Everything You Need To Know About Tonight’s BCS National Championship Game

Alabama vs. Lsu
Alabama vs. LSU, Nov. 5 2011

[credit provider=”Flickr | Matthew Tosh” url=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/toshm/6317721652/in/photostream/”]

For the first 34 games of bowl season, I’ve used the same template to provide a stat-heavy preview. We’re going to change up the script a bit for the final game, and for one simple reason: I already wrote a preview for this game about two months ago. A two-parter, actually. Part one talked about how hard it is to score on Alabama, part two about how hard it is to pass on LSU.Granted, it was for the first Alabama-LSU game, but almost nothing has changed in the last two months. Both teams are still good at almost everything, and this time around, the statistics lean toward LSU for the same reason they won the first game: special teams. Each team ranks in the top 10 of almost every primary advanced statistical category we track, but Alabama ranks 78th in special teams and LSU ranks third. If the Tide can overcome that, they can win their second national title in three seasons, and if they could have overcome that the first time around, they’d be No. 1 right now.

While it may be a bit redundant to dive into the stats all over again, we do have one tool at our disposal that we didn’t have for other bowls this winter: the previous game’s play-by-play. Instead of starting from scratch on a stat-heavy preview, let’s see what the first game can teach us about the second game.

When LSU Has The Ball…
Considering both of these teams tend to win games almost despite their offence instead of because of it, it is probably safe to say that the offensive gameplans won’t change much this time around, despite the fact that neither team put many points on the board. They are each going to run the ball as much as they can (for the season, LSU ranked 10th in Adj. Run-Pass Ratio, Alabama ranked 29th), and their passes are going to be mostly conservative. They will take shots downfield as an element of surprise, but it is safe to say that neither team is going to attempt to suddenly line up five-wide for a good portion of the game.

It is instructive, then, to take a look at how each team ran the ball, starting with LSU. Obviously things are a bit different this time around, since we are assuming that Jordan Jefferson is going to play the entire game this time instead of subbing in for a frazzled Jarrett Lee; but the run game is still going to feature a heavy dose of LSU backs.

On November 5 in Tuscaloosa, LSU found quite a bit of success rushing to the edge of the Alabama defence, and Michael Ford was the primary back for that.

Type Of Rush
Carries Yards Avg Over left end 8 47 5.9 Over left tackle 4 9 2.3 Over left guard 8 14 1.8 Up middle 5 32 6.4 Over right guard 2 6 3.0 Over right tackle 3 4 1.3 Over right end 5 27 5.4LSU ran wide 13 times for 74 yards, Ford seven times for 54. Of course, this includes the option plays they occasionally worked to success with Jefferson, including the overtime burst that set up the game-winning field goal (4:06 of this video).


With defenses this good, the opportunities for a runner to simply make one man miss and get upfield were minimal. LSU was able to pull it off a few times on the boundary, but with a month to prepare for a Jefferson-only offence, Alabama could be more well-equipped to handle this.

Relatively speaking, LSU found a good portion of their passing “success” (in quotes because they only threw for 91 yards and got picked off twice) on the boundary as well. On passes into the flat or on screen passes, the Jefferson and Lee completed six of seven for 30 yards. These are minuscule passing averages, but when you consider that they only really went downfield three times, it’s clear that, for most of the game, the passing game was intended as simply an extension of the run game: four yards here, five yards there. And when they attempted to go to receivers on shorter sideline routes, they failed horribly: 1-for-5, 13 yards. Their first pass of the game was a strike from Lee to Odell Beckham, Jr., for 13 yards. All other sideline passes failed, and their one slant pass was picked off.

Between the tackles, Alabama dominated; LSU ran between the tackles 22 times for just 65 yards, and Jefferson accounted for 18 of those with a single run up the middle. It will be interesting, then, to see what kind of role Kenny Hilliard plays in this game. The freshman broke out late in November, rushing 36 times for 233 yards (6.5 per carry) and four touchdowns in LSU’s final three games. Against Georgia, however, he found most of his success between the tackles. He gashed the Bulldogs for 47 yards in four carries up the middle, and he had three more for 12 yards off-guard. He is a perfect LSU back in the way they attempt to soften opponents up with the run, but you don’t really soften Alabama up.

When LSU has the ball, the single-biggest X-factor could be Rueben Randle. While Odell Beckham began to become more of a downfield threat as the season wore on, Randle was still LSU’s No. 1. For the season, Randle averaged 11.2 yards per target and 18.1 yards per catch, hauling in 50 of 81 passes for 904 yards. He was almost a co-No. 1 with Beckham on standard downs, but on passing downs, he was almost targeted more times (32) than Beckham (13), Deangelo Peterson(14) and Russell Shepard (10) combined. He was swallowed whole by the Alabama secondary the first time around — six targets, two catches, 19 yards — but Alabama registered a quarterback hurry on all four incompletions. Jefferson and Lee simply didn’t have enough time to look downfield the first time around, but you know they will take at least a small handful of stabs downfield. If Randle is able to connect with Randle, especially on a second- or third-and-long, then that is basically a service break in this game.

When Alabama Has The Ball…
We have all somewhat jumped on the LSU bandwagon over the last two months — they are on an unprecedented run and managed one of the greatest regular seasons of all time, while Alabama was relegated to being compared to Oklahoma State and having their national title credentials questioned. It is almost easy to forget that they outgained LSU by 56 yards in this game and averaged 0.8 more yards per play; LSU needed a missed field goal, another missed field goal, a blocked field goal, a jump ball interception at the LSU goal line and another missed field goal to win this game. The Tide found more success on offence, especially in the early going, and just couldn’t close the deal.

On their four first-half drives against the Bayou Bengals, Alabama ran 35 plays for 181 yards (5.2 per play). They drove to the LSU 27, 33, 31 and 17 and improbably produced only three points from these four drives. For all they accomplished, driving into field goal range four consecutive times despite two drives starting at their four and five-yard lines, they always figured out a way to hurt themselves once they crossed LSU’s 40. After a 22-yard pass in the flat to Trent Richardsonon their first drive, Richardson was stuffed for a loss of five. After a 20-yard run by Eddie Lacy on their second drive set the Tide up at the LSU 23, they committed a substitution infraction, and Lacy was stuffed for a loss of six. The results: field goal attempts of 44 and 50 yards instead of, potentially, 34 and 40.

On their third drive, the Tide took over near midfield after an interception. A crossing pass to Darius Hanks gained 19 yards, and a draw play to Richardson gained another 10, but a misguided reverse to Marquis Maze lost six, and the Tide had to attempt a 49-yarder instead of, once again, more like a 35-yarder. It was blocked. And on their fourth drive, a dump-off to Richardson gained 39 yards to the LSU 19, and they at least managed not to lose yards from there and made a 34-yard field goal. Missed field goals were the storyline, but the offence did kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster no favours by consistently losing yardage once in field goal range.

For the game, Alabama found quite a bit of success between the tackles.

Type Of Rush
Carries Yards Avg Over left end 6 13 2.2 Over left tackle 1 4 4.0 Over left guard 3 4 1.3 Up middle 2 5 2.5 Over right guard 6 35 5.8 Over right tackle 4 42 10.5 Over right end 2 -3 -1.5 Reverse 1 -6 -6.0 Draw play 4 8 2.0On both sides of the ball, it appears, LSU holds the advantage on the edges, Alabama in the middle. Rushes between the tackles averaged a healthy 5.6 yards per carry (16 for 90), but they were stuffed on reverses and runs to the perimeter (11 carries, four yards). In all, Richardson managed to gain 89 yards — a solid accomplishment against this LSU defence — but the Tide were done in by big losses. This exemplifies the way both teams play defence, really: Alabama swarms, and LSU attacks. You can make some big plays against LSU, but they are going to make more against you. Against Alabama, “two plays for four yards” probably means two two-yard gains; against LSU, it probably means an eight-yard gain and a four-yard loss.

Like LSU, Alabama found some success passing near the line of scrimmage. On screen passes and passes into the flat, A.J. McCarron completed 13 of 13 passes for 142 yards. Richardson was particularly successful, catching five passes for 80 yards. Downfield, however, the Tide failed just like the Tigers. On crossing routes, flag and post routes, sideline passes and passes into the middle of the field, McCarron was just 3-for-16 for 57 yards. We all know how devastating LSU’s secondary is — any time Morris Claiborne is legitimately your second-best cornerback and Ron Brooks isn’t even listed as a starter, you are loaded. Alabama’s biggest offensive weakness has been in finding a receiver to complement Maze (Richardson has actually been the No. 2 receiver, tight end Brad Smelley No. 3), and as we’ve seen in 2011, LSU will destroy even good Nos. 2-4 receivers. The Tide leaned on Richardson (as they probably will tonight), and it almost worked; but when they fell behind schedule in LSU territory, they had absolutely no way to dig themselves out. If they are more able to stay on schedule and prevent big LSU plays in the backfield, they will score. But you are playing with no margin for error against such an athletic, mean unit.

This post originally appeared at SB Nation.