By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
We introduced the LSU vs Alabama tilt on Monday's First Blood article, we discussed the Kelly vs Saban chess match at the heart of this top 10 SEC West supremacy battle, we ranted and raved about LSU's chances in this game as well as the bigger picture at play, and now....we dive into the deep end:
What 5 keys to Saturday are we watching the most?
We are trying to avoid the obvious here: "If LSU can score more points they should win" or some other kind of crap, instead heading straight for the jugular:
5. ALABAMA LBs HENRY TO'O TO'O & WILL ANDERSON
Will the former Tennessee linebacker be an X Factor for a strong defensive showing from Pete Golding's Tide or is he a deficiency waiting to be preyed upon by LSU's resurgent offense, specifically Jayden Daniels' dual threat capabilities?
Highly regarded, To'o To'o transferred to Alabama during the same 2021 time frame LSU signed Clemson wantaway Mike Jones Jr, eschewing anyone else's advances for Nick Saban.
Finding success in his first season, leading the Crimson Tide in tackles (111) while reaching a National Championship Game, Henry has also shown susceptibility in his game:
Allowing 17 catches from 22 targets this season for 12 yards per catch and 177 overall yards, To'o To'o hasn't improved in coverage from 2021, a season culminating in a title game defeat vs UGA:
During the CFP 2022 National Championship, he directly allowed a crucial red zone touchdown in coverage against athleticism from the tight end position.
Directly required to back up defensive captain Will Anderson as a veteran on Alabama's younger defense, To'o To'o can also get lost in his gap, unable to shed blocks from higher quality offensive linemen.
Whenever Will Anderson isn't directly involved, or if Daniels is able to bypass Anderson's delayed pressures, we should see a showdown over the middle of the field between LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels and To'o To'o.
There are possibilities in the passing game for physical receiver Jack Bech or tight end Mason Taylor to take advantage, let alone Daniels' own rushing dynamism in the open field...all looking to test the Bama linebacker.
Second on the team in missed tackles (9, behind Will Anderson), on the other hand To'o To'o ranks first in stops (31, 10 ahead of 2nd place Brian Branch).
4. LSU'S EARLY START / SPECIAL TEAMS
Opening the season by succumbing to a 17-3 deficit inside the Superdome at the hands of Mike Norvell's now 5-3 Florida State, then getting down 13-0 at home in Brian Kelly's SEC opener against Mississippi State, followed up by a madcap 17-0 mountain delivered by Auburn freshman Robby Ashford, and finally, another 17-3 lead coughed up in mere minutes to Kiffin's Rebels, isn't it remarkable I can report to you that LSU actually won each of those games barring FSU*???
How was Brian Kelly able to fashion together his squad and Graduate Champions culture amid the chaotic criticism surrounding his program's every move, his quarterback choice, nearly every member of his staff put on the docket for firing discussions (& not just from message board nihilists), all while his team surrendered double digit leads to an opponent in 5 of LSU's 8 games?
In fact, counting Florida, LSU have allowed 6 of their 8 opponents to score at least 13 points in the first 2 quarters.
Throughout 2022's rollercoaster ride, there was one Saturday at home where LSU couldn't escape their early, repeated special teams & defensive debacles or offensive impotence:
Taking on Nick Saban's angry Crimson machine, if LSU give away 10 or more early points, it will be a very long night.
LSU must start strong in all three phases, find a passing rhythm, a semblance of a ground game, take advantage of red zone opportunities, and specifically minimize errors on special teams at all costs....because I have a feeling Saban will have something cooking up his sleeve for Brian Polian on Saturday.
3. A TALE OF TWO SO CAL QBs:
JAYDEN DANIELS / BRYCE YOUNG
The performances of these two quarterbacks will likely decide Saturday's heavyweight bout.
Whichever quarterback receives the strongest protection up front might not even win this game, such is the dual threat ability of both Daniels or Young.
Where will these two separate?
In the passing game.
Daniels doesn't have to match Bryce Young strike for strike, but if LSU's offense cannot solve the aerial equation on critical downs, they'll continually send their defense back out on to the field with shoulders firmly pressed against the wall....a profound losing recipe.
Meanwhile, Alabama's rushing defense is one of the stiffest in college football, holding 5 opponents to less than 80 yards.....though they are yet to face a rushing threat such as Jayden Daniels.
Relying on an injury-limited John Emery Jr, seemingly peripheral Noah Cain, a stout Armoni Goodwin only just back from an injury requiring surgery, while Josh Williams shoulders the load, LSU will need continued ground production, a solid passing game & explosion from Jayden Daniels to truly wear down Alabama's front:
At 431 rushing yards, 597 through the air, 40+ points, 14/23 on 3rd down and a near automatic red zone record over their past 2 games, LSU's offense is finding their next level at the right time....but will it be enough?
Protecting Daniels is a major key....
If Mike Denbrock is ready to run Daniels 15+ times vs Saban's defense, then LSU's starter will be forced to accept violent hits....each one designed to knock the So Cal native out of the game.
Savagely injuring an opponent's best player, specifically quarterbacks, is an old Alabama past time, an unassailable brutality which Saban's Tuscaloosa dynasty built their name upon, starting with Colt McCoy's broken collar bone during the 1st quarter of the 2010 BCS Championship Game.
We all remember Zach Mettenberger in 2013's sickening sprawl, his knee in tatters as he writhed on the field in agony, Alabama players cheering his anguish. (Intriguing aside: Mettenberger will be on the opposing sideline on Saturday night, now an analyst for Nick Saban's Tide).
Even last year....Max Johnson rode a litany of vicious hits from the bulk of this same Tide defense.
Right now, Will Campbell, Anthony Bradford, Emery Jones, Charles Turner, Miles Frazier, Garrett Dellinger, our backs in pass protection...their mission is to protect Daniels at all costs, allowing LSU's starter to dictate proceedings, keeping the Tigers' offense on the field, as well as setting a grand stage for Jayden to get the led out.
As for Bryce Young, Matt House's defense have only one option:
Attack the Heisman winner from as many vantage points, with as many personnel as possible....something this same veteran nucleus were able to execute last season against this very quarterback.
Who will spy Young?
Is this a job for Harold Perkins, Micah Baskerville or even perhaps BJ Ojulari???
One major move that typically messes with Young??
Dropping defensive ends into coverage, which is a job suitable for BJ Ojulari, Ali Gaye's lengthy arms or even the versatile Saivion Jones.
I'll just point out one stat which will define & decide this game: Whichever quarterback can lead his team to the most 3rd down conversions will win this game.
2. WRs vs DBs
One of these quarterbacks could finish the night throwing for over 400 passing yards and still lose this game....because 2022's version of LSU vs Alabama will be decided by the team with the most explosive plays rather than sheer volume production.
Although the Tigers' highly lauded receiving corps have been mere spectators through five of LSU's eight games, I would still take Kayshon Boutte over Ja'corey Brooks....hell, even Saban would....he tried to purchase Boutte's signature twice this offseason.
Malik Nabers over Jermaine Burton??
Is that even a question....no Brainer...MALIK.
"Big Play" Jaray Jenkins already has 5 touchdowns through 8 games, tied for the most of any participating receiver on either squad, though LSU's senior wide out is yet to score a career touchdown against Alabama.
Always a first time for everything.
Brian Thomas Jr could be a profound mismatch on the outside against anyone. Once recruited down to the last second by Alabama, Thomas Jr scored the opening touchdown last year in Tuscaloosa; let's hope he's given an opportunity to ascend on a big stage.
Tight end Cameron Latu is a key danger man for Bryce Young, a big body former edge rusher turned tight end who consistently supplies big plays in the biggest games: hauling in 8 TDs last season before recording 90 yards, 6 catches and a TD vs Tennessee in 2022.
The real question marks & potential difference makers reside in the pass-catchers who's inclusion, beyond supporting roles, may be in doubt:
For Alabama, you need to hit LSU in the mouth, through special teams as well as the passing game. Who can provide both??
None other than former 2021 LSU commit Jo Jo Earle, a prime athlete who has missed a sizeable chunk of action due to a fractured foot. Just 5 catches and over 100 yards on the season....2 ending up as touchdowns....
He is a special kind of heat-seeking playmaker, one that LSU's secondary may not be equipped to handle....if he's healthy...
For LSU, I submit Jack Bech, a dynamic receiver who bossed Alabama's defense for 60 minutes last season, only for errant throws from Max Johnson costing multiple potential game-winning opportunities for LSU's leading 2021 receiver.
Rated as LSU's #1 WR vs Alabama by Pro Football Focus, then-freshman Bech caught three crucial first downs and scored on the road that night, receiving 5 passes from 8 total targets with 0 drops.
Despite his fumbles on special teams (as much to do with Brian Polian as anything else), if Jack is deployed in his regular position at receiver and given touches, the sophomore's robust physicality (alongside deceptive, feverish pace) could set the tone for LSU's offense.
Overall, I give LSU's receiving corps the edge over the Tide, but Pete Golding's DBs just narrowly rate higher pregame than DBU's transfer uncertainty and lack of depth.
Sophomore corner Kool-aid McKinstry is having a good season after a strong debut campaign, but DeMarcco Hellams, Terrion Arnold and Kendrick Blackshire are all susceptible for big plays in behind.
Mostly, I believe we'll see former LSU Tiger standout Eli Ricks opposite Kool-aid...a strong tandem that'll require every piece of creativity and athleticism from Cortez Hankton's group.
1. THE MOST AGGRESSIVE TEAM WINS
From my vantage point, this Saturday has the makings of a true bloodbath, a feast of fury for the football fiends gathered in their masses to pay tribute to another death rattle between these two primal SEC West programs.
With LSU's Jay Ward and BJ Ojulari or Alabama's Will Anderson and Brian Branch leading the way for each defense, this should be college football's most violent game of the season:
Both defensive units arrive with solid pedigree but also something to prove.
Simultaneously, the trench battle should be ferocious viewing as well, each set of linemen sprinkled with veterans.....but still based in the aggressive stamina-trappings of youth.
Neither LSU nor Alabama will shy away from contact in this game...however, I feel the squad who is able to psychologically intimidate the other will reign supreme.
Saturday could be a shootout, it could turn into a rain-drenched slug fest....but just like this rivalry's 2019 entry, old school football still decided that outcome....and it will decide 2022's final score once again.
OUR PREDICTIONS PIECE COMING NEXT!!!
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
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