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Dr. Saturday

Nola Keys: Taking it the extra mile against LSU’s opportunistic D

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Breaking down the mythical championship game. Previously: When LSU has the ball. Today: When Alabama has the ball.

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On a scale of 1 to 10, how overmatched is A.J. McCarron?
First of all, that's not very nice. And secondly, Alabama's oft-overlooked quarterback may not as overwhelmed by LSU's defense as you think — like, maybe a five?

True, McCarron did throw a costly pick that led directly to LSU points in the 9-6 field goal fest on Nov. 5, and obviously failed to lead the Tide into the end zone. Against the best pass rush in the SEC, he's also in trouble in any situation in which Alabama's realistic options for moving the ball are reduced to "A.J. McCarron's arm." (And let's face it: He does have a history of suspect decision-making.) But if he's not going to put the offense on shoulders, McCarron's also not going to drop it on the floor, either: The interception in the first meeting is one of only three he's served up over the last eleven games, and keeping the ball out of risk against LSU's star-studded, NFL-bound secondary is his top priority.

That said, he also made a little hay against the Tigers on intermediate routes, hitting seven passes in the first game that covered at least 15 yards — nothing you're going to see on any highlight reels, but certainly good enough to keep the chains moving as long as LSU is forced to respect the running game. Alabama mounted five separate drives inside the LSU 35-yard line in November, four of them featuring a big play of one kind or another (a screen pass, a key third-down conversion, etc.) with McCarron putting the ball in the air.

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Will LSU be forced to respect the running game? I think Trent Richardson can handle that question:

So, yeah, the running game has the Tigers' attention. Richardson's 24-yard stampede early in the fourth quarter was the longest run of the first meeting, and would have been the most memorable play if not for the the one that immediately followed it, a trick play that resulted in a drive-killing, momentum-turning interception by LSU's Eric Reid at the goal line.

Given the competition (the Tigers finished third nationally against the run), Richardson was in Heisman form the first time around, churning out more yards on the ground (89) than any other back has managed against LSU all year, and more yards from scrimmage (169) as a rusher and receiver than anyone except West Virginia wideout Tavon Austin. With an intact line and a healthy Eddie Lacy backing up their headliner, the Tide should be full-speed ahead between the tackles, as usual.

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What can Alabama do Monday that it couldn't in November?
Knocking through a couple of the four field goals it missed in November would be nice; scoring a touchdown or two would be even nicer. One way or another, though, the Crimson Tide have to finish drives: Including overtime, 'Bama had seven realistic scoring opportunities in the loss and came away with a grand total of six points.

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One common theme in the missed opportunities was Alabama's failure to stay on schedule on first down — all four missed field goals immediately followed a series that began with a negative play:

• 5-yard loss (Missed from 44 yards)
• 5-yard penalty (Missed from 50 yards)
• 6-yard loss (Blocked from 49 yards)
• Incomplete pass (Missed from 52 yards in overtime)

Second or third-and-long is a nightmare scenario against LSU's defense, which is as good as ever at pinning its ears back and forcing ugly mistakes in must-pass situations. When you're consistently going backwards on third down,

[Related: Who has the edge in special teams?
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So are they actually going to score a touchdown this time or what?
Almost certainly, yes, if for no other reason than the law of averages — Nov. 5 was the first (and still only) time 'Bama has been held out of the end zone since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, and there were too many scattered positives there to expect it to happen again.

But it's not going to happen often enough to mitigate the cost of missed opportunities and turnovers, against a team whose season has been largely defined by winning the turnover margin and taking full advantage of it. Like LSU, the Crimson Tide's first priority is still to hold on to the ball like grim death to avoid putting the defense on the spot. If it can pull that off with a big play or two on top, one trip to the end zone may be enough. Which is good, because no other SEC offense the Tigers saw this year managed two.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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