8:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Alabama -28.5, Over/Under: 66.5
The Regular Season comes to an end as one team looks to cement their standing in lieu of the SEC Championship, while the other simply attempts to end an arduous campaign on a positive note, as the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide travel to the bayou to face the reigning National Champion, LSU Tigers, from Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Typically, this is a matchup that carries with it the HEAVIEST of Playoff implications, though in this insane year that is 2020 only one of them has met expectations, and that’s Alabama (8-0, 8-0 in SEC). To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the Crimson Tide have remained one of the few constants in College Football in a season that has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has robbed countless teams of sizeable portions of their schedule and a myriad of talented players and coaches. Speaking of coaches, even Nick Saban has fallen victim to the virus, twice testing positive over the past three months, with the most recent case causing the venerable taskmaster to miss the latest installment of the Iron Bowl (more on that in a bit). However, the 69-year old will likely look back and count himself as fortunate for being really the only major figure within the program to suffer such an affliction, for unlike many of their counterparts, the Tide did not see any key contributors opt out of the season due to concern over COVID, and haven’t suffered any major outbreak that would postpone games or leave them at a disadvantage without a group of players. For all intents and purposes, this program has managed to successfully navigate through this mine-laden season largely unscathed, and when the initial College Football Playoff Rankings were first released two weeks ago, is it any wonder that they found themselves ranked No. One Overall?
Are we surprised to Alabama ascend to this point? @#$% no, for out of the 130 programs that comprise the FBS, who has proven better at reloading from year to year, and replacing top-tier talent (and not to mention coaches) than the Crimson Tide? While a plethora of other teams were scrambling to cover their losses from players opting out of 2020, Saban was busy replacing NINE NFL Draftees, all of which were selected in the first three rounds, including four in the first fifteen picks. However, it wasn’t just quantity that needed to be replaced but quality as well, for he had to replace the most prolific passer in the long, storied history of the program, Tua Tagovailoa (7,442 YDS and 87 TD in 32 games), his two most lethal Receivers, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy (Combined 1,909 YDS and 17 TD in 2019), and his Starting Right Tackle, Jedrick Wills, and that was just on Offense (the Defense lost five starters as well). With that said, it’s simply next man up in Tuscaloosa, where the next generation of stars has acquainted themselves rather nicely in 2020. Even without that aforementioned group of studs, the Offense has been even more prolific, averaging 48.5 points per game (3rd Overall) on 535.6 total yards, both of which are the highest such figures during the Saban era. After patiently biding his time for two years behind Tagovailoa, Mac Jones (76.2%, 2,728 YDS, 12.0 Y/A, 23 TD, 3 INT, 208.0 RATE) has stepped into the starting gig without so much as a hiccup, completing 76.2% of his attempts for an average of 341.0 yards on a very healthy 12.0 yards per attempt, with twenty-three touchdowns in comparison to three interceptions. No Ruggs and Jeudy? No problem, for this group continues to be an embarrassment of riches, with Jaylen Waddle (25 REC, 557 YDS, 22.3 Y/R, 4 TD) and Devonta Smith (72 REC, 1,074 YDS, 14.9 Y/R, 12 TD) looking like the next two first round picks to come out of Alabama. Even with the former suffering a broken ankle after just five games, this unit hasn’t missed a step, with the latter hauling in 518 yards and eight touchdowns on twenty-seven receptions in the three games that have followed, which parlays to an average of 19.2 yards per catch. With the aerial assault becoming so prominent, it’s not as if the rushing attack has lost it’s legs, certainly not with Najee Harris (148 CAR, 893 YDS, 6.0 Y/A, 17 TD) toting the rock on Saturdays; it may feel like the Senior has been in Tuscaloosa forever, though he’s only been the clear-cut Starting Tailback for two seasons, topping his 1,224-yard/13-touchdown campaign from last year with 893 yards and seventeen scores in just eight games this far, averaging 6.0 yards per carry along the way. At 6-2, 230 lbs, this guy may look like the typical bruising ‘Back that we’ve long come to associate with the Tide, but he’s much more than that, exhibiting a skill as a pass-catcher that has become more and more in demand with each passing year; Harris has reeled in fifty-one receptions for 548 yards and seven touchdowns since 2019, including twenty-four catches for 244 yards thus far in 2020. With the Offense clearly in good hands, the lingering question revolves around the Defense, and if they’re truly good enough to lead this team to what would be it’s fifth national title under Saban. The answer last season was no, and without five starters from that unit it becomes a valid query once more; for the second year in a row, Alabama has relinquished over 18.0 points and 320 total yards per game, which despite being banner figures for some programs, is well below the sky-high expectations set over the previous thirteen years. Last season they managed to really get over on the strength of takeaways, logging twenty-eight in 2019 in comparison to fourteen thus far. However, after permitting 20-plus points in three consecutive contests (including 48 at Ole Miss), the Crimson Tide have relegated the opposition to a scant 8.3 points on 257.0 total yards, and seven takeaways.
When we last saw Alabama, they continued their unbeaten run even without Saban, avenging last year’s defeat in the Iron Bowl as they hammered (22) Auburn, 42-13. Offensive Coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, had no problems getting his charges motivated for this one, as they came out firing on all cylinders, outscoring the Tigers 21-3 in the First Half, and never looked back. Big plays served as the calling card for the hosts, who scored five touchdowns of twenty yards or more, including a pair of bombs from the aforementioned Jones to Smith, the first a 66-yard rocket to open the afternoon, and the latter a 58-yard dart that to extend the lead to 28-6 in the third period. In the end, the Crimson Tide totaled 445 yards of Offense on twenty first downs, rushing for 143 yards on twenty-seven carries, ninety-six of which were accounted for by Harris, who only needed eleven carries to reach that figure. However, in the end the affair belonged to Jones, who in his final game in Tuscaloosa turned in arguably his finest performance, downing his bitter rivals with 302 yards and five touchdowns on 18-of-26 passes. For his troubles, Smith was a wrecking ball downfield, hauling in seven balls for 171 yards and a pair of scores, averaging a whopping 24.4 yards per catch. The Defense did their part too, limiting Auburn to 347 total yards on twenty first downs, picking off Bo Nix (20-of-38, 227 YDS, 0 TD, 2 INT) twice and sacking him on three occasions.
Meanwhile, my oh my what a difference a year can make in the world of sports, and there is perhaps no better example of that than LSU (3-4, 3-4 in SEC) in 2020. Last season, the Tigers ran roughshod over the country en route to capturing their third National Championship since the turn of the century, on the strength of the highest scoring attack in the nation (48.4 P/G), led by Heisman winner, Joe Burrow, who set an FBS record with sixty-five total touchdowns, all but five of which coming through the air. On their way to the Playoff, Ed Orgeron’s charges bested Alabama 46-41 in Tuscaloosa, an epic shootout that featured a ridiculous TWENTY-THREE NFL Draft Picks, nine of which went in the first round alone. After trouncing Georgia in the SEC Championship (37-10), they blew out Oklahoma in the National Semifinal (63-28), before thoroughly besting reigning National Champion, Clemson, in triumphant fashion (42-25). However, as insanely successful as last season was for the Bayou Bengals, 2020 has been the polar opposite, with the program struggling to keep their head above water while coming into fire off the field. Where their opponent tonight has deftly navigated this proverbial minefield that is 2020 with minimal issues, Louisiana State has hit virtually every pot hole imaginable, staring at (barring a surprise tonight) will likely be their first losing campaign since 1999.
In many ways, LSU faced the same issues that Alabama did coming into 2020. Even before COVID-19 rocked our collective way of life, this was a program that suffered some HEAVY losses in the Offseason. It’s not surprising to see a National Champion lose a plethora of talent, in fact it’s expected. However, the sheer volume of losses on the roster alone was enough to make even the most consistent recruiter sweat. Orgeron saw a staggering FOURTEEN players hear their names selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, with ten going in the first three rounds alone, five of which went in the first. Chief among them was Burrow (76.3%, 5,671 YDS, 12.5 Y/A, 60 TD, 6 INT, 202.0 RATE), the No. One Overall Pick, who had just completed arguably the greatest single season by a Quarterback in College Football history. However, they also said goodbye to their leading rusher, Clyde Edwards-Helaire (270 TCH, 1,867 YDS, 6.9 Y/T, 17 TD), their leading receiver, Justin Jefferson (111 REC, 1,540 YDS, 13.9 Y/R, 18 TD), three Starting Offensive Linemen, and six starters from the Defense just to name a few. Furthermore, the Tigers also lost another prolific Receiver, with electrifying Junior, Ja’Marr Chase (84 REC, 1,780 YDS, 21.2 Y/R, 20 TD), choosing to opt out of the season due to concerns over COVID. And if that wasn’t enough, the Coaching Staff also underwent some major changes, with both Coordinators choosing to take their talents elsewhere. (Co-Offensive Coordinator) Joe Brady, who was the mastermind behind LSU’s prolific attack, joined Matt Rhule’s Staff with the Carolina Panthers, while (Defensive Coordinator) Dave Aranda replaced Rhule at Baylor as their Head Coach. While the other Co-Offensive Coordinator, Steve Ensminger, assumed full control of the Offense, Orgeron tabbed his old friend, Bo Pelini, to replace Aranda, who made his return to Baton Rouge following a twelve-year absence, serving as Head Coach of Nebraska and Youngstown State (to mixed results). So it’s with that said, that expecting success after undergoing that much turnover, even under normal circumstances, was always unrealistic, and the issues that 2020 has presented have only made it that much more difficult for LSU to thrive, let alone find their footing in what will be looked back upon as a lost year. While the Offense hasn’t been great, it hasn’t been awful by any means, with Ensminger ensuring that the transition to Myles Brennan (60.3%, 1,112 YDS, 8.5 Y/A, 11 TD, 3 INT, 154.7 RATE) at Quarterback, wouldn’t be a jarring one. However, the same cannot be said about the Defense, where Pelini has struggled from the jump to acclimate to his new charges and surroundings; this group has been torched for 40-plus points on three separate occasions thus far, yielding over 500 total yards three times, while forcing a dozen turnovers, though nine of them came in the first three outings alone. On the year, they’ve allowed 30.3 points per game (73rd Overall) on 443.3 total yards, with the Pass Defense in particular getting eviscerated to the tune of 302.9 yards through the air. It certainly didn’t help that Sophomore phenom, Derek Stingley Jr. (23 TKL, 2.5 TFL, 1 FF, 0 INT, 4 PD) missed the first two games of the campaign due to COVID, slowing his performance even after his return to the field. Pelini wants to play man coverage, and without Stingley, who was for all intents and purposes the top Cornerback in the country even as a Freshman, that was always going to be a pipedream. Furthermore, this is a team that has seen their schedule completely upended due to outside influences, having only played two home games thus far due to COVID and Delta, which relocated their meeting with Missouri to Columbia. Hell, even this matchup with Alabama was rescheduled, after an outbreak within the program back on November 14th pushed the contest to this weekend. And lastly, if all of that wasn’t enough to deal with, the program came under fire following Title IX infractions that were issued by the NCAA, claiming that the school ignored the law in regards to mishandling multiple grievances of sexual assault from former players, with an investigation currently underway. Needless to say, this has been a year that Orgeron and everyone remotely associated with the program would like to forget.
When we last saw LSU, they faced off against (5) Texas A&M, who had been dealing with their own issues with COVID, falling in defeat, 20-7 at College Station. This one was as one-sided as one could imagine, with the Tigers being taken out to the woodshed in a listless effort that has got to have them on blowout watch against the Crimson Tide. Orgeron’s troops were very nearly shut out altogether had Max Johnson (63.0%, 285 YDS, 6.2 Y/A, 2 TD, 0 INT, 129.4 RATE) not found Junior Receiver, Terrace Marshall (48 REC, 731 YDS, 15.2 Y/R, 10 TD), for a three-yard score with just thirty-eight seconds left in the affair. Both teams accounted for an identical 267 total yards, but that production was note created equal as the hosts controlled the game by rushing for 162 yards on thirty-seven carries in comparison to a paltry thirty-six yards on twenty-five attempts for the visitors. Of course, the Freshman took over for another Frosh, T.J. Finley (58.9%, 797 YDS, 7.1 Y/A, 4 TD, 5 INT, 121.6 RATE), who in turn replaced the injured Brennan, who suffered a torn abdominal muscle along with a hip injury back in early October at Missouri. Johnson took over after Finley struggled to acquaint himself as the starter, completing just 58.9% of his passes with four touchdowns opposed to five interceptions. Two of those picks came against the Aggies, the latter of which was returned fifteen yards to the house, leading directly to Johnson’s ascension, who handled himself better on 14-of-22 passing for 113 yards and a score, though it was clearly in mop-up duty. In the end, the difference in the affair was turnovers, with the Bayou Bengals committing three, while also getting flagged for eleven penalties for a loss of seventy-nine yards. Simply put, this was dreadful performance from a program that hasn’t been able to practice regularly, which when you consider all of the other issues that have plagued them thus far, really set them up for failure.