BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The game that may define LSU's season is now on deck, as the No. 4 Tigers (7-0 overall, 4-0 SEC) travel to the No. 7 Alabama Crimson Tide (7-1 overall, 4-1 SEC) in two Saturdays and as usual, the contest has major conference and national championship implications.
A year ago at this time, passing the football was a bit of a root canal for LSU. The Tigers entered the Alabama showdown on a three game winning streak, including a huge triumph over previously undefeated and No. 3 Ole Miss. However, it was only a matter of time before the lack of balance in LSU's offensive attack would catch up with the Tigers. In those three games, LSU beat Florida 30-27, Kentucky 41-3 and Ole Miss 10-7. Against the Gators, the Tigers were 10 of 21 for 110 yards and one touchdown. When they hosted the Wildcats, the Tigers completed 7 of 15 passes for 121 yards with one touchdown and one interception. When they played the Rebels for homecoming, the Tigers were 8 of 16 for 142 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Alabama went on to defeat LSU in Tiger Stadium 20-13 in overtime, holding Tiger freshman running back Leonard Fournette to just 79 yards rushing on 21 carries. The Crimson Tide keyed on Fournette and dared LSU to throw. The one-dimensional Tigers simply couldn't do it, finishing 8 of 26 through the air for just 76 yards. There were numerous drops by the Tiger receivers and quarterback Anthony Jennings threw a costly interception late in the first half that led to a Crimson Tide field goal.
Since that heartbreaker, LSU has made a change behind center and its air attack is beginning to blossom. After dipping their toes in the water slowly with sophomore Brandon Harris to start the 2015 season, the Tigers are now letting it rip and hitting some beautiful passes down the field. This year leading up to the game in Tuscaloosa against the Tide, LSU has beaten South Carolina 45-24, Florida 35-28 and Western Kentucky 48-20. Harris was 18 of 29 for 228 yards and two touchdowns against the Gamecocks. He was then 13 of 19 for 202 yards and two touchdowns against the Gators. On Saturday, Harris finished 11 of 20 for 286 yards and three touchdowns. He also had no interceptions in the three-game stretch.
Harris has two evolving and dangerous targets in junior Travin Dural and sophomore Malachi Dupre. True freshman Tyron Johnson even got into the act against Western Kentucky, out leaping a defender for a deep jump ball and taking it into the end zone for a 61-yard score.
Four years after the Tigers' last win over Alabama, LSU fans should take some comfort in the team's offensive diversity. That's because there's little chance of LSU beating Nick Saban without it. The Crimson Tide, again, have eaten running backs alive, leading the SEC in rushing defense (70.9 yards per game) and holding opponents to a measly 2.4 yards per carry. The sensational Fournette is obviously a much improved player from a year ago, but he can't do it alone.
Having a more potent passing attack hardly means LSU will beat Alabama on the road. During the Tigers' last trip to Tuscaloosa, LSU had Zach Mettenberger at quarterback, along with wide receivers Odell Beckman Jr. and Jarvis Landry. The Crimson Tide won by 21 points. LSU's current defensive busts and sloppy special teams play are also two huge areas of concerns. Even the little mistakes get magnified in a big way and are often very costly against Bama.
But Harris and his big arm have come a long way. His scrambling abilities should also be a major concern for a Saban defense that often struggles with mobile quarterbacks.
Head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron now have two weeks to formulate a creative game plan with their newfound aerial assault. Perhaps, it will finally be the key to breaking a four-game slide to the Crimson Tide.