LSU welcomes chance at No. 1 Alabama
(Includes four game keys and prediction)
BATON ROUGE — So a Bama-weary nation turns its lonely eyes to Tiger Stadium…
LSU’s infamous Death Valley figures to be rocking with Alabama’s visit tonight, and it also seems to be college football’s last hope for derailing the seemingly unstoppable Crimson Tide — unbeaten, No. 1 in all of the polls as well as the first College Football Playoff rankings, with nothing close to a real test yet of what may well be Nick Saban’s best team, one which can clinch the SEC West with a victory.
The Tide (8-0, 5-0 SEC) will find a all-day-tailgate-fueled LSU fan base frustrated by seven straight losses to Bama, angry that star linebacker Devin White will have to sit out the first half with a suspension from a controversial targeting call, but wild-eyed that the Tigers (7-1, 4-1) are coming two of their most impressive victories of the year, including a 36-16 beatdown of then No. 2-ranked Georgia.
“There’s going to be an excitement in the air that’s different for this game,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said of the scene, which will include ESPN’s Game Day originating from campus in the morning before turning it over to CBS for the kind of prime-time spectacle Death Valley seems to thrive on.
LSU is No. 3 in the initial CFP rankings — based largely a tough schedule — but there seems to be the mental asterisk that the Tigers are just keeping the spot warm for this week until the seemingly invincible Tide gets through with them.
Even that far exceeds the expectations for a team that was picked in preseason to finish fifth in the SEC West.
“I think the team that you have seen the last couple games is us,” Orgeron said. “We don’t talk about it … but obviously I think all of us feel it, we understand the importance of beating Alabama at LSU.”
Now the Tigers just have to somehow deliver the mega-upset as a two-touchdown underdog.
“I’m not scared of this game,” LSU quarterback Joe Burrow said early this week. “No one on this team is scared of this game.”
Burrow will be dueling with odds-on Heisman favorite Tua Tagovailoa, the sophomore, Hawaii-born Bama quarterback who has upped the ante on the Tide’s suddenly wide-open offense by throwing for 2,066 yards and 25 touchdowns without a single interception.
Tagovailoa’s services haven’t been needed in the fourth quarter of a game yet, even though the Tide leads the nation in scoring at 54 points per game.
“This is a very dangerous football player,” Orgeron said. “I believe he’s the best player in the country.”
But Orgeron also thinks LSU, as much as any team, won’t be overwhelmed by the Tide’s speed and brawn.
“If you let them beat them you in the trenches, you don’t have a chance,” he said. “I thought last year we did very well in the trenches.”
That Tide team was run-heavy and LSU geared up accordingly.
“One of the best running teams I’ve ever seen,” Orgeron said of last year’s eventual national champions. ‘We busted our tail to stop the run. We did a pretty good job — they beat us in the passing game.
“Now we’re going to have to play a complete game of defense to stop their run and their passing game.”
LSU should be as equipped as anybody. The Tigers’ secondary, with potential future NFL first-round picks in cornerbacks Greedy Williams and Kristian Fulton along with safety Grant Delpin, leads the nation with 14 interceptions
“I believe that our DBs are going to make some plays,” Orgeron said. “No one has done it yet, but if there’s anybody that can do it, it’s our defensive staff. I do believe in them.”
“I think we match up with them,” said Delpit, who has five interceptions and is tied for the team lead with four sacks.”
So the nation awaits.
“This team is mature enough to understand that all we have to is play their best to beat Alabama,” Orgeron said. “We’re capable of doing that. We feel that. Now we have to go out and do it.”
<strong>FOUR DOWNS: Alabama at LSU</strong>
l <strong>AVOID THE AVALANCHE:</strong> Something will have to give. LSU has not allowed a touchdown in the first quarter of a game this year — or the final four games of last year, for that matter. Alabama has scored a touchdown on its game-opening possession of <em>every</em> game this season and the Tide has scored 165 points in the first quarters alone, right at three touchdowns per start. By halftime the Tide is averaging 39 points per game before tapering off with second-half mop-up work. Nobody has made Bama squirm in the second half of a game yet. LSU needs to keep it close enough so that it matters when All-American linebacker Devin White is done serving his first-half suspension for a controversial targeting call against Mississippi State. Playing with stress probably won’t affect the Nick Saban Process, but it’s worth a try.
l <strong>KEEP TRACY ON THE BENCH:</strong> LSU’s Cole Tracy leads the nation this season with 21 field goals (with only two misses, both from outside 50 yards). LSU feels ultra-confident once it gets inside the 35-yard line that at least three points will soon be on the board. Fine. It’s a nice fall-back. But field goals probably aren’t going to beat Alabama’s high-powered offense. LSU’s 92-percent red-zone efficiency — scores on 35 of 38 trips — is a little misleading in that over half of them (18) have been field goals. “I think the offense has used that as a crutch a little bit,” head coach Ed Orgeron said. “We can’t rely on just field goals. We have to look at what we’re doing, which we’ve done this week.”
l <strong>BATTLE TESTED:</strong> LSU has been in at least a similar situation to this several times this year, with three top10-ranked scalps already on the wall — No. 8 Miam (33-17), No. 7 Auburn (22-21) and No. 2 Georgia (36-16). Miami and Auburn have faltered somewhat since, but the Tigers at the time were battling the perception of the highly ranked opponents as much as the talent and came through. They also handled current No. 21 Mississippi State with relative ease, 19-3. Hard to believe, but in its ninth game, this will be Alabama’s first test against a ranked team, although Texas A&M (45-23), unranked at the time is now No. 25. In the Sagarin computer rankings, the Tigers is schedule is ranked sixth-toughest in the nation while Alabama’s is No. 60. “It will be interesting to see how we respond playing a very good team on the road,” Bama coach Nick Saban said.
l <strong>PREDICTION:</strong> What’s all the fuss about? Why this “feeling” that this is the year LSU breaks Alabama’s 7-game stranglehold on the series? Vegas didn’t get the memo. The Tigers are two-touchdown underdogs, the second-biggest point spread in this game since Bama began its LSU dominance in the 2012 BCS championship game. The only bigger spread was last year when the Tide was favored by 21 1/2 (and won 24-10). LSU is better this year. But so is the Tide. I’ve been ’round and ’round on it, trying to figure a way. Can’t get there … <strong>Bama, 32-19.</strong>
<strong>Scooter Hobbs </strong>