The top-ranked Crimson Tide and No. 5 Tigers have smacked right into it the past two meetings at various points on the field, reaching the end zone only once between them.
Alabama (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) especially has been forced to attempt a cascade of field goals after promising drives screeched to a halt, making either goats or heroes of the kickers.
The good news for the Tide: AJ McCarron and the offense have been far more successful this season in getting points out of trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, or the red zone. Nearly perfect, in fact. And LSU has struggled both offensively and defensively within that portion of the field.
The bad news: LSU (7-1, 3-1) has a Top 10 defense and easily the most formidable group of running backs Alabama has faced, so neither of those trends are guaranteed to hold up.
Bama kickers Cade Foster (three misses) and Jeremy Shelley (a 49-yarder blocked) became infamous for their troubles in last November’s 9-6 overtime loss to the Tigers.
Shelley got redemption with five field goals in the national title game
The offense shared the blame in that regular-season meeting — or LSU’s defense the credit.
Alabama had four drives inside the Tigers’ 30-yard line and was pushed back with two penalties, two sacks and three negative rushing yards. Call that the Crimson zone.
“Oh, we missed a lot of opportunities and that’s one thing that we’ve got to focus on this week, most definitely,” Tide wide receiver Kevin Norwood said. “Scoring when we should and scoring when we have to and making every opportunity count.”
Alabama’s done that much better through eight games.
The Tide is tied with No. 12 Louisville for tops nationally in red zone efficiency, scoring on 34 of 35 trips with 26 touchdowns. Alabama is also No. 1 in that category on defense, allowing eight scores and six touchdowns on opponents’ 15 drives that penetrated the 20.
LSU has managed to overcome rankings of No. 72 offensively in the red zone and 115th defensively — with one exception. Those deficiencies were costly in the lone loss to No. 8 Florida, which scored touchdowns on both its trips while the Tigers settled for field goals in a 14-6 defeat.
“It’s execution when we get in the red zone,” LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “It’s not like we don’t want to score down there, we just screw up. We have to get seven when we get down there. Alabama has a very good defense. That’s what they do. That’s what Nick Saban wants. They have a very sound defense. The opportunity is going to be there for me and my receivers to make a big play. We have to capitalize on these opportunities.”
Saban, the Tide’s perfectionist coach, sets a goal of holding opponents to scores on only 60 percent of their red zone visits while getting points 90 percent of the time offensively.
So far, so good.
“You always want to score a touchdown every time you get the ball in the red zone,” Saban said. “But I think red zone efficiency is very, very important to being successful.”
Especially in big games featuring strong running games and two of the nation’s best defenses, where there’s little margin for error.
Alabama settled for field goals by Shelley in its three red zone trips in the national title game though Trent Richardson scored on a late 34-yard run in the 21-0 win.
Tide guard Chance Warmack said last year’s team might have been missing the urgent mentality, and this group has it.
“I think we take that to heart,” Warmack said. “It’s a mentality that you have to have going in, that you have to score every time you’re in the red zone.”
Just in case it comes down to the kickers again:
LSU’s Drew Alleman has made 12 of 17 field goals.
Alabama’s Shelley is perfect on nine attempts, handling the short- and mid-range attempts. Foster has made three kicks in five attempts from 50-plus yards, and is 4 of 8 overall.
“I think both of those guys have improved,” Saban said. “They’ve gotten better each year. Cade’s a lot more confident, has more confidence in the technical aspect of what he needs to do to be successful and has had more consistency in his approach to being able to do that.
“Jeremy has always been pretty accurate and continues to be that way.”