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This season’s “Game of the Century” is upon us, with No. 2 LSU visiting No. 3 Alabama this weekend. Yahoo Sports spoke to a half-dozen coaches and scouts about the matchup. Here’s their unfiltered version of what will be the keys to the game.
Slow the receiving Tide
Alabama’s offensive identity has changed dramatically, as the Tide’s offense revolves around four elite receivers – Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle. They’ve combined for 142 catches and 24 touchdowns, the engine behind an offense that’s No. 2 in scoring (48.6) and No. 5 in passing yards (338.6).
“That’s the best collection of wide receivers in the history of college football,” said an opposing assistant. “They all run 4.3 and are electric and explosive. From a football perspective, it’s kind of special.”
What makes the receivers so difficult to stop is they play interchangeably, so it’s difficult to focus on shutting down one because they’re constantly moving around. Star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa accentuates the talent of the receivers with more than just his 74.7 percent completion rate.
“I don’t think Tua gets enough credit for how his accuracy aides them,” said another opposing coach. “They run through the catch at full speed, be it bubble screens or an RPO.”
Can LSU confuse Tua?
There have been a few moments in Tagovailoa’s career where bad reads have cost him. None stands out more than the fatal pick-six in the College Football Playoff title game against Clemson last season. That put Alabama behind 7-0 and left them scrambling on a night when they never really caught up.
“Tua will make a mistake because things got a little easy for him,” said an opposing coach. “He’s shown that he can get baited into a coverage misread. That was him thinking he knew exactly what he was getting and confidently ripping a ball into coverage but the coverage changed at the last second and he didn’t know what he was getting.”
In the title game, Clemson’s A.J. Terrell snared Tagovailoa’s pass and waltzed 44 yards for a touchdown, a direct byproduct of changing the pre-snap picture. “He thought it was a single high,” said the coach. “It spun to Cover 2 at the last second. He threw it as if it was Cover 1. Sometimes he’ll play around with his eyes, and because guys are running wide open so often he’ll think they are there.”
The coach noted that’s something Tagovailoa has improved on.
“That doesn’t happen very much,” he said. “People try and do it all the time and can’t very often. It’s not like it happens all the time. He’s gotten way better at it this year.”
Who wins coordinator battle?
The rise of LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady has been perhaps the most unexpected story of this college football season. He wasn’t even a position coach with the Saints before coming to LSU and ushering the school’s notoriously antiquated offense to the forefront of the current generation.
The genius of Brady’s pass game can be summed up by Joe Burrow’s 21-point jump in his completion percentage to 78.8 percent, which is on pace for the highest mark in the history of the sport.
What’s so special about the LSU passing game?
“They have great skill players, which really helps a receiver,” said a coach who has faced them. “I think they’re finally using the talent that’s been there. Burrow was good before, but he wasn’t this good. There’s nothing exotic about what they’re doing. They have very few pass concepts. Very few run concepts. They just do it over and over, and they have answers and [counters] to different looks. The confidence he’s playing with, you can tell he’s run the same thing over and over and over again.”
The overlooked new SEC coordinator this season has been Steve Sarkisian, who came back to Alabama after serving as an analyst there in 2016. (He’d spent the last two seasons in the NFL.) Sarkisian has gotten about one-tenth the platitudes as Brady for the job he’s done this season, but opposing defenses have been impressed. Coaches noted that Sarkisian has stretched the field both vertically and horizontally with a West Coast offense feel.
“There’s a little bit of that NFL flavor,” an opposing coach said. “Pass game wise, it’s like when they had [former coordinator] Brian Daboll. You have some of those NFL wrinkles that you can feel that are a little bit above what you get at this level.”
Can LSU bring the heat?
Neither defense is going to resemble some of the vintage units these programs have put forth. The big weakness for LSU is both at linebacker and in the pass rush, as opposing coaches say the key will be for LSU to manage some type of pressure on Tagovailoa from a base defense. If not, they could import clones of Honey Badger and Jamal Adams and still not cover these Alabama receivers for six seconds.
“The issue with LSU is that they cannot create a pass rush on base downs,” said an opposing assistant. “That’s going to be Achilles’ heel defensively.”
The LSU defensive front is massive, and perhaps too big. If Tagovailoa has good mobility coming off his ankle surgery, they aren’t much of a threat to sack him. (They also wear down easily, as the spree of, ahem, cramping at Texas showed.)
“There’s no way that defensive line sacks a healthy Tua,” said the coach. “[LSU DC Dave] Aranda won’t be able to drop eight, because if they do that they won’t get to Tua. He’s going to have to change his identity from this year, which is base defense.”
LSU has a reputed high-end pass rusher in K’Lavon Chaisson, but he’s got just two sacks this season and hasn’t lived up to his first-round hype. The lack of pressure will stress LSU’s corners, a typically elite group.
“The matchup for them is going to be if they can cover them in man,” said an assistant who faced LSU this year. “They don’t play zone well, that’s what happened in the UCF game last year, and they couldn’t cover them. That’s going to be the game, if they can cover the receivers in man. I’d imagine Bama thinks they can get them out of man and soften them up in quarters like UCF did.”
Will Alabama exploit Delpit’s weakness?
There’s little doubt that LSU safety Grant Delpit will be a first-round pick. He’s a sure tackler and is the type of linebacker-hybrid safety the NFL is looking for. (He has missed practice this week with an injury, although he’s still expected to play.)
The issue for LSU against Alabama is that Delpit is not a capable player in man coverage.
“He’s a terrible man-coverage player and they’re doing whatever they can to keep him out of coverage,” said an opposing assistant. “He was in man very few times last season.”
Added another opposing coach: “He’s a great athlete, he just can’t be left in true one-on-one situations against one of your top three skills guys. That’s not his world. That’s definitely his weakness.”
This factor helps defenses diagnose what LSU is doing pre-snap. If Delpit lines up in the slot, there’s a high-percentage chance that he blitzes. If he attempts to cover, expect Alabama to exploit him like they did with Irv Smith last season.
The other secondary weakness is LSU’s slot corner, as Kary Vincent is considered one of the players opposing teams will test. “He’s just OK,” said a coach. “He’s a track guy, he’s not tough or a great tackler. I thought he was the weak link.”
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