There’s never just one vital factor to an LSU-Alabama showdown. With so much talent on the field and plenty of ramifications on the national title race, it will be hard to pinpoint one key to the game.
Here are the key matchups that will dictate the outcome of Saturday night’s titanic tilt:
Leonard Fournette vs. Derrick Henry
This will be the key storyline. Both tailbacks are considered Heisman Trophy contenders and both have carried their respective offenses at times. Fournette, the Heisman front-runner, will enter Saturday leading the country in rushing with 193.14 yards per game. Henry ranks 12th, but is far behind with an average of 130.5 rushing yards.
Both running backs will face their stiffest tests of the season against outstanding front sevens. Both Alabama and LSU rank inside the top six in the country in stopping the run. Alabama ranks third in the nation and has allowed an average of 78.5 rushing yards. LSU will enter the game ranked sixth at 93.71 rushing yards allowed.
Of course, both teams will utilize their impressive depth. Fournette and Henry will generate the headlines, but it could be big runs from LSU reserves Derrius Guice and Durell Williams or Alabama backup Kenyan Drake that turn the tide in this game.
Brandon Harris vs. Jacob Coker
Both of these quarterbacks have taken similarly arduous paths and have started to hit their stride the past few weeks. Coker battled with Cooper Bateman for the starting duties and was eventually benched for the Ole Miss game before reassuming the starter’s job. Harris has been LSU’s unquestioned starter, but struggled through the first four games of the season.
Both players come in playing their best football. Harris has thrown for 716 yards and seven touchdowns over his last three games and Coker has tossed 647 yards against three SEC opponents.
The emphasis will be on the running backs, but both quarterbacks are capable of making big plays against modest secondaries. Alabama has surrendered 197.3 passing yards per game, while LSU has given up an average of 222.1 passing yards. These passers will find holes in the secondary and have plenty of potential to exploit.
Don’t be surprised if this game comes down to quarterback play.
LSU’s interior line vs. Alabama defensive lineman Jarran Reed
LSU’s offensive line could have its hands full containing Alabama defensive lineman, Jarran Reed. The senior has 39 tackles and one sack this season and should be playing on Sundays next fall. He might be public enemy No. 1 for LSU’s running game.
Reed’s value doesn’t completely stem from his stats either. A player of Reed’s caliber usually requires a double team, which can free up another member of Alabama’s front seven. LSU’s offensive line must find a way to reach the second level of the the Tide’s defense, but a plug like Reed can make that a difficult task. At the very least, Reed can help linebackers Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster play the run cleanly.
Reed will likely go up against LSU center Ethan Pocic and two freshman guards in Maea Teuhema and Will Clapp in the trenches. This inexperience could force the Tigers to allocate more resources and double team Reed often. It can work if executed properly, but LSU will need to account for Reed and Ragland on each of its running plays.
Fournette has run through defenses before, but breaking through Reed and the Crimson Tide front seven will be an arduous task.
Alabama’s wide receiver depth vs. LSU’s secondary
These are the weak points on both units. Alabama’s top wideout, Calvin Ridley, will likely draw LSU’s top corner, Tre’Davious White and potentially Dwayne Thomas. The depth behind the main players will prove to be pivotal in the passing game.
None of Alabama’s wideouts have been particularly explosive aside from Ridley, but the Crimson Tide have four different receivers with at least two touchdown receptions. ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney could threaten LSU’s spotty secondary.
LSU’s coverage has been susceptible to big plays throughout the season. Four of the 14 touchdown passes LSU has allowed have been on passing plays that were longer than 36 yards.
Safety Jamal Adams may be LSU’s most important player in the secondary this weekend. Adams has had a nose for the ball in coverage and leads the Tigers with three interceptions and three pass breakups. Adams may need to come up with another turnover against Alabama and will play a role in preventing the home-run ball.
Alabama’s special teams vs. LSU’s special teams coverage
Special teams coverage has been a glaring flaw for LSU and could kill the Tigers in such an evenly matched game. LSU ranks 119th in the country with an average of 28.67 punt return yards allowed on six returns. A reason for LSU’s porous punt coverage has been Jamie Keehn’s punting. Simply put, the punts haven’t gone very far. Keehn has averaged under 40 yards per punt.
Alabama’s special teams haven’t been lethal. The Crimson Tide have averaged 9.31 yards with one touchdown on 26 punt returns and only 19.35 yards on kick returns.
The Tigers may have the advantage if this comes down to a battle of the kickers. LSU’s Trent Domingue has been perfect on all nine of his field goals and all 35 of his extra points. However, Domingue hasn’t faced many challenging field goals. Only two of his field-goal attempts have been from longer than 40 yards.
Alabama place kicker Adam Griffith has been less consistent. Griffith has gone 10 of 16 on field-goal attempts this year and a perfect 32 of 32 on extra points. Griffith does not have much range in his leg, as he has just one kick longer than 39 yards.
Flipping field position and making field goals may be the little things that determine the outcome in what should be a classic football game.