8:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Alabama -15, Over/Under: 54
It’s only fitting that after the long-awaited release of the first College Football Playoff Rankings that a pair of the teams occupying the coveted Top-Four Selections meet this weekend on the grid iron, as the Third-Ranked LSU Tigers host the Top-Ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in what is sure to be a bloodbath from Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. With two-thirds of their schedule completed, one would have to figure that this particular trip to Death Valley will be the most arduous of tasks left for Alabama (8-0, 5-0 in SEC) to accomplish before making a probable trip to the SEC Championship Game in December. If you’re one of those people who believes that every team that is contending for a championship needs to be tested, so that said team’s resilience and fortitude can be revealed, than this matchup should have you salivating. Granted, his may be the only time all season that Nick Saban’s charges get pushed to the limit, for throughout their first eight outings, the Crimson Tide have hardly had to sweat; they’ve been absolutely annihilating the competition by an average margin of 38.2 Points, with their closest margin of victory being a mundane 45-23 win over then No. 22 Texas A&M. In fact, they’ve had just two contests this season that have been decided by fewer than Thirty Points!!! However, one would be led to believe that a trip to Baton Rouge is by no means your garden variety road trip, which Saban should know better than most, for after all, he was the Tigers’ Head Coach from 2000 to 2004, in which he led them to a BCS National Title in 2003. Since arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2007, he’s amassed a 9-3 record against his former school, including each of the last six meetings (including three straight at Tiger Stadium) since disposing of LSU in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. With most entries in this rivalry being hard-hitting and low-scoring, last season’s was no different, with the Tide jumping out to an early 14-0 lead, which they extended to 21-3 in route to a workmanlike 24-10 victory that featured just Fourteen First Downs and 299 Total Yards for the eventual National Champions. However, that particular team was led by Jalen Hurts (73.6%, 589 YDS, 11.1 Y/A, 5 TD, 2 INT, 28 CAR, 136 YDS, 4.9 Y/C, 1 TD), who has since been relegated to the background by Tua Tagovailoa (70.4%, 2,066 YDS, 13.6 Y/A, 25 TD, 0 INT), the hero from the CFP National Title Game, who has emerged as a serious contender for the Heisman, and in many circles has been branded as the favorite to hoist the prestigious trophy. It’s not that Hurts, a veteran of two National Championship Games at this point, is undeserving of being this team’s Starting Quarterback (27-2 as the Starter from 2016 to 2017), it’s just that Tagovailoa has been that much better. The Hawaii Native has brought a completely new dimension to Alabama’s often blunt, punishing Offense, possessing a rocket of an arm that has NFL Scouts drooling, and the rest of the college football world shaking in their proverbial boots, for the last thing that Saban needed was an aerial assault in his cache of weapons. And that’s exactly what they have, for the Tide are carving opponents up through the air in a manner that has been rare during his tenure in Tuscaloosa; ‘Bama is averaging a whopping 374.4 Passing Yards on a staggering 13.1 Yards per Attempt, which serves as by far and away the highest mark during the Saban Era, completely dwarfing the meek 193.8 that they mustered in 2017. With premium talent protecting him along the Offensive Line, and an ever-potent Rushing Attack (216.9 Y/G, 5.2 Y/C) affording him the luxury of Play-Action, and a cadre of weapons led by the explosive Jerry Jeudy (31 REC, 777 YDS, 25.1 Y/R, 10 TD) making a host of plays, Tagovailoa really does have the opposition at his mercy. With that said, his health is worth monitoring, for the Sophomore Signal-Caller has been limited throughout practice this week due to an ailing knee, while the aforementioned Hurts recently underwent a minor procedure to assuage a sprained ankle. LSU’s Defense remains as freakishly athletic as ever, and if his mobility is compromised, he will be a far easier target for the Tigers as they assault the Pocket.
Meanwhile, it came as a bit of shock that LSU (7-1, 4-1 in SEC) was selected as No. 3 in the first release of the College Football Playoff Rankings, as they were slotted by the CFP Committee ahead of unbeaten Notre Dame, to some minor outrage. However, we challenge you to find a team in that particular discussion that has faced a more difficult schedule thus far than the Tigers, who have earned not one, not two, but three victories over opponents who were ranked inside of the Top-10 at the time. Some teams don’t face more than a single ranked team all year, and Ed Orgeron’s charges have battled five already, and are now set to welcome undefeated Alabama, who is both No. One in those very same rankings and the reigning National Champions to boot. Needless to say, this is a golden opportunity for Orgeron & Co. to completely !@#$ up the Playoff Picture, for a victory over the Tide would not only serve as the single biggest victory of any of their counterparts at the top of the Rankings, but it would in all likelihood block ‘Bama from reaching the SEC Title Game, which would give Louisiana State the platform to obtain the No. One Overall Seed. Granted, that’s a lot of things that need to happen, and after all, Saban’s troops reached the Final a year ago WITHOUT competing for the Conference Championship. Anyways, bigger picture aside, the Tigers would likely simply settle for finally getting over against a Division Rival that has owned them of late; as we sated earlier, LSU has lost six straight meetings with Alabama, in large part to an anemic Offense that has absolutely struggled to score points since being shut out in that fateful BCS Championship Game back in 2011, averaging just 12.2 Points per Game over the span. This matchup will be the perfect litmus test to see just how far along Orgeron’s reconstructed Offense is in it’s first season under Offensive Coordinator Steve Ensminger, who has brought a more wide-open versatile approach to Death Valley, which has been a breath of fresh air after year’s of boring, oftentimes listless and unimaginative schemes and playcalling. While this unit is still very much a work in progress, it’s achieved near perfect balance, averaging 193.0 Yards through air and another 190.3 Yards on the ground, led by dual-threat Quarterback Joe Burrow (53.8%, 1,544 YDS, 6.9 Y/A, 6 TD, 3 INT, 67 CAR, 250 YDS, 3.7 Y/C, 4 TD), a Transfer from Ohio State, who has injected a good deal of energy and personality into this Offense. The Fourth-Year Junior Signal-Caller hasn’t put up anything close to the flashy numbers of his counterpart in Tuscaloosa (he hasn’t thrown a Touchdown in three straight games), but he has exceled at executing the gameplan, and above all else, taking care of the football. Alabama is great at many things, but one of the reasons that they’ve endured for so long is that they own a commanding Turnover Differential, and Louisiana State isn’t far behind, enjoying a healthy Plus-12 Differential, in large part to the fact that they’ve only turned the football over seven times thus far. With that said, Burrow is going to have to take some chances, otherwise the Tide will squeeze him into the Pocket until it collapses, so Ensminger must find creative ways to utilize his talented tandem of Tailbacks, Nick Brossette (151 CAR, 697 YDS, 4.6 Y/C, 10 TD) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (105 CAR, 521 YDS, 5.0 Y/C, 5 TD), along with explosive Receiver Justin Jefferson (30 REC, 471 YDS, 15.7 Y/R, 2 TD) to keep the Defense honest. And speaking of Defense, the Tigers are going to have do everything within their considerable talents to slow down Tagovailoa and that explosive passing attack. Fortunately, Orgeron’s Secondary excels at doing just that, utilizing physical Man Coverages whenever needed. On the season, LSU is allowing opposing Quarterbacks to complete a scant 50.6% of their attempts for an average of 199.8 Yards on just 5.89 Yards per Attempt, thanks in large part to a ferocious Pass-Rush that has registered Eighteen Sacks thus far, while also logging a whopping Fourteen Interceptions. Safeties Grant Delpit (54 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 4.0 SK, 5 INT, 4 PD, 1 FF) and John Battle (37 TKL, 3 INT, 1 PD) are arguably the finest tandem in the country, while Andreaz “Greedy” Williams (23 TKL, 2 INT, 4 PD) appears to be the next great Cornerback in Baton Rouge.