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LSU owns the most intimidating home environment in all of college football, boasts three eventual top-20 NFL draft picks on their defense and has an offense that’s been rescued by Ohio State transfer quarterback Joe Burrow. The Tigers check in at No. 3 in the College Football Playoff standings, and they host No. 1 Alabama in college football’s annual Game of the Century this weekend.
Here’s the bad news: LSU also has no chance to win. After Yahoo Sports called around to a half-dozen coaches and NFL scouts familiar with both programs, it became quickly apparent the Tigers are in for the worst week this side of the Maryland public relations department. This isn’t shocking, as Vegas has installed Alabama as a two-touchdown favorite.
But the alternating tones of awe for Alabama and hopelessness for LSU was striking. Let’s start with Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, who was on the business end of a 57-7 bruising from the Crimson Tide in Week 2.
“They’re physically the most complete team I’ve ever seen in my career,” said Anderson, who has coached for nearly three decades, including stops at Baylor and North Carolina. “With the quarterback playing at the highest level you can play at, they can beat your brains out in all three phases.”
Anderson hadn’t seen much of LSU, so he couldn’t comment much on the specific matchup. But the tone didn’t change much. Here are five reasons coaches and scouts gave explaining why the Tide will, well, keep rolling.
Alabama’s ‘decisive’ edge in talent
Perhaps the most surprising part was the talent gap. For many years under Les Miles, LSU earned a reputation for having high-end dudes and under-achieving despite them. The reverse may be true this year.
“I think Alabama has a decisive advantage from a talent standpoint,” said a veteran NFL scout who has studied both teams. “LSU has overachieved this year compared to other teams in the past, especially up front on the defensive line where they don’t have some of the talent of past teams.”
One thing Yahoo Sports gleaned from talking to scouts and coaches is that Alabama should have a distinct advantage both running the ball and protecting star sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. This is not the LSU of 2012, which had four defensive linemen taken in the first five rounds of the next NFL draft.
“There’s individual matchups available against LSU,” said an assistant coach who has studied both carefully. “LSU is not, top-to-bottom, 11-strong like Alabama’s defense.”
LSU playing without Devin White for first half
The biggest on-field storyline heading into the game has been LSU needing to play the first half without star linebacker Devin White, who is suspended for a questionable targeting call. This will be a big deal, according to those who’ve studied the teams.
“It’s a major loss,” said an NFL scout. “I think he’s a playmaker for them. Anytime you lose someone who can go sideline-to-sideline, it’s a huge loss. I don’t see any other way around it. They’re just not talented enough defensively to lose someone of that caliber. I wouldn’t say it’s a marginal difference, I’d say it’s dramatic.”
An SEC assistant coach agreed: “He’s one of the best defensive players in the country. He’s very active and can run and is physical. To me, he’s one of the best players that we’ve faced all year, and in a long, long time. I think he’s the best player on their defense.”
Best on best: LSU’s secondary vs. Alabama’s WRs
The matchup the opposing coaches are giddiest for is Alabama’s receivers going up against LSU’s secondary. If there’s a definitive strength of the Tigers, it’s the playmakers in the secondary. They include sophomore safety Grant Delpit, junior corner Kristian Fulton and junior corner Greedy Williams, all of whom have resplendent professional futures ahead of them.
“Their secondary is one of the best that I’ve seen,” said an opposing offensive coach. “They’re athletic and fast, but the thing they do that I haven’t seen much [to this level] is they attack the ball. If you throw it, they are trying to pick it off, not break it up.” He added that he felt like Delpit was one of the best players in college football, regardless of position.
LSU’s biggest coaching strength comes from defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, the highest-paid assistant coach in college football. His schemes are well respected by those who oppose him.
“He does subtle things that become major issues,” said an opposing offensive coach. “He’ll know your top-five run schemes and do little things that will give the offense issues.”
One assistant coach points out Alabama’s ability to neutralize the secondary will be two-fold. The first is LSU shouldn’t get much of a pass rush. And if Alabama can run at will, as expected, it could be a long day.
“I don’t think LSU will be able to get Alabama off the field, as I think Alabama will be able to average four or five yards on first down,” the coach said. “They won’t be in third-and-12 and will be able to move the chains. That’s what I really see will be the difference in the game.”
Will LSU QB Joe Burrow get exposed?
A few coaches predicted that this could be an SEC baptism for Burrow at quarterback. He’s been a distinct upgrade for the Tigers, who had been in what felt like a biblical drought at that position. But Burrow has completed just 53 percent of his passes and has six touchdowns. He’s only thrown three interceptions, as decision making and reliability have been his hallmarks.
“Who is going to get exposed is the LSU quarterback,” said an SEC assistant. “He’s not very good. He’s average. He’s a general and a game manager. They’re hyping him because they haven’t had a good quarterback in a long time. He’s going to struggle against ‘Bama. He’s not a talented enough passer to take them apart and beat them in the pass game.”
The player that both coaches and scouts really like on Alabama’s defense – and multiple forecast a big day for – was safety Deionte Thompson.
“He can cover ground so fast,” Anderson said. “Any ball you put air under, no matter where you thought he was, he has a chance to pick off.”
Nick Saban’s not-so-secret weapon: Tua
My colleague Pat Forde did a good job capturing Tua-mania earlier Thursday. And there wasn’t a source Yahoo spoke to this week that dimmed the Tua hype. One coach offered some insight at what makes him so special.
“[Jalen] Hurts was 24-2, but he’s not a game-changer. Tua is. I always look at when a quarterback makes it and another doesn’t, it’s guys who can do more than complete balls to their first looks. Pat Mahomes, he can hit the third, fourth or fifth look. JaMarcus Russell, he never hit anything but a first look. It wasn’t a surprise he couldn’t make it. Tua can hit the second look, or the third look, or extend the play. You’re not going to restrict him or push him into a situation he can’t handle. If they protect him, he’ll pick you apart.”
What’s helping Tagovailoa is a collection of skill receivers that a scout calls an “unprecedented” group in terms of depth of talent for Alabama. He added that Alabama’s offense line is in the conversation for the top group in the country. The end result? No one thinks LSU even has much of a shot of covering the spread.
“They’ll win by three touchdowns easily,” said an opposing assistant. “One thing ‘Bama will do is score the football. I don’t know if LSU will be able to score the football.”
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