Alabama vs. LSU: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistOctober 31, 2016

Alabama vs. LSU: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    It's not the SEC championship game, but it's about as close as it gets during the regular season. When Alabama and LSU meet each year in early November, as has been the case every year since 1982, it feels like much more than a normal game.

    Maybe it's the overabundance of NFL talent on the field, as the Crimson Tide and Tigers typically send a lot of players to the draft. It could be the coaching connection, as Alabama's Nick Saban previously roamed LSU's sideline (and has won national titles for both schools). Or it could just be the expectation of a close game, with seven of the past 10 meetings being decided by nine or fewer points.

    There's also the fact the schools met following the 2011 season for the BCS championship—Alabama won 21-0 win to avenge a 9-6 loss a few months earlier. Whatever the case, Alabama vs. LSU is must-see college football each year, and this season is no different.

    The top-ranked Tide (8-0, 5-0) have won 20 consecutive games, including a 30-16 home win over LSU last November. LSU (5-2, 3-1) is on a three-game win streak, all under interim coach Ed Orgeron, and has risen to 15th in the country, as its offense has caught fire in a way that was rarely seen with Les Miles at the helm.

    Viewing Information

    Date: Saturday

    Time: 8 p.m. ET

    Place: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

    TV: CBS

    Radio: Crimson Tide Sports Network; LSU Football Radio Network

    Spread: Alabama -7, per Odds Shark

Alabama Keys to Victory

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    Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

    Stay the Course

    With 20 consecutive victories coming into this one, it's not as if Alabama has been doing anything wrong. At least not to the point that something has to change in order to keep the streak going.

    If anything, the bye week may have served as an unintended interruption of the Crimson Tide's momentum. Before taking a week off, they had won their past five games by at least 19 points, with the last two coming against Top 10 teams.

    Alabama's offensive balance—it has run on 58 percent or more of its plays in five of seven games—has worked, and there's no reason to stray from that, even though LSU ranks eighth nationally in run defense and has allowed only four passing touchdowns. The Tide tend to dictate where things go, and that shouldn't change in this game.

    Disrupt the Backfield

    LSU's quarterbacks have been sacked just 11 times in seven games, with opponents being credited for only 12 QB hurries along the way. That's despite some in-season shifting on the offensive line, notably at right tackle, where three different players have started.

    Alabama, on the other hand, has an FBS-leading 32 sacks with at least three in every game, along with 46 hurries. Not surprisingly, this has led to 13 forced fumbles and 16 takeaways.

    It's not just pass pressure that's doing it for the Tide. They've had at least 10 tackles for losses in the past three games, and the 70.1 rushing yards per game they allow is tops in the country. All of that comes from tearing open the pocket or busting through run blocks and forcing opponents out of their comfort zone.

LSU Keys to Victory

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    Stay Aggressive

    Look at LSU's offense the last three games and you'll notice something different from the version that was on display in September. It's not like the Tigers suddenly discovered new players, but after Les Miles was fired and Ed Orgeron took over, they've become far more diverse and creative, resulting in tremendous numbers.

    The Tigers averaged 41.7 points and 536 yards per game in dominant wins over Missouri, Southern Mississippi and Ole Miss. In their first four games, LSU averaged 21 and 339.5 yards per game.

    LSU has an incredible weapon in junior Leonard Fournette, but he's played in only four games (and just one under Orgeron). His absence forced the Tigers to be more creative and diverse on offense, particularly in the passing game with quarterback Danny Etling, who is currently averaging 9.2 yards per attempt compared to the 6.0 average he had prior to Miles' firing.

    Take Care of the Ball

    LSU has a minus-one turnover margin, which is tied for 71st in FBS, with six lost fumbles and five interceptions in seven games. It gave the ball away three times in the last game against Ole Miss, with one of those turnovers—a fumble by Etling—setting up the Rebels to score a touchdown three plays later.

    The Tigers have yielded only 11 points off turnovers this season, but they can ill afford to be careless with the ball against Alabama. The Crimson Tide are notorious for capitalizing on mistakes, scoring 90 points off opponent turnovers including nine defensive touchdowns. They have scored a non-offensive TD in 10 consecutive games.

Alabama Players to Watch

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    John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

    Jalen Hurts

    Nick Saban had never played a true freshman quarterback before, let alone start one, but he'd never before had someone as athletic as Hurts. The first true dual-threat passer Saban has been able to work with, Hurts has revolutionized Alabama's offense and forced teams to pay close attention to every move he makes.

    Inserted in the third series of the opener against USC and after he turned it over on his first play, it's been mostly nothing but greatness from the 6'2”, 209-pounder. He's completing 63.2 percent of his passes for 1,578 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions and has run for 521 yards and nine scores. That's 45 percent of the Crimson Tide's rushing TDs. He's the second-leading rusher on the team, twice topping the 100-yard mark on the ground.

    Alabama's last QB to run for 100 or more yards was in 2001.

    Jonathan Allen

    On a defense where pretty much everyone has had at least one highlight-reel play this season, Allen has still managed to stand out. This has carried over from his junior year, when Allen had 12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss despite not being a full-time starter. In 2016, he's continued to rise not just on the field but on draft boards.

    According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, the 6'3”, 291-pound senior could be the next J.J. Watt because of the "athleticism and playing style" that enable him to play end or on the interior. Allen's performance in Alabama's last win against Texas A&M continued his upward trajectory thanks to a sack (in which he dove over a blocker) and a 30-yard fumble return for his second defensive touchdown of the season.

    "Allen has always been a top-five player in this class, but now the football world is seeing just how dominant he is," Miller wrote.

LSU Players to Watch

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Leonard Fournette

    He's back…and after playing only four games this season, the nation's best running back might be just hitting his stride in 2016.

    Fournette was sidelined for three of LSU's first seven games because of leg injuries and then returned on Oct. 22 to run for 284 yards and three touchdowns on just 16 carries. That was the fifth 200-yard game of his career and his seventh straight contest with at least 100 rushing yards, which moved him within 900 yards of Kevin Faulk for LSU's career rushing record.

    Faulk got his 4,557 yards in 41 games, compared to 29 for the 6'1”, 235-pound Fournette.

    Alabama is the only team that's managed to stop him the past two seasons, holding Fournette to 31 yards on 19 carries last season.

    Arden Key

    LSU's sophomore defensive end leads FBS in sacks per game at 1.14, and he's been rated as one of the best pass-rushers in the country by Pro Football Focus. And he's just getting started.

    The 6'6”, 238-pounder has nine tackles for loss and 34 tackles. He's also credited with eight QB hurries, three forced fumbles and two pass breakups. He was one of the Tigers' few bright spots in last year's loss at Alabama, recording a sack and six tackles.

What They're Saying

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    LSU's official record is 5-2, but in the eyes of Alabama coach Nick Saban, it's really 3-0. That's the Tigers' record since they fired Les Miles following an 18-13 loss at Auburn in late September. Ed Orgeron has won every game as interim coach.

    "We consider this an undefeated team because they haven’t lost under their new coach," Saban said, per Marq Burnett of SECCountry.com.

    What do you give a college football coach who has everything? Monday was Saban's 65th birthday, and he apparently received only one gift, but it was a doozy, according to Kyle Burger of WVTM 13

    This is Orgeron's second gig as an interim head coach, following a similar gig at USC in 2013. That came after Lane Kiffin was fired midseason; Orgeron went 6-2 with the Trojans but wasn't considered for the permanent job.

    Many big names have been mentioned as possible LSU hires, but should Orgeron get a shot if he keeps winning? In early October, he told ESPN's Paul Finebaum (h/t TigerDroppings.com) he thinks there's a chance, if things go well the rest of this season.

    "We'll we're going to see," Orgeron said. "I feel that there's some support in the administration. I'm from Louisiana but I also understand that pressure to win games at LSU. We have to win games. I think that if we do win games, I will have a fair shot at being the head coach here."

Prediction

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The LSU team that Ed Orgeron has led out onto the field the past month is dangerous, as shown by its suddenly explosive offensive numbers. But consider the opponents the Tigers have faced in that span—Missouri, Southern Mississippi and Ole Miss. None of them is particularly strong on defense. That all changes with the arrival of Alabama and its fourth-ranked unit.

    Alabama has held four of its opponents to less than 200 yards, and six managed fewer than 300. Arkansas and Ole Miss combined for 73 points and 995 yards, but most of that was through the air because even the thought of running the ball is pointless for most teams.

    LSU won't give up the run that easily, not with Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice at its disposal. But to beat the Tide, the Tigers will need to open things up, and quarterback Danny Etling may not have enough time to find open receivers.

    Add in the fact that 'Bama seems to play its best away from home, and the normally ominous atmosphere in Death Valley won't have the same effect it has on other teams.

    Alabama 26, LSU 20

    All recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com, unless otherwise noted. All statistics provided by CFBStats, unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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