GAME OF THE CENTURY PT. II:
OR SHOW DOWN?
On Saturday, the real #1 and #2 ranked teams in the country collide in a colossal SEC showdown that will feature a myriad of fantastic match ups across the field, intriguing psychological warfare coming from the sidelines, and a merciless bloodbath in the trenches...all of which provides a damn good opportunity to live up to the billing of "Game of the Century" eight years later.
As LSU reinvents themselves as a quarterback school (all started by Joe Brady and Steve Ensminger guiding Joe Burrow to the promised land) and Alabama have enjoyed another record-shattering season with Tua Tagovailoa, both offenses now rank in the top five in points per game, margin of victory, touchdowns per game, and nearly every other offensive stat that could be amassed.
To aid in our collective ADD hunger for offensive firepower, the game at Bryant-Denny will most likely also dictate the Heisman Trophy winner between the two aces, both Tua and Burrow being the two strongest quarterbacks to come out of either program in a long time (Tua could potentially become Alabama's first Heisman winning quarterback and Burrow holds a big chance to be LSU's second ever Heisman winner).
As great as the game should be, as star-studded as each recruiting class is, and as much as the hype has boiled over (even our President demands a seat), we're still not even sure exactly how much is on the line in this one:
If the game ends in overtime or the victor wins by a gap of less than 8 points, will it even matter who wins the game? Or is it a case of: if tough-scheduling LSU barely lose, they're still in but if untested Alabama lose, they're out of the final four?
If you recall recent history, you may be cynical about Saturday's contest being anything more than a tough inner-division game...especially when it comes to the CFP committee's fixation on Alabama.
In 2011 when the "Game of the Century" went down, we believed it was a de facto national semifinal thanks to the unforgiving BCS structure at the time.
However, it turned out the two teams were viewed as so superior to everyone else, the loser didn't even have to win the SEC, and climbed over a high octane, one-loss Oklahoma State team on their way to a rematch.
Perhaps the BCS got it wrong, yet it's impossible for Tigers fans to say anything about the controversy of Alabama's place in the 2012 National Championship game after they were dismantled in the rematch 21-0...a loss the program has failed to erase from their memories for 8 long years.
The last time the LSU Tigers beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa was a game on my birthday, November 5th 2011 and it was a game of lasts:
2011 was the last time LSU won the SEC, 2011 was the final season Tigers fans trusted Les Miles and it was the last occurrence where LSU found themselves anywhere near the national championship game...
The years in between LSU's dominant undefeated jaunt through the regular SEC season have been a wilderness of pain and trial for Louisiana State University:
LSU hasn't beaten Alabama since the 9-6 overtime victory in 2011, but worse than that, 99.9% of the match ups haven't even been close.
Alabama has outscored LSU 179-82 over the 8 year span, shutting the Tigers out on three occasions (including last season's meeting in Baton Rouge, losing 10-0 in 2016 and the 2011 National Championship game) and scoring an embarrassing 3.3 points over the last three meetings.
More than losing to your biggest rival and watching them appear in nearly every national title since, LSU has been humiliated at the hands of other culprits in such a way that has made the images of Alabama's glory sting worse:
There's the seasons where Les Miles was unable to win any game of consequence while possessing Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice on the same team, there was the dismissal of Heisman candidate Tyrann Mathieu for positive drug tests before the 2012 season;
The high flying Landry and OBJ-led offense of 2013 became derailed by Zach Mettenberger's horror knee injury; there was the awful time management that cost LSU an entire season vs Auburn;
There was the catastrophic loss to Sun Belt school Troy in which Coach Ed Orgeron was destroyed as a "nothing coach" by many fans, pundits and talking heads; there was the 7 overtime loss to Texas A&M where LSU (a traditional defensive powerhouse) allowed 70 points;
There were bowl game losses to Clemson, Notre Dame, and allowing a shootout against UCF in last season's Fiesta Bowl.
So...we know what this game means for LSU:
This is our time to retake our position as the best team in the SEC West and all of college football...
This is LSU's time to win a national title before senior quarterback Joe Burrow tries his hand at the NFL, this is Coach Ed Orgeron's chance to send a big middle finger to all of his doubters...
But what does this game mean for an under the radar Alabama team who's floated by with a soft schedule and an injured starting quarterback?
We don't have a clue about Alabama...we have no idea what team they are mentally, physically or how emotionally prepared they are to handle duress, adversity or pain when the hard hits come in from equal (or even superior) competition after facing easy opponents in 2019.
Look at that schedule...embarrassing.
Alabama's combined margin of victory was 262 points against those 8 teams...are you telling me the entire SEC didn't just congregate preseason to say "hey, let's make sure that no matter what Alabama get into the College Football Playoff"...that's conspiratorial, but it's as legitimate as any committee ever allowing a team with such a pathetic schedule to be ranked so highly.
There's no Florida, they're too scared to play Georgia...hell there's no Missouri or Kentucky on their schedule, either...just three teams from Mississippi, Tennessee's Volunteers volunteering for an Alabama beatdown and a bunch of other roll-over-and-die roadkill in their path.
Besides the crappy schedule and the obvious eye test telling us the huge numbers, the big scores and the success is distorted by the low level of competition, Nick Saban's players aren't dormant cadavers waiting for orders. They still have much to prove after the humbling destruction by Clemson in last year's national title game and have heard the nation backing LSU unequivocally.
The 2019 National Championship game defeat didn't dent Saban's place as the greatest college coach of modern times, but it definitely took a long swipe with a key to the paint job.
The former LSU head coach's reputation and prestige speaks for itself and his place in the annals of greatness is crystallized already, yet if he fails to win multiple national championships with Tua Tagovailoa, there will be doubts over whether the master could win one without a conservative game plan.
Did Nick Saban have to be a "Quarterback Killer" to win national championships? Riding or dying with anti-quarterbacks like Greg McElroy, A.J McCarron and Jake Coker?📷
Only time will answer that question, but rest assured in this SEC West "title game", neither team will be allowed to escape or survive with checkdowns and safe play selections: this game will be won outright by the quarterback and receiving duo brave enough to complete throws on the edges, in the seams, down the sidelines and in the corners of coverage.
Despite the traditionally defensive SEC West rivalry, the football IQ of these two Heisman-worthy quarterbacks and their cavalcade of weapons suggests a score of anything other than a 9-6 study on the prowess of punters and field positioning.
So...how will this game be savagely won?
How will it be brutally lost?
We go deep.
The 3 things LSU and Alabama need to do to win:
CONTROL THE TEMPO
📷 After two seasons showing their operatic range of high character and ability, it's become obvious that the only way to conquer and shackle Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa is by limiting their existence on the field.
Both quarterbacks are far more gifted at picking coverages apart than their peers and with their arsenal of fiendishly dangerous options at receiver, it seems the only way a victor will be decided is by whoever's offense keeps the other from the field longest.
Early in the season, Coach Orgeron's men were lacking discipline in their control of games, going up on Texas by 13+ points on two different occasions; yet due to their propensity to score faster than any other team on the planet and their inability to ground and pound early in the season, they lost time of possession to Texas by 7 full minutes, allowing the Longhorns to come within striking distance repeatedly. Shockingly, in their two score pull-away vs Florida, Burrow and the Tigers lost time of possession to Florida by 17 full minutes...
Would it help LSU to score as quickly as they can? Or would it be far more beneficial for them to play keep away from Tua?
They're good at performing both duties, often within the same game (example: Auburn).
If you watch the Tigers play, they mix up their attack with a heavy dose of rush attempts (vs Florida: 48 total plays, 24 pass, 24 rush, vs Auburn: 46 rushes, 42 passes) and love to gash a defense and work their edge rush side to side before dicing them over the top.
Under Steve Emslinger and Joe Brady, LSU's blueprint for success isn't all on the passing game, in fact the balance = dominance game-plan behind dual-threat running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire may prove to be the difference in a game of fine margins.
The Warrick Dunn-esque back is capable of disappearing behind his own offensive linemen, patiently waiting for the gap to open before suddenly appearing 30 yards down the field in space.
Because of his under the radar ability out of the back field potentially forcing Saban's defense to commit men in the box, Edwards-Helaire is the biggest X-factor in this game.
Averaging 5.9 yards per rush, 6.6 yards per reception, 8 touchdowns and 683 rushing yards on the year, the tiny (though brutishly strong) running back is a perfect outlet for Burrow to fall back on when Alabama send in ferocious blitzes, just in time to sustain drives and keep the Tigers defense fresh.
THE JUGGERNAUT OFFENSES
When we compare these two incredible offenses, set up by two top of the line coaching staffs (Brady / Emsinger vs Sarkisian) and led by two of the most exciting quarterbacks we've witnessed in a long time, we can't help but expect a lot of big plays jumping out at us.
These teams are the king of the big play, with every receiver from both the Crimson Tide and Tigers averaging 11.9 yards or more per reception (only counting receivers with 20+ catches).
Alabama's big three receivers Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith (caught the game winner in OT vs Georgia as a true freshman in the 2018 National title) and Henry Ruggs III have incredible versatility, toughness and vertical threat, combining for 123 grabs, 1,916 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Still, Alabama's early season success wasn't just about the electric plays: the Saban efficiency quota was also met. The Sarkisian-Tago passing game has helped boost a lackluster running attack and the Tide's offense is 2nd in 3rd down percentage (LSU trails marginally in 7th place).
But are we going to really judge how Alabama have operated on 3rd down against Duke, New Mexico State, South Carolina, Southern Mississippi, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Arkansas???
Or should we judge their 40th ranked red zone efficiency against the same lower tier opposition? Especially when compared to LSU's 4th ranked red zone offense?
Matching Alabama's endless receiving corps is LSU's ludicrous wide-out tandem of Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, a wide receiving duo that hearkens back to yesteryear's dynamic pairing of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.
These two cats' performances and numbers are far more impressive than the Alabama trio's "inflated digits against midgets".
Thanks to Joe Burrow's explosive passing accuracy and aggressive gunslinging, Chase and Jefferson have 18 combined touchdowns (9 each), 98 catches and 1,568 yards together, just under the totals of Alabama's top three receivers.
More than sheer numbers, Jefferson and Chase have made important catches when it's mattered most, such as Jefferson's snag of Burrow's lightning throw on 3rd and 17 to seal the Texas game or Ja'Marr grabbing 2 massive touchdowns against Florida...LSU's receivers have made huge plays against world class coverage while Alabama's Adams, Jeudy and Ruggs III have yet to be in a game of consequence since January of this year.
And since many have questioned how anyone can beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa this week, LSU defies that failed logic by averaging a staggering 49 points per game on the road this season, 9 more than their home average. The points are mostly supplied by the arm of Joe Burrow stunning opponents to their knees early, giving the Tigers a stranglehold on the game before the opponent can figure out what hit them.
Can Burrow, Chase, Edwards-Helaire and co. start the game fast and begin to control the tempo with big plays down the field? Could the Tigers jump out to a two-score lead on Alabama?
Or will 'Bama stamp their authority in the ground game with Najee Harris, then look to outscore LSU through the air?
📷 In every top 10 match-up this season, LSU's traditionally high octane defense has been bend and not break, allowing 21 points to Florida in the first half (28 total), 38 in a shootout against Texas and finally 20 to Auburn in a grinding game that showed a great improvement along the LSU front on both sides of the ball.
Although the season is a marathon and "success" is measured by each week's survival, LSU has done far more than escape: they've been making statements on both sides of the ball. Most importantly, their defense is getting hot collectively at the right time...so I give LSU's defense the edge in this game.
Not only is this about the huge improvements in the Auburn game defensively, we're also talking about an aggressive, flexible and deep Tigers defense that has the better collection of talent and the proper mentality coming into the game:
(Example:) Early in that shootout against Texas, the Tigers defense made two consecutive 4th and goal stands against the Longhorns with their back in the Austin end zone, stuffing and frustrating the Sam Ehlinger-led offense to 0 points from three 1st quarter trips into the red zone.
The Tigers will need that fight if they're going to win on the blood-stained field in Tuscaloosa, and to win they'll need to get their defense off of the field.
The only way to do that is force Alabama into 3rd and long situations with penalties, sacks, no gain rush attempts, pass deflections and then, on 3rd down you test Tua's ankle: you see how well he can move and extend the play, Divinity or no Divinity.
This was a formula that didn't work out in the Crimson Tide's favor last season after Tua's previous mid-season ankle surgery, though the kid's toughness is remarkable...but can he extend the play? Or could LSU drown him in the backfield under the titanic weight of expectation and a surgically repaired ankle that won't let him fly around in the pocket and back field?
To stop Tua, LSU's secondary will need to back up what they continue to tell opponents before, during and after games: "that Baton Rouge houses the real D.B-U". The Tigers boast outrageous talent in the safety and corner spots, amassing 32 pass breakups and 8 interceptions between Christian Fulton, Stingley Jr. and Grant Delpit (the freshman Stingley Jr. has half of the team's interceptions).
Even with these impressive statistics, there's always a damning one with this year's LSU defense so far: this secondary, full of stud safeties and corners are 60th in passing yards allowed (278 per game)....this indicates it won't be whether Stingley Jr and Christian Fulton can cover Jeudy or Adams, it's whether the wild cards in LSU's deep secondary unit, Todd Harris and Kary Vincent can cover the plethora of weapons at Tua's disposal.
Stingley Jr. was picked on by Florida's backup quarterback Trask with much success, nearly toppling the Tigers in Death Valley until the freshman made a brilliant interception in the back of his own end zone. It's a lesson Stingley Jr. and the rest of the secondary must learn from going into the Alabama game: there may be a bevy of big plays, but that one turnover late in the game could change everything.
What's worth more than a turnover in this game? 📷
Making Tua run around for nearly eight seconds on every play, wearing and stressing his ankle ligaments down with each bending cut on his feet and every time he plants to release the football, he'll wince.
Last year when Tua had this same mid-season surgery on his other ankle before the College Football Playoff, his foot refused to plant without significant agony and Alabama were run off the field for one 4th down after the next in the title game, Clemson's offense taking complete advantage, shutting the door and throwing away the key.
If LSU's pass rush can imitate the rampant way Clemson forced Tua to escape in the pocket and test that ankle to its ultimate, then LSU won't just win this game, things could get out of hand with a defense providing Joe Burrow with countless opportunities to rack up points.
On the other side of the field, this is an Alabama defense that can be exposed further:
Five of their top six leading tacklers from last season are playing on Sundays and new faces / new blood has often meant a down season in the Crimson Tide's recent defensive fortunes and overall performance, with cataclysmic 40+ point losses to Ohio State, Oklahoma and Clemson staring Nick Saban down after a large NFL draft departure class. 📷
The Alabama defense has allowed 9 touchdowns and 5 field goals in their opponents' 20 red zone trips, giving up only 3 red zone rushing touchdowns on the season to a variety of weak teams...This is where it gets intriguing, though:
LSU have a top five red zone efficiency, punching the ball in at a remarkable rate inside the 25 yard line, scoring 34 times out of 44 trips (19 passing touchdowns and 15 rushing), a stunning illustration of their balance in the most critical of situations and a weakness of Alabama's to be taken advantage of.
As good as cornerback Trevon Diggs has been (0 touchdowns allowed, 3 interceptions and 5 pass breakups) he is yet to be faced up against a receiver like Justin Jefferson or Ja'Marr Chase, and as good as Shane Lee is at linebacker, the highly recruited middle man could be exposed by the dual threat Edwards-Helaire brings in the running and short passing games.
Outside of the superb quarterback battle on display, the stacked receiving corps, the violence in the red zone or the success or failure of LSU's Edwards-Helaire or Alabama's Najee Harris, a perfectly timed turnover will decide this game.
This game could go two ways: either LSU play a smart, aggressive game and test Tua's ankle early with blitz after blitz, forcing him to throw passes away, take big hits and leave the field on 3rd down while giving up minimal big plays while Joe Burrow doesn't take the extra possessions for granted and gives LSU a two score lead they won't relinquish, or...the most hoped-for path could be an exciting heavyweight battle with one hay-maker and knockout punch thrown after another, with whoever answers last winning...
I can see LSU winning this game by 10 just as much as I can see a hobbled Tua courageously diving into the end zone with seconds left to wrestle the lead back late...but I'm going to go with my gut on this:
The game will be a joyous occasion for any football fan with the quarterbacks making a show of it. At 34-28 with 3 minutes to go, Alabama will get the ball back and drive down the field dangerously.
But after a clutch Delpit interception and an LSU field goal with 1 minute left, the Tigers stake their claim to a national championship quest with the biggest statement possible.
Lonn Phillips Sullivan (November 7-8, 2019)
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