank dead last in the country on punt return coverage, allowing an average of 28.67 yards per return. LSU has also given up a punt return and a kick return touchdown this season. Punter Jamie Keehn has averaged just under 40 yards per punt, which certainly isn’t superb.
However, Alabama’s return teams have not been tremendously effective. The Crimson Tide ranks 54th in the country with an average of 9.31 yards per punt return. They have been even worse on kickoff returns. The Tide ranks 96th in the country with an average of merely 19.35 yards per kickoff return.
LSU’s special teams have struggled, but will Alabama be able to exploit them? The matchup could be a real difference-maker.
4. Which secondary makes the most plays?
Both teams will enter Saturday ranked inside the top-six nationally in rushing defense, but the secondary play will be just as vital this weekend.
Alabama’s pass defense will enter the weekend ranked a respectable 38th in the nation in pass defense. Alabama has held opponents to an average of 197.3 passing yards, 10 touchdowns and picked off 12 passes.
LSU’s secondary has been less effective. The Tigers have allowed an average of 222.1 passing yards and 14 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. LSU’s secondary has been liable to blow coverage assignments, as well
Alabama’s secondary holds the advantage on paper. The Tigers’ secondary has struggled at times against lesser opponents such as Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky. Neither team possesses high-powered passing attacks, but both teams will need to prevent any big plays from the opposing quarterbacks that could soften up the run defense.
5. Does either coach pull a rabbit out of his hat?
Saban isn’t exactly known as a trickster, but Miles certainly is. The Mad Hatter showed he still has his share of gimmicks when he called a fake field goal against Florida for the game-winning touchdown that kept LSU’s bid at a perfect season alive.
Neither coach may break out a crazy trick play, but an unexpected play call or a bold decision from either coach could determine the outcome.