Early preview: Balance key to UA, LSU

July, 18, 2013
7/18/13
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Editor's note: This week, GeauxTigerNation and TideNation will examine all aspects of the LSU-Alabama rivalry during the Nick Saban-Les Miles era. Today we turn to this season's game and what each team must do to come out victorious.

It's never too early to look forward to a good old-fashioned rivalry game. So with more than 100 days remaining between now and the Alabama-LSU regular-season matchup in Tuscaloosa, Ala., we asked TideNation writer Alex Scarborough and GeauxTigerNation writer Gary Laney to break down three keys for each school to come out on top.

A lot can happen between now and Nov. 9, but its safe to say the plans laid out by each writer will be as true today as they are four months from now when Nick Saban and Les Miles meet at midfield in Bryant-Denny Stadium to renew a rivalry that's been boiling intensely in recent years.

How LSU wins in 2013

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Derick E. HingleAlabama's defense has to find a way to put pressure on Zach Mettenberger in its matchup with LSU on Nov. 9.
1. Offensive balance: On a spreadsheet, LSU did not have a team that should have been able to beat Alabama in 2012. The Tigers were too one-dimensional on offense without a consistent passing game and, if the 2011 meetings showed anything, Nick Saban-coached teams will eat one-dimensional offenses for lunch. But for one night in Tiger Stadium, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was brilliant, throwing for a season's-best 298 yards to bring balance to the usual productive running game, led by Jeremy Hill, and the Tigers nearly pulled off an upset, losing 21-17. This year, Mettenberger will have to be as good -- probably better -- and LSU will need its usual running threat, whether it's Hill or somebody elese. Of course, that is the whole reason why LSU has a new offensive coordinator in Cam Cameron.

2. Pressure points: Alabama has some work to do on its offensive line, and LSU has some holes to fill on its defensive line. This should not be a huge issue for the Tigers' run defense -- defensive coordinator John Chavis is a master of scheming extra men in the box to negate the run -- but if a now well-seasoned A.J. McCarron has time to sit back and go through his progressions in the passing game, even "DBU" won't be able to cover. Don't believe it? Look at the winning drive last season. Defensive tackle Anthony Johnson should be a pass-rushing force this season. But if the Tigers enter the LSU game still waiting for one of the young ends to emerge as a consistent sack threat, they could be in for a world of hurt.

3. Kicking it around: The last time the Tigers beat Alabama, Drew Alleman gave LSU all of its points with three field goals. Under Les Miles, LSU always seems to enjoy a special teams edge. That's especially important against this team because it will take a mighty effort to just be close to the Tide, based on what they have coming back with offensive skill players and defensive talent. That might be a problem for LSU, which is breaking in a new starting punter in Jamie Keehn and is entering August camp still searching for Alleman's replacement at kicker.

How Alabama wins in 2013

1. Pressure Mettenberger: It's odd that the silver lining in Mettenberger's otherwise lackluster 2012 campaign was a defeat, but such was the case for the rising senior quarterback who threw for a season-high 298 yards against Alabama in early November. Give him credit for making all the throws, but a fair share of the blame lies with the Tide defense, which had three sacks and no quarterback hurries in Baton Rouge. Allowing a big, strong-armed quarterback such as Mettenberger to set his feet like that was just asking for trouble. Combined with a season-low two pass breakups, it's a wonder he didn't throw for more than one touchdown. For Alabama to survive LSU in Tuscaloosa this season, the defense can't afford Mettenberger another career-making day where he has the time to sit back and pick the secondary apart.

2. Stay with the running game: There were times last season when the Alabama offense got too far ahead of its skis and lost balance -- twice to be exact. The LSU game was the first such instance when offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier called more passes than runs, and the lack of continuity showed in the second half, when McCarron and Co. went three-and-out on four of six drives. Alabama, of course, survived that bit of unbalance, but the next week it did not as the Tide threw the ball more than it ran and lost in heartbreaking fashion to Texas A&M. While the temptation to pass will be even greater with McCarron a year wiser and with more weapons at wide receiver, the fact remains that the Alabama offense is based on running the football and controlling the line of scrimmage. Handing the ball off to T.J. Yeldon and the rest of the stable of running backs might not be sexy, but it gets the job done.

3. Stay special: A bad kicking game doomed Alabama the last time LSU came to Tuscaloosa as the Tide missed four-of-six field goal attempts in its only loss of the 2011 season. And while Cade Foster appears to have gotten over the hiccup of that game, he comes into the 2013 season with even greater expectations now that short-range specialist Jeremy Shelley is gone. Making the most of every opportunity will be important for whoever handles field goals for the Tide this go-around, whether it's Foster or redshirt freshman Adam Griffith, who could take over for Shelley as the short- to intermediate-range kicker. Getting the ball through the uprights won't be the only thing that's important, though. The Tide must do well in coverage and take care of the ball in the return game, as five of the past seven meetings between the schools have been decided by a touchdown or less.

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