Who has the edge?
The Tigers’ tandem of Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson has meshed into a formidable weapon on offense that the coaches use in very specific situations with very strong results – 16 touchdown passes in 176 pass attempts with only one interception. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron has blossomed since securing the job by himself and is averaging 208 passing yards a game with a 10-to-3 TD-to-interception ratio. But the edge goes to the Tigers’ two seniors because they have been through the rigors of SEC play the last four years, while this is McCarron’s ninth game. More to the point, Lee in particular has taken LSU on the road four times this season and thrived while McCarron has rarely been pushed.
Running back: Alabama
Star power vs. depth at this spot and Trent Richardson gives the Crimson Tide a slight nod because of the Heisman Trophy-caliber season he’s producing. He’s rolled up 989 rushing yards – 6.6 yards a pop – and has scored 17 touchdowns to pace the Crimson Tide’s SEC-best rushing offense (229.2 yards a game). Eddie Lacy is a nice complement with 465 yards and 9 TDs and he’s apparently back to full strength after grappling with a turf toe for several weeks. LSU counters with a full deck again, thanks to Spencer Ware’s return. He headlines a crew that has pounded out 189 yards a game facing stiffer defenses than the Tide. But none of the Tigers’ backs are equal to Richardson and Lacy is a stronger backup at this point than Michael Ford, Alfred Blue or Kenny Hilliard.
Receivers/tight ends: LSU
With 33 catches for 638 yards and seven touchdown catches Rueben Randle alone would give the Tigers an edge in the receiving game, and he’s gotten plenty of help this season from Odell Beckham Jr. and Russell Shepard, who each have two touchdown receptions – one more than Alabama’s leading pass-catcher, Marquis Maze. The Tide stacks up well at tight end, with Brad Smelley and Michael Williams as the primary threats comparable to DeAngelo Peterson and Chase Clement.
Offensive line: Even
Hard to detect much of an edge here for either team. Veterans abound on both o-lines and each crew has been pivotal to their offenses running the ball and their quarterbacks being protected well. Alabama’s core five might be a little stronger and consistent, but LSU has more depth, experience and versatility. The Crimson Tide will focus on more straight-ahead blocking, while the Tigers pull from both sides. The game will hinge greatly on how these two units fare, and the standoff here is a big reason why this game figures to be so close.
Defensive line: LSU
Alabama’s front three are a force to be sure, but their role is more to disrupt and redirect. LSU, meanwhile, leans on its front four – as well as the next four behind them – to set the tone against the run and take the pressure off the linebacker corps and allow a talented secondary to dominant. The Tigers’ ends in particular will be a major factor on the edges, both at containing the Bama backs and applying pressure on McCarron. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo will be the best rush ends on the field.
Not hard to sift through this one. Alabama’s linebacker corps may be the best in the country, anchored by Dont’ a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, and LSU’s group has been underwhelming most of the season. Ryan Baker is steady and Kevin Minter is coming on, but the Tigers don’t have the power or the physicality of the Crimson Tide’s linebackers. If Alabama’s linebackers dominate like they have most of the season, it could be a long, long day for LSU’s offense.
Much like the offensive line standoff, there’s too much talent to distinguish who has the advantage here. And these two groups – like the o-lines – will likely set the tone for whatever the opposing offense is able to do. Both teams will have to throw the ball to win, and there will be plays to be made. The Tigers have been more adapt at creating turnovers in the secondary with 10 interceptions and four forced fumbles and if they follow that script, their impact could be huge in a game that figures to be so closely contested.
Special teams: LSU
Alabama may wind up with some return yards, courtesy of Maze. But he will likely have a long field to navigate because Brad Wing and James Hairston have been so effective with their kicks. LSU hasn’t gotten the same kind of consistent production on returns, but Claiborne does have a kickoff return for a touchdown and Beckham and Shepard showed flashes of being home-run threats against Auburn two weeks ago. In the place-kicking department, Drew Alleman has been a threat from longer and has missed only two field goals, one from beyond 50 yards.