Alabama VS LSU Will Come Down To The Quarterbacks…Again
It's the matchup we've all been waiting for. Brute strength. Raw power. Venomous hatred. No, I'm not talking about Lincoln Chafee vs Lindsey Graham, although that battle may be just as physical.
What I'm talking about is that game that is played in early November every year. A rivalry that is so good it doesn't even need a name. It's Power I. It's punting. It's, by god, a fullback! It's Alabama-LSU.
Fans of the modern game of college football may very well be turned off by Saturday's clash between the No. 4 Tide and the No. 2 Tigers as, after all, these two teams average under 50 points per game and aren't exactly keen on running up-tempo, no huddle offenses.
The Alabama-LSU games of the past have been decided less by big offensive numbers but rather by three other things: defense, special teams, and, maybe most importantly, safe quarterback play. This year's iteration in Tuscaloosa shouldn't venture too far from that script.
While NFL scouts will undoubtedly be drooling over Heisman favorite Leonard Fournette going head-to-head with a Nick Saban-coached front seven that allows a scant 2.6 yards per rush to opposing running backs, the outcome is going to come down to two players more than anyone else: the quarterbacks, Alabama's Jake Coker and LSU's Brandon Harris.
Before we examine this year's matchup of signal callers, lets first take a look at how this game has shaped up since 2011 when Alabama-LSU really started to take off as a must-watch game in college football. In five games between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers, Alabama has won four, with the most important coming in the 2011 BCS National Championship. LSU won the first meeting between the two in the 2011 regular season, but has lost four in a row in the series including last season's 20-13 overtime loss in Baton Rouge. Alabama is averaging 21.2 points per game while LSU is managing exactly ten less points at 11.2. Every game has been close in the four regular season games besides the 2013 bout when the Tide won 38-17, a game that was tight until the fourth quarter.
Neither team has necessarily gotten great quarterback play in the last five games between the two SEC behemoths. Alabama's AJ McCarron and Blake Sims combined to hit 87 out of 154 throws (56%) for 986 yards and six touchdowns, while LSU's Jordan Jefferson, Jarrett Lee, Zach Mettenberger, and Anthony Jennings were 68 for 118 (57%) for 762 yards and three touchdowns.
These stats aren't drastically different when you consider under Les Miles LSU has never really been a highly successful passing team, and have generally been conservative on offense. Alabama's offense isn't too different philosophically, but they've been more willing to throw the ball down field, which helps explain the slightly better passing numbers.
The biggest contrast between the Tide and the Tigers when it comes to quarterback play has been turnovers. In the five games since 2011, Alabama quarterbacks have only thrown one interception while LSU quarterbacks have tossed four. It is difficult not to point at this statistic as a key reason why Alabama has won the last four matchups between the teams. Alabama has protected the ball. LSU, not so much.
|QBs Since 2011||Completion %||Yards||Touchdowns||Interceptions|
On Saturday, expect more of the same from the Alabama-LSU passing games, as neither team boasts an All-American at quarterback. The Tide's Jacob Coker has been the quintessential game manager this season for Alabama, exactly what Saban always seems to prefer in his man under center.
The Florida State transfer hasn't necessarily won the Tide any games with his play but he hasn't lost them any either. On the year, the senior is completing 64% of his passes with 1,623 yards, 11 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. In the Tide's only loss this season, against Ole Miss, Coker wasn't the starter but came in to relieve Cooper Bateman and almost led them to a late comeback before eventually falling 43-37. Considering Alabama likely has the best defense in the country and a dominant run game led by Derrick Henry, Coker doesn't have to do too much for the Tide to win most games. But against the Tigers he will most certainly have to make a few big throws in tough situations.Jake Coker, Alabama vs Georgia (October 3, 2015)
On the other side, LSU's Brandon Harris has been a difficult player to figure out. The Tigers were very high on him coming into the season, but the sophomore has not been as consistent throwing the ball downfield as LSU fans would like. Through seven games, Harris has a 59% completion rate with 1,098 yards and nine touchdowns. Harris is getting more comfortable as the season progresses as well. In his last three games, Harris is averaging a 63% completion rate, 239 passing yards and 2.3 touchdowns.
Maybe the best thing Harris has done in 2015 is take care of the ball, as he is yet to throw an interception in 128 passing attempts, which considering the recent history of the teams, could decide the outcome.Brandon Harris to Tyron Johnson for the 61 yd TD
The biggest X-factor between the two quarterbacks is their mobility. While Coker has actually shown glimpses of athleticism outside the pocket, he has only managed 77 rushing yards, partially due to his inability to consistently get away from a pass rush. While Harris isn't exactly Johnny Manziel back there, his 136 yards rushing and three touchdowns could cause the Tide some problems if he can get away when the pass protection breaks down. In the one game LSU has won in their last five meetings with Alabama, quarterback Jordan Jefferson ran for 43 yards on mostly designed runs and caused some problems for the Tide defensively.
The truth is, nobody is watching Alabama-LSU on Saturday night to see which quarterback will outduel the other one.
People want to see Fournette, a man so big and so strong even the braces on his teeth look intimidating, or how all 6 foot, 3 inches of Alabama's Derrick Henry dominates the field. Some might even tune in to watch Les Miles snacking on Bryant Denny's freshly cut grass or Nick Saban practically castrating Lane Kiffin on the sideline.
No, Jake Coker vs Brandon Harris on Saturday night isn't going to be Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning. But that doesn't mean their performances wont decide the game.