Let the hype begin: 10 early thoughts on Alabama-LSU
“Game of the Century” has been thrown around a lot by college football fans over the years.
Alabama-LSU back in 2011, Michigan-Ohio State in 2006, Florida State-Notre Dame in 1993 and Nebraska-Oklahoma in 1971 to name a few. Whatever your game of the century is, in my opinion, it should have No. 1 vs. No. 2 in it.
On Saturday, we’re going to get No. 1 vs. No. 2. LSU and Alabama will face off as No. 1 and No. 2 in the regular season for the second time this decade. A game that’ll have massive SEC West/SEC/Playoff/Heisman Trophy implications will be broken down in every way possible this week.
So let’s get into 10 things that are on my mind ahead of this matchup:
1. Tua Tagovailoa isn’t missing this game
I know he’s technically a “game-time decision” following his tightrope procedure, but do we really think that he’s sitting out? I certainly don’t. Given what’s at stake in what we expect to be his last college season, I expect Tagovailoa to start this game even if he can’t roll out and play at full strength. The fact that he told teammates after the Tennessee game that he’d be back for LSU makes me think nothing will get in his way of suiting up come Saturday.
2. And don’t suggest the guy should sit out no matter what
Man, I hated this take.
New this morning.https://t.co/KEIpyzSTE5
— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) October 29, 2019
It’s by no means a guarantee that Alabama would respond to an LSU loss by running the table with a healthy Tagovailoa en route to a Playoff berth. Let’s not forget the Crimson Tide have to travel to Auburn and face a worthy East champ in Atlanta.
And the idea that the selection committee would absolutely give Alabama the benefit of the doubt is foolish. Just because Alabama made the field as a 1-loss team without a conference championship before doesn’t make it a guarantee to happen again. There are still teams like Oregon, Penn State and even Baylor who aren’t being factored into that on-paper, hypothetical.
Let’s eliminate this idea from our minds and live in the real world.
3. But in case you were wondering, I wouldn’t bet on Mac Jones beating Joe Burrow
If Tagovailoa exits this game — something that seems fairly likely considering his history — I wouldn’t have confidence with Jones keeping up with Burrow. To beat LSU, it’s not good enough to just play ball control football. Ask Florida about that. LSU forces you to be perfect. I know Alabama backups have delivered perfect performances before, but Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts are different, more talented players than Jones.
If Burrow were to get into a battle with Jones in the event of Tagovailoa re-injuring the ankle, perhaps the “Mac Jones would start at every other SEC school” argument would be put to bed.
4. I don’t think Auburn necessarily “exposed” LSU’s offense
Auburn had the perfect formula to slow down LSU. Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown helped the Tigers get to Burrow without bringing additional pressure. This stat from Cole Cubelic tells that story:
Kevin Steele had a solid plan for the Auburn defense IMO
I charted some of it:
They ran the new 3-1-7 look 25 snaps
LSU ran the ball 10 times for just 48 yards vs that look
I charted 16 pressures/sacks by AU:
11 came with 4 rushers
2 came with 3 rushers
4 came with 5 rushers
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) October 29, 2019
Oh, so Alabama will just get pressure with 4 rushers and shut down Burrow. Easy enough, right? Alabama doesn’t have a Brown or a Davidson up front. It does have a Terrell Lewis (more on him later), but executing Kevin Steele’s game plan will be extremely difficult. And for what it’s worth, LSU adjusted and started ripping off big chunks of yardage via the ground game with Auburn intent on dropping back into coverage. Auburn showed that there’s a way to prevent LSU from lighting up the scoreboard all game, but it also showed how difficult that’ll be for anyone to immitate.
5. Don’t forget about the Grant Delpit and Derek Stingley injuries
Ed Orgeron said after Saturday’s game that he expected both Delpit and Stingley to be OK and that they’d be back for Alabama after both suffered 4th-quarter injuries against Auburn. The good news is that the bye week should help them get back 100%. The bad news is that LSU is going to need an all-world effort from its defense with the best 2 defenders healthy in order to slow down the most talented group of receivers in America. Anything less than that — or possibly aggravating lower body injuries — could be the difference in this one.
6. Both defenses have been really, really good recently
Speaking of the defenses, somewhat quietly, both have played at an exceptional level the last month. LSU allowed 16.8 points in the last 4 games while Alabama surrendered just 20 points in the past 2 games (and an average of 222 total yards). It wasn’t long ago that these defenses didn’t look like they had any chance of slowing the opposing offense down in this game. That still might be the case. But LSU has gotten a bit healthier at some key spots and Alabama’s youth in the front 7 appears to be figuring some things out.
It’s not a guarantee that this game turns into the Big 12 shootout that we were talking about a few weeks ago.
7. Terrell Lewis is terrifying playing at this level
A big part of Alabama’s defensive resurgence lately was the play of Lewis. Finally healthy, he was dominant the past 3 games. He came into the Arkansas game with multiple sacks in consecutive weeks, and all he did was rack up 6 carries in the first half. One of those forced a pick-6. LSU hasn’t seen an edge rusher like Lewis yet. The Tigers dodged a bullet when Florida was without Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard for essentially all of that matchup. Dodging Lewis will be an entirely different beast for Burrow. That improved LSU offensive line has its work cut out.
8. We’re excited about the quarterback matchup, but these tailbacks are more than capable
I know we’re all pumped for Burrow and Tagovailoa to battle, but what about the back and forth battle we could see between Najee Harris and Clyde Edwards-Helaire? Both are two of the toughest runners in the country, and they act as true 3-down backs. In the past 3 games, Harris has 372 yards from scrimmage and 5 touchdowns while Edwards-Helaire has 389 yards and 3 scores. They’re huge reasons these offenses have been so consistent. They benefit from teams selling out to stop the passing game, and when they get to the second level with a head of steam, they’re extremely difficult to bring down.
I expect both to be significant parts of the game plan. If halftime adjustments need to be made to make them more involved, they could easily be the difference down the stretch.
9. I’ll be surprised if this spread is less than Alabama -7
Vegas knows. Vegas always knows. The opening line of Alabama -8 was a good one. I’d expect that line to move, especially as we find out more about Tagovailoa’s rehab. But I’d be extremely surprised if by kickoff, we’re looking at a line of Alabama -6.5 or smaller. I tend to think the betting public is still going to favor Alabama to win by at least a touchdown given the streak 8 consecutive wins against LSU, and the fact that it’s in Tuscaloosa.
And even though this is a new-look LSU offense — that’ll be true regardless of what happens on Saturday night — there’s still the looming cloud hanging over the Tigers. During the 8-year losing streak, they averaged 9.1 points and have yet to surpass 17 against Alabama. This line will be a fascinating one to watch the next few days.
10. Dare I say it’s OK that this isn’t a night game?
I know that CBS messed up by not sticking this game at night. That decision was made months ago when the network elected to pick Notre Dame-Georgia instead of LSU-Alabama because the latter had been lopsided the past 8 years. CBS only gets 2 doubleheaders per year, and only one has a night slot available. In hindsight, obviously we all would have rather had LSU-Alabama at night. At the time, CBS executives didn’t know that Burrow and Tagovailoa were going to be battling for the Heisman in a 1-vs-2 matchup.
I actually don’t hate it, though. Yes, I realize it’ll have a different feel because it’ll be sandwiched in the middle of the day. But the afternoon slate isn’t exactly murderers row. And of those aforementioned “Game of the Century” showdowns, 3 of them were day games. It’ll still be an electric atmosphere, and we’ll all get the showdown we’ve been waiting for.