Can LSU take down 'Bama? Here are 8 things the Tigers need to do to win Saturday

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Everyone says they want ‘Bama, but most of them don’t really want ‘Bama. Well, here comes a team that means it.

Fourth-ranked LSU gets its shot at the No. 1 Crimson Tide on Saturday night in Death Valley — your basic Game of the Year in college football. For the Tigers, this is the latest chance to end an unusual run of suffering at the hands of Alabama; the Tide has won seven straight over LSU, longest run since Bear Bryant beat the Tigers 11 straight times from 1971-81. For Ed Orgeron, this is the opportunity for coaching validation and to finally become the LSU hero he dreamed of being as a kid.

LSU-Alabama has, by any objective measure, been the most significant rivalry in college football since Nick Saban got to Tuscaloosa in 2007. This will be the 12th straight meeting in which the winning team will be ranked in the top five, which might be unprecedented in the history of the sport. Ohio State-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma, Auburn-Alabama and USC-Notre Dame have never had such a streak.

Now here is the question: Can LSU not just hang with ‘Bama, but actually beat ‘Bama? Nobody has done either this season — the Tide’s closest margin of victory has been 22 points. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hasn’t even played in a fourth quarter yet.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron celebrates a score against Georgia during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (AP)
LSU coach Ed Orgeron celebrates a score against Georgia during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (AP)

If the Tigers are serious about winning this thing, here are eight things they have to do:

If LSU wins the coin toss, take the ball (1). Do not defer to the second half. The biggest reason why: Star linebacker Devin White is out for the first half after a targeting ejection against Mississippi State, to the howling outrage of LSU super fan James Carville. Taking the ball would mean one fewer possession without White on the field. The other reason why: Alabama has scored on its opening possession every single game, and you’re accepting an invitation to trail from the start. Don’t give the Tide the chance to strike first and lessen the Tiger Stadium cacophony right away.

Put Greedy on Jeudy (2). The matchup of LSU cornerback Greedy Williams and Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy pits the most talented cover man in college football against the best receiver in the game. It will be a must-watch for NFL scouts — even if they have to wait until 2020 to get their hands on true sophomore Jeudy. Williams is expected to be a top-five pick in the spring (although he actually has graded out lower on the year than opposite LSU corner Kristian Fulton, according to Pro Football Focus). Jeudy leads the nation in yards per catch at 25.06, and one of every three receptions ends in a touchdown. The overall matchup of Alabama’s incredible corps of receivers and LSU’s stud secondary will be the marquee battle of the night.

Be prepared for early aggressiveness (3) from Alabama — early in the game and early in each possession. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley has had great success with play-action calls and taking deep shots, quite often in the first quarter and on first down. Seventy-two of Tua’s 152 passes have come in the first quarter, compared to 55 in the second and 25 in the third. And 68 of Tua’s passes have been on first down, compared to 53 on second and 31 on third. First down often has been a tight end down for ‘Bama; Irv Smith Jr. and Hale Hentges have made 15 of their 25 catches on first down. (Of course, with an off week and 2,000 analysts on staff, Alabama surely has thoroughly scouted itself and is likely to counter-program some of its tendencies. There will be wrinkles in the gameplan.)

Pound the rock (4). Then pound it some more. Nobody in the SEC has more rushing attempts on the season than LSU’s 352. The Tigers run it 61 percent of the time and throw it 39 percent, a ratio they should commit to maintaining against Alabama. This is not a classic Saban stonewall defense up front — the Tide has given up some yardage on the ground. Opponents are averaging 3.54 yards per carry against ‘Bama, the most since Mike Shula was the coach in Tuscaloosa. The Nick Brossette/Clyde Edwards-Helaire combination should get a minimum of 35 carries, with a healthy dose of quarterback runs from Joe Burrow sprinkled in as well. Shortening the game and keeping Alabama’s offense on the sideline is key.

Make Tua move (5) and see how he handles it. Getting to the ‘Bama QB is easier said than done, of course, but LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda needs to dial up some pressures that force a guy recovering from a knee sprain to run around. Tua has uncanny pocket instincts and is certainly athletic enough to be a running threat, but he’s largely avoided it this season, especially the last few games. If LSU can force him to make a few “business decisions” — unloading passes early to avoid hits or avoid scrambling, that’s a positive for the Tigers.

Force a Tua mistake (6). Also easier said than done. He’s thrown 152 passes without the opposition catching a single one of them, turning the annual Dash Last Interception Pool into such a walkover that we didn’t even do it this season. On the other hand, LSU is tied for the national lead with 14 interceptions. Tua did put one up for grabs in the end zone last game against Tennessee, but the Volunteers’ defensive back dropped it — if he tries to lob another one into coverage, LSU needs to make him pay. These are the top two teams in the SEC in turnover margin (the Tigers are plus-12 and ‘Bama is plus-11) and the winner of that stat always has a high probability of winning the game.

Be bold (7). You’ll need points. Against Power Five competition, LSU has more field goals (15) than touchdowns (11) in the red zone, and field goals don’t figure to beat the nation’s No. 1 scoring team. The Tigers have a demonstrable edge at kicker with Cole Tracy, but this is a touchdown game. This isn’t 9-6 from 2011. Orgeron has shown a willingness to gamble, highlighted by his 4-for-4 fourth-down conversion gambit against Georgia. That will have to continue and perhaps even intensify Saturday night.

Keep it close and see how ‘Bama handles being in a scrap (8). It hasn’t happened this season. Saban’s team has been a stress-free frontrunner through eight games. How does the Tide respond if, say, its first drive doesn’t culminate in a touchdown for the first time? If it trails for more than 70 seconds, which is the length of time they’ve been behind all season? It’s always interesting to watch a team that has yet to be challenged when it runs up against its first adversity. The longer LSU can keep Alabama uncomfortable, possibly induce some frustration and stoke what will be an insane home crowd, the better its chances.

So, can LSU do it? No.

Dash prediction: Alabama 34, LSU 20.

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