In 2015, Alabama’s dominant performance against LSU shifted the momentum in the races for Heisman Trophy and the national championship.
Against the Heisman front-runner at the time, Alabama’s front seven delivered one of the most spectacular performances by one unit in college football last year, holding Fournette to just 31 yards on 19 carries. In the process, the Alabama defense stole Heisman hype away from Fournette and transferred it to eventual winner Derrick Henry.
This Saturday, the Crimson Tide will travel to Baton Rouge for a grudge match against Fournette and the No. 13 LSU Tigers. While he might not have the same numbers he produced a year ago, Fournette will be out for revenge. His 284-yard performance in LSU’s last game suggests he’s 100 percent after sitting out several games due to an ankle injury.
Despite losing three members of the starting front seven to the second round of the NFL Draft, the Crimson Tide have maintained strong results against the run in 2016. The 2015 defense led the country, allowing just 75 rushing yards per game. This season, Nick Saban’s defense leads the nation in the same statistic, except this time Alabama has allowed only 70 yards per game through the first eight contests of the season.
Although, the Crimson Tide don’t seem to have lost a step in defending teams on the ground, it still seems unlikely that Alabama could duplicate such a dominant effort against Fournette. There is no doubt that for Fournette to have any chance of thriving in what will likely be his final matchup against the Crimson Tide, he will need a much improved performance from the LSU offensive line, which didn’t give the star back much of a chance in last year’s showdown.
While the Alabama defense remains formidable against the run, the defenses — 2016 and 2015 — are anything but the same. The sleeker, quicker 2016 version of Alabama has a defense filled with more dynamic playmakers and a little less beef in the middle without A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed.
Last season, Alabama’s behemoth defensive tackles gave Fournette nowhere to run in the middle and allowed Alabama’s more athletic defensive players to chase him from sideline to sideline. Still, Alabama’s leaders on defense are confident that this updated model is still equipped to handle more traditional offenses.
“We don’t feel like it will be an issue at all,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said about defending LSU’s ground and pound offense, per Al.com’s Michael Casagrande. “All of our defensive linemen at Alabama know how to strike and play two gaps. That’s just the technique that we’re going to play by.”
“It’s nothing too fancy about what they do, so we’re just going to line up and play football.”
Along with the season average, performances against individual teams also suggest that the stylistic changes to Alabama’s defense haven’t affected the effectiveness of the run defense. Of the eight opponents the Crimson Tide have faced the season, not one has reached its season rushing average. In fact, teams haven’t even come close. Ole Miss was the only team to rush for even half its season average against Alabama.
Expecting the Crimson Tide to once against hold the most talented running back in the country to under 30 yards again seems unrealistic, but few teams have found consistent running success against Alabama in the last two seasons. Fournette will have the opportunities to put up a respectable yardage total in Tiger Stadium on Saturday evening… but don’t expect him to run wild on the Crimson Tide.