For the fifth consecutive season, Alabama and Louisiana State meet in primetime on CBS. This matchup, like so many before it, will affect the Southeastern Conference and national title race.
While many of the more advanced metrics — Football Outsiders’ Fremeau Efficiency Index, S&P+ Ratings, ESPN’s Football Power Index — favor the Crimson Tide to win Saturday in Tuscaloosa, the Tigers should walk away with a victory.
The glaring marketability of the matchup is the battle of tailbacks: LSU’s Leonard Fournette, the oft-mentioned Heisman front-runner with ostentatious season totals, and Alabama’s Derrick Henry, the bellwether of the Crimson Tide offense, a battering ram who is seemingly cut from the same cloth as Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson.
Dating from Alabama’s 21-0 suffocation of LSU in the 2011 national championship game, the winner in four of the last five meetings also won the ground game — the lone exception was last season.
Fournette and Henry both average better than five yards per carry, pick up at least 130 on the ground per game, and rank in the top five nationally in rushing touchdowns. Each has enough highlight-reel runs to ensure that they’ll be cashing NFL checks at this time next year.
Offensive line performance
Each team’s offensive line will be tasked with generating enough of a push for Henry and Fournette to gash the respective defenses.
Alabama’s offensive line has not only been bruised and battered all season, it has been inconsistent: It has surrendered the fifth-most rushes for zero or negative yards in the country (79), according to ESPN. More than 20 percent of the team’s carries have been stopped at or below the line of scrimmage, according to Football Outsiders, while just 15.2 percent of LSU’s have done the same.
Furthermore, Football Outsiders’ opportunity rate, which calculates the percentage of carries that gain the desired total (for example, a run of three yards on second-and-3), shows a 5.3 percent disparity, favoring the Tigers.
The clearest advantage found in this game is under center: LSU’s Brandon Harris vs. Alabama’s Jake Coker.
Quarterback play has been a noteworthy determinant in recent matchups between the schools: Alabama quarterbacks haven’t thrown an interception against an LSU defense since the Tide’s 9-6 loss in 2011, winning the three meetings since. Although he has since strung together consecutive weeks of above-average play, Coker threw two interceptions in the team’s loss to Ole Miss, has accounted for seven interceptions this season (five of which have come in conference play), and has been sacked 13 times.
Across the field from him will be Harris who has yet to account for a turnover, has thrown nine touchdown passes over the last six weeks, has strung together three consecutive 200-yard plus passing performances including a career-high 286 yards last week, and ranks third in the SEC in total quarterback rating.
While a number of metrics favor the LSU sophomore—passing efficiency, passing yards per attempt, sacks taken, rushing touchdowns, to name a few—the most glaring is his SEC-leading 14.6 yards per completion. To be sure, Fournette is a scheming nightmare and requires attention from the defensive line and linebackers at all times. And while loading the box against him can mitigate his effects on the game, Harris’s ability to throw downfield without turning the ball over is the unsung story line of Les Miles’s 2015 campaign.
Malachi Dupre is one of the top receivers in the SEC, and Travin Dural has been a threat in recent weeks. If Fournette and the offensive line find consistency, Harris and his receiving duo have the ability to take the top off the field.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.