Who has the edge in special teams?
Part 1 was a look at Alabama’s rush offense, Part 2 focused on LSU’s rush offense, Part 3 was on Alabama’s passing attack and Part 4 dealt with LSU’s pass offense. Part 6 will look the two coaching staffs.
As far as Alabama is concerned, the less said about the Tide’s special teams in the first matchup with LSU the better.
LSU won 9-6 in overtime, and while Alabama made two field goals, the Tide also missed four, including one that was blocked. LSU generally has gotten the best of every team it has played when it comes to special teams.
Alabama has used two kickers this season, Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster. Foster has the bigger leg, and all nine of his attempts have come from at least 40 yards; alas, he has made just two of those nine attempts. Shelley hasn’t made a kick longer than 37 yards, but he’s 16-of-20 overall.
P Cody Mandell averages 38.9 yards per attempt, which is just ninth in the SEC. His longest is a 50-yarder.
Starting WR Marquis Maze is the Tide’s main return man and has had success in that role. He averages 28.5 yards per kickoff return and 12.4 yards per punt return; he took a punt back for a score against Arkansas.
Alabama’s coverage units have been a mixed bag. The punt coverage has been good, the kickoff coverage mediocre. The Tide have allowed two kickoffs to be returned for TDs – and those came in the final two regular-season games, one by Georgia Southern and one by Auburn.
LSU has one of the nation’s best special teams units, led by P Brad Wing, a native of Australia who moved to Baton Rouge for his senior season of high school.
Wing redshirted as a freshman last season and has been superb this season. He averages 44.1 yards per attempt, and 18 of his 50 punts have traveled at least 50 yards. In addition, he has dropped 23 inside the 20. Finally, he gets such good hang time that LSU has allowed just 6 total yards on 17 returns.
Junior K Drew Alleman also is a first-year starter, and while he lacks a big leg, he has made 16 of his 18 field-goal attempts. His longest is a 44-yarder. True freshman James Hairston handles kickoffs, and he has 16 touchbacks on 69 attempts.
While the punt coverage has been exceptional, the kickoff coverage has been strong, too; LSU has allowed just 19.8 yards per kickoff return.
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Starting CB Tyrann Mathieu was a steady punt returner for most of the season, but then he became a big weapon in the past two games. He had returns for TDs against Arkansas in the regular-season finale and against Georgia in the SEC championship game, and both turned the momentum in LSU’s favor. Mathieu averages 16.2 yards per return.
Fellow starting CB Morris Claiborne averages 26.1 yards per kickoff return; he took one back 99 yards for a score against West Virginia. But he hasn’t done much on returns since that game; he has just eight returns in the past nine games and averaged 18.9 on those attempts.
The verdict: LSU gets the advantage here, and the advantage was a big reason it won the regular-season matchup. The Tigers enjoy a huge advantage at punter; Wing is one of the best in the nation, while the Tide’s Mandell isn’t even one of the best five or six punters in the SEC. Despite Alabama’s field goal troubles against LSU on Nov. 5, Shelley is a steady kicker. But any kick beyond 40 yards is an adventure for the Tide. Thing is, the same could be said for LSU’s Alleman. LSU also has better coverage teams than the Tide. The Tigers’ punt coverage, in particular, has been phenomenal. You can be sure Alabama’s breakdowns in kickoff coverage in the final two regular-season games have been noted by LSU. You also can be sure Alabama coaches have gone out of their way to make sure those breakdowns don’t happen again.
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