Alabama football: 2019 Tigers vs. 2020 Tide? Joyless Murderball by 3 TDs
While is virtually impossible to compare athletic teams from different generations — though we succeeded here by correctly crowning the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide as the best unit in program history — it is altogether a different debate when comparing teams just a year apart.
Perhaps the most interesting of the many subplots that came out of Monday’s College Football Playoff title game — a 52-24 Alabama win over Ohio State — was the following question: If the 2019 LSU Tigers played the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide, which team would win?
The answer, dear reader, is simple: Joyless Murderball would win by 3 touchdowns.
Before the entire populace of Baton Rouge (229,493, with about 750,000 teeth spread among them) gets its corndogs in a bunch, you gotta hear the argument out. And we say hear, because, well, reading sometimes is an obstacle. 2020 Alabama would whip 2019 LSU not because 2019 LSU was a pedestrian tackle football team. Oh no, 2019 LSU was mighty good. Dare we say, bordering on great.
But there hasn’t been a college football team like the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide in recorded history. And luckily for future contenders to the throne, there probably won’t be again.
Breaking it down …
Quarterback: Advantage, LSU
Joe Burrow was a once-in-a-century quarterback who basically never blinked in 2019, winning the Heisman Trophy in runaway fashion by throwing for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns against just 6 interceptions. Mac Jones also turned in an unforgettable season, finishing 3rd in the Heisman voting with 4,500 passing yards and 41 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions. But Burrow just meant more — not a lot, but enough — to LSU than Jones did to Alabama.
Running back: Advantage, Alabama
The toughest matchup of them all. Clyde Edwards-Helaire was spectacular at times for LSU in 2019, rushing for 1,414 yards and 16 touchdowns. And Najee Harris? All he did in 2020 was rush for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns. Edwards-Helaire also caught 45 passes for 453 yards and a touchdown, while Harris caught 43 passes for 425 yards and 4 touchdowns. You could argue Edwards-Helaire over Harris just as easily as you could argue Harris over Edwards-Helaire. But give Harris 2 more non-conference games to romp around for a half each, and he blows Edwards-Helaire out of the water.
Wide receivers: Advantage, Alabama
DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
Do we really need to say more? And when you factor John Metchie into the Tide’s receiving corps, they best the very fine duo of LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson in 2019. Incredibly, the 2019 Tide — with Smith and Waddle teamed with future NFL standouts Henry Ruggs AND Jerry Jeudy to terrorize secondaries — was even better than the 2020 version.
Offensive line: Advantage, Alabama
Tide left tackle Alex Leatherwood, left guard Deonte Brown, center Landon Dickerson, right guard Emil Ekiyor and right tackle Evan Neal were the most dominant offensive line Alabama has ever had — and that’s saying something. Collectively, they won the Joe Moore Award for the best offensive line in the country, and Leatherwood captured the Outland Trophy and Dickerson the Rimington Award. Dickerson and Leatherwood were unanimous All-Americans. Opponents earned only 19 sacks against them. LSU’s offensive line also won the Joe Moore Award in 2019 despite only twice starting the same lineup in back-to-back weeks.
Defensive line: Advantage, push
LSU’s 2019 defensive line gave up 121.5 rushing yards per game, which is a great number. Alabama’s 2020 defensive line? Just 113.1 rushing yards per game, and that doesn’t allow for the non-conference cupcakes that the Tigers had on their schedule last season. Alabama in 2020 piled up 35 sacks in 13 games, while LSU earned 37 sacks in 15 games.
Linebackers: Advantage, LSU
LSU’s Jacob Phillips racked up 56 solo tackles and 113 total stops. Patrick Queen had 37 solo tackles and 12 tackles for loss. K’Lavon Chaisson led the Tigers with 13.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
Alabama’s Dylan Moses returned from a knee injury in 2020 make a team-high 36 solo tackles and 76 total stops in 13 games. Christian Harris made 27 solos and a team-high 79 tackles with 4.5 sacks. Christopher Allen collected a team-high 13 tackles for loss along with 6 sacks.
Defensive backs: Advantage, push
Another position of strength on both sides. Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was a unanimous All-American. LSU’s Grant Delpit won the Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back.
Special teams: Advantage, Alabama
After a 2019 in which Alabama arguably became the goalpost-hittingest team in America, Will Reichard simply did not miss. The sophomore made all 14 of his field-goal attempts AND all 84 of his point-after kicks. That’s 98 perfect kicks. Reichard also was a directional-kicking ace on kickoffs, effectively cutting the field in half vertically for the Tide’s kickoff coverage team. LSU’s Cade York made 21 of 27 field-goal attempts and 89 of 93 point-after kicks.
Alabama’s Smith returned 11 punts in 2020, and he took a punt back 84 yards for a TD against Arkansas. Alabama averaged 14.95 yards per punt return. LSU returned 2 punts for TDs in 2019, with Trey Palmer and Micah Baskerville hitting the house, but the Tigers averaged 10.89 yards per return.
Coaching: Advantage, Alabama
From an assistant-coaching perspective, this is essentially a push. LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady revolutionized the Tigers’ air game and fine-tuned Burrow into a machine that could not be stopped. Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian molded Mac Jones into a game-managing superstar who could quickly interpret whatever a defense presented and find the weakness.
But where this goes the Crimson Tide’s way is under the big headset. Nick Saban’s 7 national titles — 6 at Alabama in 14 years — firmly plants him atop the summit of the sport. Ed Orgeron was fired at Ole Miss and Southern Cal before landing at LSU with what is looking more and more like a 1-hit wonder offense.
Intangibles: Advantage, Alabama
LSU’s 2019 effort was legendary, without question. Scoring 48.4 points per game and allowing opponents 21.87 points per game is a season for the record books. But the Tigers did it with Georgia Southern and Northwestern State on the early-season slate.
Alabama piled up 48.46 points and allowed 19.38 points in an all-SEC regular season and run to the CFP title. No cupcakes on the rotation, and the Tide didn’t even get SEC East lightweights South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The Tide got it done in unquestionably the most trying season since World War II, as COVID-19 and opt-outs ravaged teams from coast to coast. Alabama didn’t have a single superstar miss a snap with COVID-19, and they had injured players like Waddle and Dickerson pushing to opt IN for the national championship game.
Add it all up and the Alabama Death Star wins going away. Oh sure, Burrow and Co. would keep it close for a half and maybe more. But just as Alabama beat down all their opponents in 2020, eventually, the Tide would get their way.