Three SEC assistants break down the first LSU-Alabama game
The film study is about to begin. The instructor, an SEC assistant coach with a graduate degree in Alabama and LSU football, is sitting at a desk in the back of a dark, windowless room in his school's football offices, his eyes locked onto a projection screen that stretches from floor to ceiling. Holding a laser pointer in one hand and a remote control in the other, he pushes the play button and suddenly it appears: the coach's spliced video from the LSU-Alabama game on Nov. 5, a matchup that will be reprised on Monday night at the Superdome in New Orleans in the BCS national title game.
For 90 minutes the SEC assistant dissects every play on the video, frame by frame. Midway through the session he hits pause, leans back in his chair and smiles like an art connoisseur appreciating a Cézanne still life, in awe of all the talent on the field that night in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "I hate these programs, but man, they are far and away the top two teams in the nation," he says. "Every starter on this field has the ability to play in the NFL. Every. Single. One. They have the top two defenses in the country, and both offenses are loaded with big-time athletes. It's going to be a hell of a title game, and it will be just like it was the first time: a real defensive struggle."
At the request of SI, three SEC assistant coaches recently broke down Tigers-Tide Round 1, which LSU won 9-6 in overtime. The assistants, whose teams all faced No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama this season, spoke on the condition of anonymity. They analyzed how the Tigers and the Tide attacked each other the first time around, which players will be most important in Round 2, and how the game plans will change.
What follows is a look at five plays from Nov. 5 that hold the keys for each team in the championship game.
On the fourth snap from scrimmage Tide quarterback AJ McCarron completed an eight-yard pass to tight end Brad Smelley, who had lined up wide right and run a simple out pattern. This was Smelley's only catch of the night. A 6-foot-3, 229-pound senior, Smelley caught 10 passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns in Alabama's final two games after having just 17 receptions for 173 yards in the Tide's first 10 contests. All three assistants expect him to be prominent against LSU.
"Alabama lacks a deep threat like they had with Julio Jones last year," says one coach. "But they have one of the best groups of tight ends in the nation. [Tide coach Nick] Saban likes to use Smelley like Bill Belichick uses his tight ends in New England. They'll line Smelley up wide, put him in motion or do anything they can to get him against a linebacker. When that happens, the matchup definitely favors Alabama, because none of LSU's 'backers can stay with this kid."
Indeed, on multiple occasions Smelley ran open down the middle of the field, but McCarron didn't or -- because of the Tigers' pressure -- couldn't see him. The sophomore quarterback is what coaches call a "rhythm passer," and he was never comfortable against LSU, completing 16 of 28 passes for 199 yards and an interception. He was also sacked twice. "What Alabama will do to get AJ back into a flow after he's missed some throws is go to the screen game," says another coach. "This allows AJ to regain his confidence, which can get shaky. Smelley can be huge in the screen game. He could be the most important player in the rematch."
LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson ran the option play to his right. Just as linebacker Dont'a Hightower hit him, Jefferson pitched the ball to running back Michael Ford, who turned the corner and gained nine yards. The previous play had also been an option pitch to Ford, and it had gone for 15 yards. That time the Tigers had gone left.
"LSU loves to call the same play twice, only the second time they'll run it to the opposite side," says one coach. "They'll do that a few times a game, especially with the option if they have some success with it. And the only way to run on Alabama is to get outside. Our film work showed that you can have some success there."
The strength of the Tide defense is in the middle with Hightower, 310-pound nosetackle Josh Chapman and free safety Mark Barron. With those three All-SEC defenders leading the way, Alabama has been virtually impossible to attack between the tackles. On Nov. 5, the Tigers mustered only 148 rushing yards (on 41 attempts). That's largely because LSU this season has been predominately a "direct-run" team, meaning the Tigers like to hand the ball to their backs on power plays designed to go off-tackle. But LSU gained 50 yards using the option in the first matchup, and the play's worth was validated by an FCS school that also faced the Tide.
Two weeks after the LSU game, Georgia Southern, running an option-based offense, consistently beat the Alabama defenders to the edge. The Tide won 45--21, but the Eagles ran for 302 yards and averaged 7.7 yards a rush. "If I'm calling the plays against Alabama," says one of the coaches, "I test the outside early and often with the option."
As Jefferson called the signals, tight end Chase Clement and wide receiver Russell Shepard moved from the left side of the formation to the right. Seven Tide defenders reacted by shifting positions as well, and Jefferson was clearly confused. "You tell your quarterback to throw to the open grass -- or open space -- and you tell your receivers to get there," says a coach. "But with all the presnap shifting that Saban does, the quarterback doesn't know where that space will be." The Tide dropped five players into coverage and rushed six. With less than 2.5 seconds to throw, Jefferson was sacked by linebacker Courtney Upshaw for a three-yard loss.
"The extended time to prepare for the game is a huge advantage for Saban," says a coach. "LSU doesn't do anything fancy on defense. They line up and say, 'Beat us.' But Alabama plays an NFL type of scheme. They say, 'Not only will we beat you with our athletes, but we're also going to out-scheme you.'"
Bottom line: Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will use several new blitz schemes that were designed in the 43 days they've had to prepare for the title game. Expect the blitzers to mostly come from Jefferson's right side, because the video shows that Jefferson struggles with his accuracy when he's forced to move to his left.
Wide receiver Rueben Randle -- who on video appears to be the fastest, most athletic player on the Tigers' roster -- lined up wide left. Facing press coverage against cornerback Dequan Menzie, Randle ran a seven-yard hitch route, caught a perfectly thrown ball from Jefferson, broke Menzie's tackle attempt, juked Hightower with a spin move and dived forward. It was only a 12-yard gain, but it was one of the prettiest short pass plays you'll ever see. Against Alabama, though, this was the sole highlight from Randle; he had just one other reception, for seven yards. LSU needs more from a playmaker who had four 100-yard receiving games this season, averaged 18.1 yards a catch and scored eight touchdowns.
"Randle scares you with his speed," says a coach. "He's inconsistent with his hands, but he's their biggest offensive threat. LSU simply has to get Randle the ball more."
Another thing the LSU staff must do, according to all three SEC assistants: Turn Jefferson loose as a runner. "Look for him to be a running back at times back there," one coach says of Jefferson, whose 11 carries in the first matchup included one sack. "He'll take some monster hits from guys who are 295 pounds. Can Jefferson withstand the punishment? That will be a key question."
One play that LSU will likely call multiple times is the quarterback draw, which the Tigers ran four times in November. But when Alabama sees Jefferson line up in the shotgun with four receivers and fullback J.C. Copeland in the backfield, the Tide defenders will expect the draw. Why? Because the coaches' video study revealed that the Tigers have called this play out of that formation about 80 percent of the time this season. "Les Miles doesn't care that Alabama will anticipate that the draw is coming," one coach says. "Knowing it and stopping it are two different things. It almost comes down to a pride thing and who's got the bigger you-know-what."
The most dangerous player on the field on Monday night, the three coaches agree, will be Tide running back Trent Richardson. On this play Richardson received a handoff from McCarron and ran behind right guard. In a blur of cuts and stiff-arms, he broke five tackles on a 24-yard run -- his longest of the night.
But oftentimes the presence of Richardson is just as effective as his running ability. "When I broke down Alabama earlier this year, I was amazed at how many third-and-shorts they had," says one coach. "They win first down -- usually by giving the ball to Richardson -- then take what the defense will give them on second down, then on third-and-short they have the defense on its heels. This is when both Richardson and -McCarron are at their most effective. Because of the threat of Richardson, McCarron thrives in the play-action game. This is when he's most likely to hit Smelley or [wideout] Marquis Maze over the top for the big play. But it's all set up by Richardson."
Like the first matchup, this game may well hinge on special teams. Alabama kickers Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley missed a combined four field goals against the Tigers. "Saban will punt and play field position rather than try long field goals," says one coach. "And no way in the world will he punt to that number 7 [Tyrann Mathieu]. He might be the best punt returner in years. Saban won't let him get his hands on the ball in the open field."
After spending hours breaking down these two teams, the three SEC coaches agree on three things about the BCS title game: Because of the strength of the defenses, the contest will again be low scoring. LSU will have more talent on the field, by a very small margin. And ... Alabama will win. Why? Nick Saban. "It's almost unfair to give Saban so much time to prepare," says one coach, echoing the other two. "Alabama generally outplayed LSU the first time, but the scoreboard didn't say that. I think they'll do it again, but this time the result will be different."
SI agrees: Alabama 13, LSU 10