By RALPH MANCINI - CFI SENIOR WRITER
A red-hot No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (11-0, 5-0) will be determined to clinch the SEC West this Saturday. However, in order to do so, they must subdue the No. 15 Bayou Bengals of LSU (6-2, 3-2). Last year’s national champions will also be plenty motivated to claim victory as they will look to keep their hopes for a berth in the SEC Championship game alive. The 72nd meeting between these two conference rivals will take place in front of over 92,000 rabid fans at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Alabama leads the series 43-23-5, but LSU has won five straight.
When the Tide Have the Ball
SIMPLY SAYING THAT Alabama’s offensive line is a force to be reckoned with wouldn’t be doing it justice. Nick Saban’s crew of big uglies is considered to be the most dominant group of run blockers in the nation. Composed of three juniors and two seniors, this line features one of the nastiest and most talented left tackles in the nation in Andre Smith. Extremely powerful, Smith is also tenacious and funda-mentally sound. In fact, the Birmingham native has both the raw strength to play inside and the quickness to man the perimeter along the line of scrimmage. When he’s not busy calling out plays, center Antoine Caldwell can often be seen steamrolling second-level defenders. This massive front five allows running backs Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram to gallop through gaping holes. Coffee, in particular, is a master at waiting for his blocks to develop and dash through them with an amazing burst, which has produced long scores of 77 and 87 yards this season. Ingram is the other half of this lethal two-headed ground attack. The outstanding freshman is a hardnosed back, who can pound it inside and break some big plays on the outside with his shiftiness and perpetual motion. Both Coffee and Ingram are averaging well over five yards per carry with 15 touchdowns between them. Quarterback John Parker Wilson will never be confused with the likes of Joe Namath or Kenny Stabler, but he makes good use of the weapons around him when given enough time to throw. One of those weapons is the 6’ 4” Julio Jones. The physical receiver is athletic enough to gain separation from defenders, but is also known for making tough catches in traffic. Red-shirt freshman wide out Marquis Maze is an explosive weapon who can line in up a variety of positions while tight end Nick Walker is Wilson’s safety valve.
LSU’S SATR-STUDDED defensive line has the horses that can disrupt just about any offense. Defensive end Tyson Jackson is a fierce pass rusher who utilizes his bull-rush to apply pressure on the opposing quarterback, as well as stopping the run. At 6’5”, 292 pounds, Jackson is a physical specimen with a long wingspan, which helps tremendously when pursuing signal callers. Fellow end Rahim Alem adds an extra dosage of speed to the unit. The new starter has already notched six sacks, along with four quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and a blocked field goal. Over at defensive tackle, Ricky Jean-Francois is an immensely gifted athlete with a remarkable first step, which enables him to quickly gain penetration. The former track star would be even better if he played with greater consistency. LSU’s lack of discipline at linebacker this year has just received a much-needed shot in the arm with the return of Darry Beckwith. The oft-injured senior is a stabilizing force who isn’t the flashiest middle linebacker, but consistently gets the job done by cleaning up everything his line doesn’t get to. Free safety Curtis Taylor has been the one defensive back to provide any sort of consistency this season. The hulking 6’3” defender hits the opposition with the force of a sledge hammer. The rest of the secondary is somewhat limited, but cornerback Jai Eugene has cheetah-like speed and will eventually turn into a big-time playmaker once he hones his coverage technique.
When the Bayou Bengals Have the Ball
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR GARY Crowton is known for employing a potpourri of trick plays and misdirection plays to throw defenses off kilter, but for LSU to have any chance to win this battle, their offense must continue riding the gravy train. Charles Scott is a 233-pound thumper who has carried the load all season long with his punishing style between the tackles. Blessed with vision, size and an excellent burst, Chuck “The Truck” has powered his way to 889 yards and 11 touchdowns. Keiland Williams may rank second on the depth chart behind Scott, but he’s far from a backup in terms of his skill set. He adds firepower and explosiveness. The unit’s north-south running style is made possible by a mammoth offensive line that averages 316 pounds. Tipping the scales at 355 pounds is the line’s most devastating run blocker Herman Johnson. The 6’ 7” guard combines intim-idating size with quick feet, which allow him to move defenders off the ball with ease. Center Brett Helms and tackle Ciron Black join Johnson to form the core of LSU’s offensive line. The Tigers may choose to expose Alabama’s run-of-the-mill corners with big-play wide outs Brandon LaFell and Demetrius Byrd. The 6’3” LaFell is a fearless competitor with speed and good hands, while Byrd is the “X” receiver who runs precise routes and regularly outruns opposing cornerbacks. Tight end Richard Dickson is a sneaky weapon with 21 receptions on the season. Les Miles’ boys have been hindered by inconsistency at quarter-back. The banged-up Andrew Hatch isn’t starter material and while Jarrett Lee has better overall skills, he can’t seem to get on track in the accuracy department. The passers have 11 interceptions between them.
THE CRIMSON TIDE have perfected the art of neutralizing top-ranked running attacks this season with a defense that’s giving up just 65.6 yards per game. Nose guard Terrence Cody is the nucleus of Saban’s impenetrable three-man front. The 365-pound colossus regularly fights off double and triple-teams on his way to dropping helpless ball carriers for a loss. Although Cody has sat out the last two games with a knee injury, he plans to suit up for this week’s SEC rivalry game. In his absence, the considerably smaller Josh Chapman has done yeoman’s work, filling in by maintaining a solid base, which has enabled him to hold his ground versus the run. Bobby Greenwood and Brandon Deadrick are large 3-4 ends, but don’t look for these run-stuffing specialists to post any gaudy sack numbers. Outside linebackers Cory Reamer and Brandon Fanney often line up across the opposing tight end or tackle to create a five-man front, which frees up space for middle linebacker Rolando McClain and weakside linebacker Don’ta Hightower, who both look to lay the wood on the ball carrier. McClain is the centerpiece and unquestioned leader of Bama’s defense. He can take on lead blocks and still make the tackle. In addition, McClain is versatile enough to serve as a pass-rushing linebacker. The sophomore is responsible for reading the offense and setting up his teammates. The other showstopper on this defense is free safety Rashad Johnson. The 6’ 0” defensive back has top-notch instincts in anticipating plays, which helps him break on the ball early versus the run and the pass. The senior’s prowess as an open-field tackler is second-to-none. It’s no coincidence that McClain and Johnson are tied for the team lead in total tackles with 58.
FOR ALL THE talent along LSU’s defensive line, it simply has not been able to stop any ranked teams lately. The reigning national champions have surrendered 51 and 52 points respectively to Florida and Georgia, which leads you to believe that Bama should have no problems putting at least 27 points on the board. Look for the Tide to control the game with its vaunted arsenal of running backs. LSU’s only hope in this contest is to get off to an early lead with one or two sustained drives and a helping hand from big-play return specialist Trindon Holliday. Unless one or both of those things take place, it’ll be a long afternoon for the home team on the Bayou.
Prediction: Alabama 27 LSU 17
Photo Credit: SEC Sports Media
Friday, November 7, 2008
By RALPH MANCINI - CFI SENIOR WRITER