Rested and ready, LSU has plenty of reasons to think it can beat Alabama
Let’s make one thing clear: Rescheduling the Florida game because of Hurricane Matthew does LSU few favors.
The Tigers lose a home game next year and now have the toughest stretch run in all of college football once you take South Alabama out and insert Florida in the Nov. 19 playing date (LSU had to buy out USA to make room for the Florida game).
But there are a couple of good things that came out of it for LSU. The Tigers get to host the Gators instead of going to Gainesville this season. And, more important for this week’s showdown with Alabama, the Tigers ended up with not one, but two open dates in a four-week span.
And they were much-needed.
The injury bug hit LSU hard and early this year. Just look at the toll: Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette left camp with an ankle injury and has not been 100 percent, nor would he get to 100 percent without a lot of rest. The offensive line has been a patchwork weekly experiment thanks to injuries to right tackle Toby Weathersby and left guard Will Clapp.
The defense has been without defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, who was lost for the season in August camp, and linebacker Corey Thompson, who broke his leg in August as well. Safety Rickey Jefferson was lost for the season with a broken leg a few weeks ago.
This was headed towards being one of those seasons where injuries killed the Tigers’ chances before they started.
But a funny thing happened.
Hurricane Matthew brushed near Gainesville, Fla. in early October, leading to Florida having the LSU game postponed (and the ensuing controversy over if and when to reschedule it). Even as Miami and Florida State played in Miami and the sun shined in Gainesville (and Notre Dame and North Carolina State braved the brunt of the storm to keep their game on schedule), LSU and Florida players spent Oct. 8 by their pools or, better yet, on the training tables, resting their assorted bumps and bruises.
Three weeks later, LSU rested again on Oct. 29, the open date that was already on the schedule.
And what happened in that time? Fournette’s ankle healed enough for him to gain a school-record 284 rushing yards in a 38-21 win over Ole Miss on Oct. 22. The offensive line healed up enough that the original starting five that includes both Weathersby and Clapp might be ready to start together in the Alabama game for the first time since the season opener against Wisconsin. Jefferson’s replacement, John Battle, had another week to settle into the starting job. Heck, Thompson might even be ready for Alabama.
This will indeed be a pretty healthy LSU team when the Tide comes calling on Saturday night.
There’s a lot to be said for two byes in four weeks.
So Alabama will see a healthy LSU team. But it’s also an LSU team that is arguably the most ready to compete with a top-flight Alabama team like this one since the 2012 team that lost to Alabama, 21-17, on a last-minute, AJ McCarron-led drive.
Why is that? Besides being rested, No. 15 LSU (5-2) has a few reasons to think it can knock off the top-ranked Crimson Tide (8-0). Among them:
1. This team trusts its quarterback: Did Les Miles not trust his quarterbacks because they weren’t trustworthy, or did Miles just not trust his quarterbacks irrationally?
Whatever the answer to that question is, it’s clear that interim head coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger have more trust in quarterback Danny Etling than Miles did with any quarterback he had in the last eight seasons, with the exception of Zach Mettenberger’s senior year in 2013.
Etling is 49-for-76 for 696 yards with 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in three games under Orgeron. He has exceeded 200 yards passing in every game of the Orgeron era after LSU had only eight 200-yard passing performances from a starting quarterback in the previous 33 games, dating back to 2013.
Some of that has to do with trusting quarterbacks to make plays. Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings didn’t appear trusted to check out of running plays to pass plays. There was a fear of a bad play, and when the Tigers played the Tide, Alabama sensed that fear and turned it into game plans that would dare LSU to try to throw.
And the Tigers haven’t been able to. Last year, the Alabama defense swarmed Fournette to the tune of 31 yards on 19 carries while Harris was only 6-for-19 throwing in a 30-16 Alabama win. The year before, in a 20-13 Alabama win in overtime, LSU averaged less than four yards a rush, but Anthony Jennings was just 8-for-26 throwing.
This year, if Alabama shows looks to take out the run, Etling has appeared able to make good enough plays to make the Tide defense honest. And the coaches seem to trust him to make those decisions.
2. LSU will scheme Alabama out of looks: A year ago, LSU would stay in tight formations with a fullback and a tight end, even as Alabama ganged up in the box.
Even if the Tigers could block the Tide front, Alabama had (and still has) too much talent up front to expect all of the blockers to be able to maintain their blocks against the Tide’s elite defenders.
Ensminger plays more two tight end and multiple wide receiver looks, which will naturally force Crimson Tide defenders to spread wider to account for the potential receivers. This will make the “box” less crowded for Fournette and Derrius Guice to find a hole.
In other words, the running game will have a better chance to succeed against this defense, even if the passing game doesn’t do a lot to help.
3. Dave Aranda’s sound defense: A year ago, LSU’s defense had a propensity to allow big plays under Kevin Steele. This year, LSU has been getting more and more sound on defense under Dave Aranda, one of the most respected defensive coordinators in college football.
This will be the best defense Alabama plays against this regular season, with the possible exception of Auburn in the Iron Bowl. If LSU keeps it close by making plays on offense, will a talented Tigers defense full of future high NFL Draft picks start to make Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts look like the true freshman he is?
4. Ed Orgeron: LSU won the “Field Goal Bowl” 9-6 in 2011, and that was the last time a Les Miles team beat the Crimson Tide.
Since then, Nick Saban and the Tide simply figured out the Miles puzzle.
But Orgeron is a different coach with a different way of doing things. LSU remains the team in the SEC that best matches Alabama athlete-for-athlete, but now the Tigers have a new approach they believe in — a 3-0 start by a combined 125-38 score proves that — that Saban must prove he can solve.
Orgeron has also been able to take advantage of the two open weeks to install his system with the Tigers. That’s like half a regular August camp. By now, this is clearly Orgeron’s team that plays the way he wants it to play.
So this will be a different puzzle for Saban to solve than the one he mastered coaching against Miles in recent years.
5. It’s Saturday night in Death Valley: Alabama has owned LSU since beating the Tigers 21-0 in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game with five straight wins.
But in games in Baton Rouge, there have been wars. We mentioned the overtime game in 2014 and the late-game heroics in 2012. LSU won 24-21 in 2010 and in 2008, Alabama needed overtime to escape Tiger Stadium.
LSU won in 2006 and 2004, and you have to go all the way back to 2002, a 31-0 Alabama rout of the Nick Saban-coached Tigers, to find the last time Alabama came to Baton Rouge and dominated.
Certainly, this Alabama team is one capable of dominating anybody, anywhere, especially when the opponent makes mistakes and gives the Crimson Tide a little blood in the water.
But there are plenty of reasons to think this LSU team — rested and healthy, sound on defense, with a new coach that has his team rolling and with a quarterback he trusts on a Saturday night in Baton Rouge — will be different.