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09 Jan 2012

SDA: BCS Championship Preview

by Brian Fremeau and Rob Weintraub

For the first time in BCS history, the national championship game is a regular season rematch. As any sentient college football fan is aware, LSU and Alabama tangled on November 5 in Tuscaloosa. The Tigers came away with a 9-6 win in overtime, a defensive slugfest that left many commentators unfulfilled. For others, the low-scoring affair was celebrated, expecially in the context of this ongoing ArenaBall era of pigskin, in both the professional and college ranks. Alabama kickers missed four field goals between them, including a 52-yarder in overtime. LSU’s special teams, notably kicker Drew Alleman and punter Brad Wing, embodied the most significant difference between the teams.

Because both teams sport athletic, deep, and playmaking defenses, the onus will be on the offenses to find ways to move the ball and actually get in the end zone. Another low-scoring game seems to be in the offing -- the over/under is only 40 points, the lowest in BCS history. The line on another TD-free game is only 20-1. Nevertheless, big games like this have a way of compounding expectations. Remember last season, when Auburn and Oregon were supposed to break the scoreboard, and instead combined for 41 points? With weeks of preparation time, Les Miles and Nick Saban are bound to open things up more than they did in the clenched first encounter.

We break down our expectations for the rematch of the century below, both through the lens of our advanced statistics and our own observations of two of the most dominant teams in the nation this season.

When Alabama Has The Ball

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Alabama Offense 10 6 18 5 2 4 5
LSU Defense 1 1 2 2 1 1 1

Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Alabama Offense 62.4% 2 45.0% 12
LSU Defense 57.6% 1 25.7% 5
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Rob Weintraub: The idea that Alabama was completely shut down by LSU in the first game is false. The Tide managed 4.92 yards per play, more than any Tigers opponent except air raid teams West Virginia and Arkansas. LSU stiffened in the red zone, repeatedly forcing field goals that Bama missed, along with the memorable goal line interception by safety Eric Reid that keyed the LSU win. However, Bama put up just shy of 200 yards passing and 100 yards rushing.

Running back Trent Richardson was the best player on the field for large stretches of the first game, and it goes without saying that he will play an important role in the rematch. Because of Bama’s year-long kicking struggles (see below), Saban will likely be more inclined to consider LSU’s side of the field four-down territory. Third-and-8 won’t become an automatic passing down, and Richardson can also contribute as a receiver in those situations -- he had 327 yards through the air in 2011, and caught five balls for 80 yards to be Bama’s leading receiver in the first encounter. Richardson’s main import will be to prevent LSU’s front from teeing off on Tide sophomore quarterback A.J. McCarron. LSU’s turnover hungry defense will be primed to rip the ball away, but Richardson hasn’t lost a fumble in 550 touches.

Alabama’s offensive line, led by Outland Trophy winning tackle Barrett Jones, is better than LSU’s. The unit paved the way for 220 yards per game on the ground and allowed just 15 sacks on the season. They handled themselves well enough in the first game, especially considering Jones was gimpy on a bad ankle. They're one of the few lines that have the ability to stand up to LSU’s outstanding front -- the Tigers only sacked McCarron twice, both by Sam Montgomery. That success may cause LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis to use more blitz packages than he usually does. McCarron has had a solid, if unspectacular, season as a first-year starter. He has taken care of the ball (only five interceptions) and has been accurate (67 percent completion percentage). Efficiency in the red zone was his main bugaboo, not just against LSU but all year: his completion percentage dipped to 47 percent inside the 20, though his touchdown-to-interception ratio in the red zone was an Andrew Luck-esque 8-0.

Tight end Brad Smelley and backup Michael Williams will be McCarron’s primary targets if LSU blitzes more often. As the year progressed, Bama turned to the tight ends to gash defenses stacked against the run more and more. Smelley had ten of his 27 catches in the last two games. The key will be the matchups Bama can create. Smelley has good speed and will be a problem for any of LSU’s linebackers to handle. On the other hand, it was Williams who had the ball ripped from him by Reid in the aforementioned end zone pick. Reid and fellow safety Brandon Taylor have feasted all season on teams afraid to throw outside against LSU’s fantastic cornerbacks (Morris Claiborne, Ron Brooks, and the Honey Badger himself, Tyrann Mathieu). Bama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain will have to design some schemes that lure the safeties away from Smelley and Williams.

Brian Fremeau: LSU’s success has often been tied to its ability to pin an opponent deep, get the stop, and turn the next possession into a score. Against the Tigers, opponents started 41 non-clock kill possessions inside their own 20-yard line this year and LSU gave up a touchdown on only two of those drives (one each by West Virginia and Auburn). Against the Tide back in November, LSU managed to force Alabama to start four drives inside its own 20-yard line. Alabama was up to the challenge.

The Crimson Tide earned 201 of their 295 yards for the game on those four pinned-deep drives. They ran a total of nine plays from inside their own 20-yard line and only one was a third-down attempt (McCarron to Marquis Maze for 19 yards on third-and-9 from their own 6 in the first quarter). Alabama has rushed on 68 percent of its snaps inside its own 20-yard line this year and Trent Richardson’s number was called four times for 24 yards in this area the first time around.

But the pinned-deep performance against LSU was nothing new. Alabama had 22 offensive possessions all season start inside its own-20 yard line and they went three-and-out or worse on only two of those drives (both against Auburn). Only Boise State (23-of-25) had a better first down rate, and only Baylor (70.9) and Stanford (58.3) had a better yards per drive average than Alabama (55.1) on possessions started in that area of the field.

All that said, Alabama was only able to convert one of its four pinned-deep drives into points on the scoreboard. LSU scored twice on the possession immediately following those drives, answering a second-quarter field goal with one of their own and picking off McCarron to set up another field goal early in the fourth quarter. Alabama’s ability to dig itself out of a hole was important even if it didn’t show up on the scoreboard. It will be critical again in the rematch, especially if the Crimson Tide fail to win the field position battle again.

When LSU Has The Ball

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
LSU Offense 3 7 8 3 4 6 2
Alabama Defense 2 2 3 1 2 2 2

Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
LSU Offense 75.0% 4 41.9% 3
Alabama Defense 59.9% 2 34.4% 1
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Rob Weintraub: The first meeting between these teams was a watershed moment in LSU’s season. Jordan Jefferson took over for frightened doe Jarrett Lee (who threw two early picks) and reestablished himself as LSU’s starter after a preseason brawl threatened his spot on the team, not to mention his spot in free society. Jefferson’s speed and option game provided the sum of LSU’s attack against Bama, and his ability to work the boundaries will be key once again.

The Tide’s defensive strength is in the interior, where linebackers Dont’a Hightower (led the team with 81 tackles) and Courtney Upshaw (17 tackles for loss), along with run stuffing safety Mark Barron, make the middle of the field a snakepit for opposing offenses. Running between the tackles is LSU’s strong suit, and when Bama took that away, the offense scuffled. What yards were there to be made came courtesy of Jefferson’s ability to make plays on the move. He had 43 yards on the ground in the November game, and has made the overall running attack much more effective. LSU is averaging 284 yards rushing since the Bama game, and have averaged 7.3, 7.1, 6.3, and 5.9 yards per carry in those four games -- they hadn't finished a game with an average above 4.8 in the nine prior contests.

LSU has followed a basic blueprint for most of the season, slamming away with four talented running backs -- Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, and Kenny Hilliard, who scored an amazing 30 touchdowns on the ground between them. By the fourth quarter, enemy defenses folded under the onslaught. The splits are stark. LSU ran for 912 yards and 4.02 per carry in the first half this season, 1,885 and 5.54 in the second.

Alabama is the lone team in the country that has a shot at slowing the LSU ground steamroller, especially if they can get a working lead and force the Tigers to the air. LSU actually has a strong receiver group, led by Reuben Randle, who had eight touchdowns and averaged 18 yards per catch. But LSU only threw it 20 times per game, last in the SEC. That was partly by game plan, but also partly because neither Jefferson nor Lee terrifies defenses with their accuracy or poise. Aside from a 34-yard pass to Russell Shepard, LSU averaged a puny 7.1 yards per completion in the first game against Bama. While LSU’s corners get (deserved) love from the nation, Alabama’s corners, in particular Dre Kirkpatrick, are almost as good.

Finding a way to open the field vertically is paramount for LSU. An early big play to Randle, Shepard, or Odell Beckham would keep Bama’s linebackers and safeties from their forward momentum. More misdirection in the attack would clear the cleats of the defense, giving LSU’s weaponry vital space to work. Kirkpatrick’s opposite corner, senior DeQuan Menzie, has reportedly been practicing with an injured thigh that is heavily wrapped. Look for LSU to attempt to attack him early with deep balls in an attempt to unlock the Tide defense.

Brian Fremeau: If you want to reach the end zone against Alabama, you have to strike with the big play. In FBS games, the Crimson Tide gave up only nine touchdowns this season. Two came via defense or special teams in the Auburn game. Two others were scored on short fields set up by defense or special teams in the Kent State and Mississippi State games. Of the other five, three touchdowns (one each by Arkansas, Florida, and Ole Miss) were scored on explosive quick-strike drives. Only twice all year did a drive lasting more than five plays reach the end zone against Alabama, one each by Arkansas and Penn State.

The Tigers were the best in the nation in points per explosive drive margin on the year (6.8 offense, 3.7 defense), but they weren’t able to cobble together a single explosive drive against the Tide in the first matchup. LSU only had seven plays that earned at least 10 yards in the game, and on only two drives were they able to couple two such plays in the same possession. The distribution was good though, with Michael Ford, and Jordan Jefferson, Rueben Randle, Chase Clement, Odell Beckham and Russell Shepard each contributing at least one 10-plus yard play.

As Rob points out, Jordan Jefferson’s versatility makes more of those big plays possible. Six of the seven 10-plus yard plays came with Jefferson at quarterback. The more weapons LSU can throw at Alabama, the better off they’ll be.

When things do bog down and the Tigers need to gut out a long drive, they’ll need production from every one of those weapons. However, in short yardage situations this season, the Tigers called on running back Spencer Ware more often than not. Alabama surrendered the first down on only 10-of-22 rushing attempts on third-and-short this year, but Ware earned a first down on 10-of-15 attempts for LSU in those situations. In the first matchup, Ware had only one carry on the three LSU drives that resulted in a three-and-out or worse. Those plays will be the difference in a limited-scoring slugfest.

Special Teams

Team FGE PE PRE KE KRE STE Total ST
Value
Alabama -0.19 (84) -0.01 (73) +0.06 (19) +0.06 (96) -0.09 (62) -0.67 (78) -0.1
LSU +0.35 (19) -0.38 (2) +0.18 (3) -0.25 (18) -0.23 (102) +3.21 (3) +39.6

Rob Weintraub: Here is where LSU has a decided advantage, though it’s doubtful it can possibly come into play as much as it did in Tuscaloosa. Alleman was 16-of-18 on the season on field goals, while Bama’s pair were 18-of-29 for a mere 62 percent success rate. Punter Brad Wing was the MVP of the first matchup, killing four punts inside the 20. He was 15th in the nation in punting gross average, but he is a freshman, not to mention an Aussie (which is apropos of nothing -- just like to mention it). Bama’s Cody Mandell isn’t bad, but doesn’t have anything like Wing’s big leg and game-tilting capability.

One thing that Bama did well in the first game was preventing LSU from winning the game with its kickoff coverage. Against most opposition, the athletes the Tigers send out to cover kicks scare the bejesus out of the returners. Against Auburn, the unit delivered three consecutive knockout blows, two by Jarvis Landry, a freshman wide receiver. You half-expected Auburn to fair catch the remainder of the kickoffs after that intimidating display. Maze and Richardson were unbowed by the purple swarm. By merely preventing LSU’s kick return unit from making a big play, Bama will have won a small battle.

Of course, the most electricifying aspect of LSU’s special teams is Mathieu’s punt returns, which single-handedly swung the Arkansas and Georgia games to close the season. Many commentators will offer gems like "No way can Saban kick to Matthieu," and Mathieu didn’t have a return in the first encounter, but of course it isn’t that simple. For one thing, Bama has the athletes to slow the Badger, and will take pride in doing so. For another, just kicking the ball out of bounds every time isn’t very easy or effective, especially for college punters. In a game where field position is so paramount, giving up 10-20 yards on punts just to prevent Mathieu from touching the ball is almost as debilitating as giving up a big return, though of course not as bad in the PR department.

Brian Fremeau: The bowl season (and regular season, for that matter) was peppered with field goal failures in big spots, and with these defenses, the kickers are likely to be the featured players once more. Yes, Alleman has been much more reliable than Alabama’s duo of Shelley and Foster, but it isn’t like Alleman has a big leg. Neither team made a single field goal this year on an attempt of 47 yards or more.

The failures in the first matchup will loom large, but only if LSU’s defense helps keep Alabama out of short field goal range again. The four missed attempts by Alabama in November represent four of the eight longest attempts of the Crimson Tide’s entire season. On kicks attempted from 30 yards or less, Shelley and Foster were 10-of-10 on the year. Alleman was 9-of-10, including all three successful attempts in the first game.



LSU punted six times back on November 5, and Alabama only punted twice. That the Tigers lost drive value on both of their non-returns and still earned more total value than Alabama on punt exchanges in the game tells you all you need to know about Brad Wing’s value to LSU. Wing’s 73-yarder from LSU’s own 9 may have been the most valuable punt of the year. Based on national data, an average punt from there would be expected to yield field position in LSU territory. Instead, it stripped the Crimson Tide of 1.6 points in field position value on a possession that ought to have positioned Alabama for the game-winning points.

The Verdict

Rob Weintraub: Alabama is a slight favorite, mainly based on the idea that they outplayed LSU for the most part in the first game and should have won, and on the idea that beating Bama twice in one season is a difficult concept for most folks to grasp. That’s understandable, and to a point I agree, but I still like LSU to do it again. I think the fast carpet and small-but-decisive home-crowd edge they should have in the Superdome are advantages. Mostly, I just think that LSU has more athletes, more game-changers, and a touch of magic dust to their season. Going down double digits and roaring back to rout their last two opponents was a boon for the Tigers, allowing them to simultaneously stay grounded and believe in their own invincibility. I keep remembering the 2009 title game, when Saban outthought himself after having all that time to prepare for Texas, and almost coached his way out of what should have been a convincing win. I’ll roll with The Lester one more time.
Rob's Prediction: LSU 22, Alabama 17

Brian Fremeau: We're basically in agreement, both in the manner in which we expect LSU to win and the final score. Alabama may once again win the overall yardage battle in the game, but with LSU's penchant for defensive and special teams magic, a field position advantage for the Tigers will likely be the most significant factor. One more reason to like LSU? In the FEI era (2003-to-present), the national championship game has always been won by the team that played the tougher strength of schedule along the way.
F/+ Prediction: LSU 23, Alabama 17.

Posted by: Brian Fremeau on 09 Jan 2012

8 comments, Last at 10 Jan 2012, 10:15am by Aaron Brooks Good Twin

Comments

1
by Thunderbolt of ... :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 1:54pm

Even though I can't stand Nick Saban and his ethically bankrupt oversigning practices, I sort of hope Alabama wins a low-scoring game by three points to highlight the stupidity of the BCS. But mostly, I hope the blimp crashes into the stadium (without hurting anyone, of course) and they have to cancel the game.

6
by mm (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 9:51pm

"I sort of hope Alabama wins a low-scoring game by three points to highlight the stupidity of the BCS."

How would Alabama winning disprove the idea that Alabama was the best team in the country they could have picked to play LSU?

2
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 2:43pm

This is the third rematch game this season. (LSU-Alabama, Wisconsin-MSU, VT-Clemson)

The other two went almost exactly like the first meeting between the teams. I don't see how this one will be any different, either.

3
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 3:43pm

Has anyone tracked the success of a team playing a home game in the NC game (or its pre-BCS equivalent)?

(UCLA/USC in the Rose Bowl, Miami in the Orange Bowl, LSU in the Sugar Bowl, probably Oklahoma or Texas in the Cotton Bowl)

4
by silentcent2 (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 8:16pm

LSU 24-16

Advantages:

Special Teams
Mobile QB
More play makers
Special Teams (Huge Advantage)

5
by princeton73 (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 8:17pm

"Has anyone tracked the success of a team playing a home game in the NC game (or its pre-BCS equivalent)?"

1959 Sugar Bowl LSU 7 Clemson 0
1962 Rose USC 42 Wiscy 37
1963 Cotton Texas 28 Navy 6
1967 Rose USC 14 Indiana 3
1969 Cotton Texas 21 ND 17
1970 Cotton ND 24 Texas 11
1972 Rose USC 42 Ohio St 17
1983 Orange Miami 31 Neb 30
1987 Orange Miami 20 Oklahoma 14
1991 Orange Miami 22 Neb 0
2003 Sugar LSU 21 Oklahoma 14
2005 Rose Texas 41 USC 38
2008 (Superdome) LSU 38 Ohio St 24

so it stands at 11-2 for the "home team"

7
by NYMike :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 9:58am

People wonder why the Big 10 does so poorly in bowl games. This is why in a nutshell. They never play home games, and their opponents often do. Florida in the Gator Bowl?

I'd like to invite Georgia to the Big House. They'd like a rematch, right?

As for the SEC West Championship game, does anyone outside of the Gulf Coast even care?

8
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 10:15am

U-M and Georgia haven't played since 1965. MSU plays at Spartan Stadium. =)