Counting down to LSU-Alabama with a daily dose of analysis and news.
DAYS REMAINING TO KICKOFF: 4, or the number of special teams and defensive touchdowns scored this season by LSU: two fumble returns for scores by Tyrann Mathieu, a kickoff return by Morris Claiborne, and pick-six by Ron Brooks. The Tide have three: a Marquis Maze punt return, and pick-sixes by Courtney Upshaw and DeQuan Menzie. Also the number worn (as you can see) by Tide All-American safety Mark Barron, who (despite our raving about the Alabama linebackers yesterday) leads the Tide defense in solo tackles with 25.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: We know both these teams can run the ball. But which one does it better?
You might be surprised just how decisively the statistics will tell you that answer is "Alabama."
Yes, the Bayou Bengals have an out-and-out stud carrying the ball in Spencer Ware, a veteran offensive line loaded with former blue-chips playing its best football in years, solid backups in Alfred Blue and Michael Ford (not to mention bruising freshman fullback Kenny Hilliard, who collected 65 yards and two touchdowns vs. Auburn), and a successful vertical passing game to keep defenses honest. But it hasn't added up to statistical dominance just yet: the Tigers rank a respectable-but-not-spectacular 31st in rushing offense, but a downright middle-of-the-pack 55th in yards per-carry. Ware's 73 yards per-game rank him 66th in the country, sandwiched between Nevada's Cody Fajardo and USF's Darrell Scott.
The Tide, meanwhile, have the numbers to back up Trent Richardson and Co.'s reputation: 14th nationally in rushing yards, but sixth in yards per-carry at 5.84 an attempt and fourth in touchdowns with 27. Richardson ranks seventh at 123 yards per-game, third in touchdowns, and first in yards per-carry (6.64) among backs with more than 125 attempts. And given that backups Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler are averaging a fairly ridiculous 7.6 yards per-carry between them, it's not just the Heisman candidate guy; Barrett Jones and the rest of the Alabama offensive line are, as the kids say, bringing the wood.
So would we agree with the numbers that this is that major an edge for the Tide? Not in the slightest, for two reasons:
1. LSU's stats are being dragged down by an usually slow start to the season; through their first five weeks, the Tigers were averaging just 3.96 yards per attempt despite facing the likes of Kentucky and FCS Northwestern State. That's changed in a big way over their past three games, with the Tigers gashing Florida, Tennessee and Auburn to the tune of 216 yards per game and 4.8 yards per-carry. That 4.8 is even more impressive when you consider ...
2. the Tigers simply don't get huge gains on the ground. The Tigers have just one run of 30 yards or more this season, tying them for the lowest mark in the SEC. 20 yards or more? They're still ninth, and those numbers are despite attempting the second-most runs in the league.
The Tide, by contrast, already have 12 30-plus yard runs; only four teams nationally have more, and two of them are option squads. When comparing the two sides, yes, it's fair to say that Richardon's explosiveness and LSU's confirmed lack of an out-and-out breakway threat make the Tide more likely to bust a long one.
But how likely is one of those long ones? Given the quality of both teams' secondaries in run support, not all that likely. Which running game gets the upper hand is going to come down to which team can slug forward for four, five, six yards at a time, which line can create just the slightest creases for their backs, which backs can consistently wriggle and drive for the extra yard here and there.
No one in the SEC -- not even Alabama -- does those things better than a focused Ware and the Tigers. We still have to give the Tide's ground game the slimmest of edges due to Richardson's extraordinary ability and the higher likelihood of a big gainer ... but in a game like this one, we do mean "slimmest."
THE LATEST FROM BATON ROUGE: Judging from his Twitter feed, Mathieu already plays with a decent-size chip on his shoulder. So we're curious to see how he responds to being snubbed from the list of 15 semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, announced Monday. The Thorpe is given annually to the nation's best defensive back, and while all 15 are worthy candidates, it's hard to see how Mathieu isn't one of them ... unless the Thorpe organization is punishing him for his recent drug-related suspension. Fair or not, we wonder if a big day Saturday won't result in some Thorpe-related chirping from Mathieu in the near future.
Speaking of chirping, remember when Claiborne said he'd go for Richardson's legs if asked to tackle him one-on-one? Ryan Baker doesn't sound quite so impressed:
"Oh yeah, I can tackle him. I can tackle anybody in the country," Baker said of Richardson. "Don't need any help."Wonder if Mr. Richardson will make any note of that. Other LSU defenders, for what it's worth, were not quite so brash. (For more from Baker, check out this well-done brief interview clip from the SEC Digital Network.)
If anyone ever decides to make another Australian fish-out-of-water comedy, we'd suggest they start with the story of LSU punter Brad Wing. Not only did Wing express bemusement at the exorbitant sums now being requested for tickets to the game in which his punting could make a dramatic difference -- "I think a Grand Final ticket in Australia might be 200 bucks. That’s crazy" -- but he's also getting a quick education in the history of the game he's stumbled into. Asked about Bear Bryant, Wing responded that the name "sounds familiar" before asking "Should I know [him]?"
Actually, Brad, it's more funny if you don't.
VIDEO BREAK: CBSSports.com's Tony Barnhart appears on the Tim Brando Show to preview the game:
THE LATEST FROM TUSCALOOSA: Taking cues from their head coach, the Tide players have been admirably steadfast in their refusal to say anything other than boilerplate one-game-at-a-time-LSU's-a-great-team comments to reporters.
Examples from Monday: "We want to win every game, and LSU is the next team standing in our way, but I wouldn’t say ‘revenge'"; "They have a great defense. They also have a great offense, and we have a great offense and a great offense. It’s just about going out there and playing at our standards and not anybody else’s standards"; "I pay no attention to who the (LSU) coaches play (at quarterback). Having other factors at play just kind of throws us off, and we don’t want that to happen."
Richardson also had praise for the Tiger defense, saying they "don’t back down for anyone. They are going to come for me." But he also admitted that the game is hugely important to him personally--not just because of the stakes involved, but because he wasn't able to help prevent last year's defeat in Baton Rouge.
"I tore an abdominal muscle and I had a slightly torn MCL," he said. "This game means a lot to me, because I didn't get to play in it last year except for about one quarter. So I really can't wait to showcase what a healthy Trent can do in this game."There's a lot of people, we would guess, that would love to see what a healthy Trent can do in this game. As for what his coach might do, we wrote Sunday that we shouldn't be too shocked if Nick Saban defies his reputation and pulls a trick out of the bag. So we were intrigued to find out that former Tide player and current Houston Texan DeMeco Ryans told the Sporting News that he wouldn't be surprised, either:
"I think the X factor could be a trick play. If you look at coach (Nick) Saban's history, he's got some tricks up his sleeve. I could see him calling a fake punt or an option pass or something like that to break open a close game. He's known for doing that. I hate to admit it, but when I played, he got me on one (fake punt) of those (when Saban was at LSU). As a defensive player or a special teams player, you've got to be aware of the possibility, but you can't let it affect your aggressiveness."Ryans was one of four current NFL players and LSU/Bama program alums to offer their take on the game; you'll be shocked, shocked to learn that all four picked their former teams to win the game.