LSU and Alabama will play in the SEC’s annual heavyweight battle once again in prime time on Saturday night. LSU is one of the hottest teams in the SEC with Leonard Fournette making a case to become the first comeback player of the year based on his performance in September compared to October and November of the same season. Least we not forget the amazing turnaround of the entire LSU team since Ed Orgeron was named interim head coach following the firing of Les Miles after losing to Auburn on September 24th.
With all this positive energy wafting in the thick Baton Rouge air, it is no surprise that LSU is a popular pick to beat Alabama on Saturday night. The fact that the game takes place in Baton Rouge under the lights of Tiger Stadium doesn’t hurt the Tigers’ case much either. If there’s one team matches Alabama player-for-player in college football, LSU is that team. One player that stands above everyone is the aforementioned Leonard Fournette.
Fournette appears to be refreshed and ready for a great November run. He ran for a school record 283 yards against Ole Miss in Week 8. It was an amazing feat regardless of how you look at it, but Pro Football Focus takes a little deeper look into the performance, providing an angle that’s not negative against Fournette, but is an interesting second opinion on the impressive performance.
All the talk of Fournette could quickly become moot if Alabama’s defense holds Fournette to 31 yards on 19 carries like they did last year in Tuscaloosa. That is where recent history and Danny Etling enter the conversation and this is where the fool’s gold is uncovered.
PER PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS – Quarterback grade vs. Ole Miss on Oct. 22: Danny Etling, 52.6
Etling’s stat line doesn’t look too bad, but once again he failed to challenge the opposing defense downfield. Despite three coverage busts by the Ole Miss defense in the first half, Etling completed just four of the 10 passes he attempted travelling 10 yards or further downfield. On throws 20 yards or more downfield he completed just one, for a wide-open touchdown after one of those coverage busts.
The teams that beat Alabama not only have dynamic quarterbacks, but those quarterbacks have near-perfect performances with just enough magic and luck to put their team over the top. The biggest problem with this fact is that it is becoming dated. Although the above formula remains true, the last quarterback to defeat Alabama is Chad Kelly in 2015. Kelly had a great day against Alabama this season, but the Tide’s defense forced enough turnovers and scored enough points to overcome Kelly’s performance. Austin Allen of Arkansas threw for over 400 yards and his team was never close to winning. The best team Alabama has faced thus far in 2016 is Texas A&M with Trevor Knight at quarterback. Trevor Knight is one of those quarterbacks that has beaten Alabama, even if it was with Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season that saw Alabama go from undefeated to second place in the West in :01 second. A&M was able to take a 14-13 lead in the 3rd quarter on their way to a 33-14 loss.
That brings us to junior quarterback Danny Etling. Etling came in during the second game of the season against Jacksonville State and has been the man under center since. If the rare but true fact that Alabama only loses to teams who have quarterbacks that have great performances, then LSU’s chances are dire at best.
Etling has never thrown more than 30 passes in a game. His completion percentage is over 60 percent, but he is averaging only 7.7 yards per attempt.
Of the quarterbacks to beat Alabama since 2014, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones was probably the least heralded, although he won three games that season, all that ended with a championship trophy presentation (Big Ten, Sugar Bowl CFP Semi-Final, and CFP National Championship).
The interesting angle will be to see if Ed Orgeron gives Brandon Harris a chance to thrive in this re-energized offense. Etling could need a relief pitcher if Alabama’s defense is as successful getting to the quarterback against LSU as they have been against every opponent they’ve faced in 2016. Alabama leads the nation in sacks, averaging four per game.
Alabama frustrated Leonard Fournette (19 carries, 31 yards, 1 TD) the entire game last year in Tuscaloosa. Will he power through the pounding he will surely take at 8:00 p.m. Eastern in Tiger Stadium? He will be forced to settle for a six-yard gain being considered a success and do that over and over and over throughout the entire game. The only running back to give Alabama’s defense a fit in the recent past was Ezekiel Elliott in the Sugar Bowl when Ohio State upset the Tide in the inaugural College Football Playoff Semifinal.
Pro Football Focus was impressed with Fournette’s 283-yard performance against Ole Miss, but the spotlight needed to shine on the offensive line’s dominance of the Rebels’ front seven as much or more than Fournette’s ability to run for a large percentage of his yards on four carries.
Nick Marshall. Trevor Knight. Bo Wallace. Cardale Jones. Chad Kelly. To list the last five quarterbacks that have beaten Alabama requires going back as far as 2013. The very few seniors that are actually on the Alabama roster are the only players old enough to have been on the team when two of these quarterbacks did his damage to the Tide. The most recent loss was back in September of 2015 and the winning quarterback in that game lost when he faced the Tide this season (Chad Kelly). Bo Wallace threw two late touchdowns to steal a win in Oxford in 2014. Then there was 2014’s postseason where Cardale Jones was the guy who played quarterback at Ohio State those three games where they won the Big Ten Championship by shutting out favored Wisconsin, defeated No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl/College Football Playoff Semi-final, and defeated unstoppable Oregon in Dallas to win the National Championship.
If LSU wins on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, it will require Alabama’s true freshman quarterback sensation Jalen Hurts to play like a freshman for four quarters. He has yet to do that in his debut season and he appears aloof when he actually does allow himself to, gasp, make an error. So long as Hurts has freshman moments rather than freshman games, Alabama will continue to win and that storyline will remain the same under the lights of Tiger Stadium.
The game will air on CBS at 8:00 p.m. Eastern with Verne Lundquist calling his final Alabama-LSU game. Joining Verne in the booth will be analyst Gary Danielson with Allie LaForce reporting from the sideline.