The Dynasty-Enders: Do Joe Burrow and Ed Orgeron have what it takes to upend Alabama?
When the Visigoths ransacked Rome in 410 A.D., one observer, a Roman monk named Pelagius, described a “scene of misery.” Basilicas and gardens were set afire, ashes from mausoleums were scattered, and personal property was appropriated. Rome did not collapse completely that day, but the attack was part of a chain of events that led to the “eternal” empire’s eventual demise.
Throughout the course of human history, we’ve seen dynasties rise and dynasties fall. Even the greatest powers tumble, which leads us to the question, “Is anything in this world everlasting?”
In a similar tone, dynasties in sport rise and fall. For the past 11 years, Alabama has dominated both the Southeastern Conference and national landscape of college football. Five national titles, 7 SEC championships, 52 All-American selections, 29 players taken in the 1st round of the NFL Draft and 2 Heisman winners are just some of Alabama’s varying accomplishments, all of which rolls up into a blazing ball of unprecedented success.
But as history tells us, one day this dynasty will end. Alabama fans hope that it’s later rather than sooner, but they know at the very least a shallow trough is coming. They know that Nick Saban cannot coach forever and that the next sheriff in Tuscaloosa probably won’t be as good as the G.O.A.T. They know that next year, Alabama will lose a sizable chunk of its offensive firepower — which makes Saturday’s game against LSU and its hot quarterback, Joe Burrow, monumental.
For now, let’s appreciate what Alabama has done. The Crimson Tide began its unfathomable run by slaying the fire-breathing dragon (in this case, Gators) in the 2009 SEC Championship Game. For Alabama, the game not only produced Tebow tears, but served notice to the rest of the conference: “We’re out for blood.”
Since then, a stable of marauders has tried to ascend the walls and besiege the Crimson City — first Auburn, then LSU, then Auburn again, then Florida again — but in each case the Tide has turned them away. Alabama might lose, but no team has been able to enjoy any amount of sustained success against a Saban-coached team. (Nationally, Clemson has beaten Saban twice for titles, but the only team to defeat Alabama in consecutive seasons is Ole Miss). Georgia has been knocking on the door, but the Dawgs, mouth-foaming as they may appear, have not been able to take over as Alpha of the yard.
Now LSU, if it can overcome an 8-game stymie, is poised to knock the Crimson Tide off its enduring pedestal and emerge as the top seed in the conference. Leading the charge into the prickly briar patch is head coach Ed Orgeron and the aforementioned Burrow, both embattled journeymen who have found a Taster’s Choice comfort in Baton Rouge.
Both men understand the hurt of loss/failure, and neither seems to be bothered by it. Burrow, for instance, began his college career at Ohio State but transferred to LSU after being beat out for the starting position by Dwayne Haskins, who just recently made his first start for the Washington Redskins. Orgeron took his knocks during a bungled, 10-25 tenure at Ole Miss once described thusly by Ross Dellenger in The Advocate: “Orgeron won 3 SEC games in 3 seasons here because he berated assistant coaches, meddled and micro-managed, treated every player like a nose tackle, banged drums up and down hallways and chugged a half-dozen Red Bulls by 10 a.m.”
Odd-coupled together in Baton Rouge, though, Joe And O have conjured, as Electric Light Orchestra once sang, a bit of “Strange Magic.” After revealing his quirkiness at SEC Media Days back in the summer, discussing his love for cartoons and interest in obscure astronomy, Burrow has systematically shredded opposing defenses throughout fall. He’s the front-runner for the Heisman and — watch out — he’s averaging 350 yards passing per game.
His tag team partner in causing disaster is the other unlikely hero, Ed Orgeron. Instead of mimicking his time in Oxford, Orgeron has been a surprise success, defeating 7 top 10 teams since 2016 and establishing LSU as a recruiting monster. Unfortunately for Coach O, none of those Top 10 teams has been named Alabama, but after an 8-0 start, Joe and O have the country wondering, “Is this pair just crazy enough to do it this time?”
Rest assured, the killing of the Crimson Dynasty won’t be easy. What Saban has established in Tuscaloosa since 2007 is firmly entrenched and will not dissipate quickly. If LSU wins this Saturday, do not expect Alabama and Saban to go gently into that good night. The Crimson Tide is loaded with young talent and is in the top cluster of schools jockeying for the No. 1 recruiting class in 2020. If Saban does leave, the good news for Alabama is that, as opposed to many coaches who leave the program in shambles after their exodus, Saban leaves a track record of excellence in his detritus. Perhaps the most glaring example of his prowess is the LSU program itself. In the post-Saban era, the Tigers have only managed to win a national title and a conference championship, have posted 8 10-win seasons and a 147-43 record — good for a 77 percent winning percentage.
Not too shabby, just not Alabama.
Therefore for LSU, the challenge is to first defeat the giant, then fend him off because he won’t stop coming at you.
The Makeup of Dynasty-Enders
What would it take for LSU to become the dynasty-ender? Starting with college football, let’s peer back into the history of sport and discover the stuff that teams must possess to knock off the reigning kings.
Twice, Alabama has been a dynasty-ender. On Jan. 1, 1993, Alabama terminated Miami’s reign as the bully of amateur football with a 34-13 defensive blitzkrieg at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. How did Alabama pull it off? With a suffocating defense, a hell-for-leather running game, and a quiet but fearless response to Miami’s brash Bourbon Street trash-talking.
The lesson? Stand up to the bully.
Sixteen years later, the Crimson Tide dealt a severe blow Florida’s dynasty with a victory in 2009 SEC Championship Game, and then ended the dynasty the next year with a 31-6 shellacking that sent Urban Meyer fleeing into the hills. The Florida program was thrown into disarray as Alabama wore the crown throughout the entirety of a decade. (Had Florida bounced back from that 2009 loss and defeated the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa in 2010, college football might not have seen the domino effect created by Meyer when he left Florida.)
The lesson? Defense, defense, defense.
What about Major League Baseball? After 9/11, the entire world assumed the New York Yankees (it was only fitting) would capture the franchise’s 5th World Series in 6 years, but the Arizona Diamondbacks played the part of spoiler, upending the Bronx Bombers with brash pitching — Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling — and the bats of Danny Bautista and Luis Gonzalez. After the series, Johnson, otherwise known as the Big Unit, let us inside his mind, where one would discover this savagery: “It’s just that I’m all business. I know what I’m trying to accomplish, and I don’t let anything or anybody get in my way.”
The lesson? Possess an indomitable will. (The Big Unit/Big Schill after-effect was devastating on the New York club. The Yanks would not win the World Series for the next 8 seasons — and after that, haven’t won it since.)
What about pro football? The San Francisco 49ers, absolutely stacked with players like Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig and Jerry Rice, reigned over the NFL during the decade of the 1980s, winning 3 Super Bowls under head coach Bill Walsh and 1 with Walsh’s successor, George Seifert. As the calendar turned to the next decade, the Niners stood at 14-1 and appeared to be on their way to capturing their 3rd Super Bowl in as many seasons. But standing in their way were the New York Giants, quarterbacked by perennial backup Jeff Hostetler and helmed by the unflappable Bill Parcells. Implausibly, the Giants beat the 49ers 15-13 in the NFC Championship Game, a smash mouth affair that sent shockwaves from Candlestick Park to East Rutherford, N.J.
The lesson? When you get knocked down, get back up.
“They hit us and we hit them, and we got up — that’s what championship football is all about,” Parcells told the press.
But then, Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall offered this assessment: “We hit them in the mouth. We knocked out quarterbacks, and we knocked out running backs. None of their guys intimidated us. Ronnie Lott tried to intimidate (Phil) Simms in our first game, but we were the bullies in the championship. We beat up on everyone that moved.”
Circling back to college football, the argument could certainly be made that Clemson will eventually become Alabama’s dynasty-ender. But this is not yet definitive, as Alabama and Clemson have proven to be able to co-exist. In other words, the college football ecosystem, whether it tolerates it or not, has room for two superpowers. Dynasty-ending, on the other hand, will probably have to occur from within Alabama’s own conference.
And until someone inside the SEC halts Alabama, the Tide will continue to roll.
8 years of misery
For just a moment, let’s play the game of “Who Said It?”
“The key is to keep fighting, to find a way.”
Sound familiar? Tom Landry? Vince Lombardi? Emerson Fittipaldi? Tom Cruise?
Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.
The answer? LSU’s Les Miles after a 9-6 win over Alabama in the “Game of the Century” on Nov. 5, 2011.
The Bengal Tigers had to be feeling good after knocking off the Crimson Tide that murky night in Tuscaloosa. With Bryant-Denny Stadium deflated like a bounce house after a 4-year-old’s birthday party, LSU was headed to Atlanta as champions of the SEC West. The assumption was that the Tigers no longer had to contend with Alabama, and LSU was in the driver’s seat for a berth in the BCS National Championship Game. Unfortunately for Miles and LSU, the latter proved to be the case, but not the former.
Taking a more businesslike approach to Round 2, Alabama, by putting a stranglehold on the LSU offense, not only mopped up the mess it made in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5, but established dominance for years to come. If the battle is won before it is fought, as Sun Tzu once said, Alabama captured the next 8 meetings largely on the braun of Jan., 9, 2012.
Although the Crimson Tide has enjoyed a clear mental edge in this rivalry, mental edges alone don’t necessarily win football games. Winning in this series has been accomplished by stalling LSU’s offense, both on the ground and through the air; by making big plays when LSU didn’t; and by limiting playmakers. Saban’s tactic against LSU has been to slug it out, play trenches football, and our 1s will whip your 1s. He’s guessed right. Since 2011, Zach Mettenberger is the only LSU quarterback to throw for 200 yards on Alabama, and that he did in back-to-back seasons in 2012 and 2013.
Just for fun, let’s review the performances of LSU quarterbacks against Alabama since that national title game in January 2012:
Let’s face it: Being quarterback at LSU is like the actor who plays Batman. It’s an overly-scrutinized, tough gig. And for the past few years, Michael Keaton has been absent in Baton Rouge. That is, until now.
On the other hand, LSU has not fared any better against the Crimson Tide on the ground, as no Tigers running back has posted a 100-yard evening in the rivalry since 2012. Alabama got a 3-year dosage of Leonard Fournette, but the elite back found essentially no tunnels through which to run, straining for 145 yards total on especially malicious, Fournette-averse Tide defenses. Remember Derrius Guice? You know, the backup running back to Adrian Peterson for the Washington Redskins? One would think that a 3,000-yard rusher and the only player in SEC history with over 250 rushing yards in 3 games would go down as one of the major players in this rivalry’s lore. Not so. In 2 games versus Alabama, Guice gained only 79 yards total.
Here’s a table of LSU’s leading rushers against Alabama since 2012:
Why can this year be different? Because LSU has its most potent offense in years (46.75 ppg, 535.9 ypg) and Alabama has arguably its most porous defense in years, allowing 15.3 points per game on average. Burrow has already thrown for 30 TDs against 4 INTs and has a higher quarterback rating (QBR) on the road (214.9) than at home (197.4). And he has proven to be a gamer. By quarter, his highest QBR occurs in the 4th, as he is 21-for-26 in that final refrain.
Lastly, LSU has finally accomplished the momentous offensive shift from a bruising aircraft carrier to a finesse/power scheme — one that has historically given Alabama fits. And if the Crimson Tide defense has had an Achilles’ heel during the Saban era, it’s been an accurate quarterback. Any Alabama fan who adores defense can quickly tick off the quarterbacks who have beaten Alabama. This list includes: Matthew Stafford, Tim Tebow, Trevor Knight, Johnny Manziel, Chad Kelly, Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence — all of whom enjoyed uncharacteristic success against the regularly crushing Tide defenses.
Can Joe Burrow slide his name into that list? It’s possible.
The lethality against a Saban-led defense has been a quarterback who can strike through the air and use his legs. Burrow can sit back in the pocket and throw dimes, but to beat Alabama he will also need to retain the ability to escape for 5 or 10 yards when plausible. Edwards-Helaire will have to be more effective than previous runners have been against the Tide front, and offensive gurus Steve Ensminger or Joe Brady will need to concoct ways to be more productive in the red zone.
During LSU’s 8-game losing streak to Alabama, the Tigers have averaged 9 points per game, and thrice have been shut out. Ed Orgeron knows that’s unacceptable and has done what it takes to change things.
Making it all work on Saturday is another matter.
Super Fight II
The circus is coming to Tuscaloosa this weekend, but it won’t be the first time.
Yes, this version of Alabama-LSU is a big matchup, but not quite as hyped as the Game of the Century in 2011. Not to downplay the ramifications, of course, but if you’ve been anywhere near this rivalry in the past few years, it’s a big game every year. But frankly, that 2011 regular-season meeting of 1 versus 2, however, was on another level.
Now it’s déjà vu all over again, as top-ranked LSU meets No. 2 Alabama. Equated to the great Ali-Frazier matches in the 1970s, this second installment of the Game of the Century could be dubbed Super Fight II.
The biggest storyline has been Tua Tagovailoa’s ankle, but the most important factor to LSU’s expelling the lingering demons will be Joe Burrow and Ed Orgeron’s collective heart.
Can this pair overcome the mental hurdle that Alabama has presented? Does LSU have enough guts to believe — truly believe — it can beat Alabama? Can Joe Burrow and Ed Orgeron channel their inner Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and walk boldly into the land of the pachyderms and steal the grail of victory from Alabama’s grasp? Can LSU take one step toward becoming the dynasty-ender?
Burrow talked about cartoons, black holes, wormholes, and his affinity for the series Stranger Things during SEC Media Days this past summer. None of that will matter when he suits up at Bryant-Denny this Saturday. It won’t matter how good he was against Texas and Auburn. The crucible is directly in front of him.
If the LSU Tigers have learned anything over the past few years, it’s that dynasties tend to get in your head, and one of the more difficult things about beating Alabama is not simply that it has to defeat the team on the field. It’s that it has to defeat a dynasty, too.
But there’s another adversary in which LSU must overcome to topple Alabama and establish a New World Order in the SEC:
The one within.