Since it’s going to be almost two weeks before Alabama comes to Tiger Stadium for what could well be the biggest game of the regular season for both teams, we figured we’d get this post out of the way early and let it hang out there for the whole time. After all, both teams are facing open dates this weekend, so there is no reason for anything to change between now and game time with respect to the matchup between No. 1 and No. 19 on Nov. 5.
It turns out that from an LSU perspective, those students who were peppering a gorgeous Louisiana Saturday night with chants of “We Want Bama!” toward the end of the Ole Miss game weren’t merely foolhardy or under the influence of contraband liquor. There are reasons why the Alabama game could actually be a signature night for LSU football – and perhaps herald the coming of the Ed Orgeron Era.
Why? Let’s go through some of them.
THE HISTORY OF THE RIVALRY IS MORE FAVORABLE TO LSU THAN YOU THINK
Since Nick Saban took over as the head coach in Tuscaloosa, the teams have played 10 times – once in the 2011 National Championship game in New Orleans, five times in Tuscaloosa and four times in Baton Rouge. LSU is 3-7 in those games, 1-3 in Baton Rouge.
So why are we saying the history is good for LSU?
Well, consider the four games in Tiger Stadium. Yes, Alabama won three of them, but that’s not the whole story.
There was a 27-21 victory by Alabama in overtime in 2008, in which a bad LSU team (by modern standards; the 2008 team’s 8-5 record is tied for the worst mark by an LSU team in the 21st century) lost to an Alabama team that was 12-0 before losing to Florida in the SEC Championship game (and then Utah in the Sugar Bowl) in a squeaker. Jarrett Lee, who played quarterback for LSU in that game, was 13-of-34 with four interceptions. If Lee only throws three interceptions, LSU wins the game.
In 2010, LSU beat Alabama 24-21. That game was a highlight of Jordan Jefferson’s career, as he was 10-of-13 for 141 yards and a touchdown, and the LSU defense played lights-out. That year was the only one of the four seasons in question when LSU finished with a better record than Alabama did; the Tide was 10-3, while LSU went 11-2.
In 2012, Alabama won the national championship with a 42-14 victory over Notre Dame in Miami and LSU finished 10-3, losing a 25-24 heartbreaker over Clemson in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl. Many people will tell you LSU’s postseason opponent was considerably tougher than Alabama’s was that year, and they’re probably right. But for a 21-17 squeaker of a victory Bama managed in November, the roles might well have been reversed. That game was an especially tough pill for LSU fans to swallow, as several dumb game management decisions – an ill-advised onside kick attempt, a fake field goal try that had no chance, a 54-yard field goal attempt that also had no chance, a dumb decision to run the ball up the middle on 3rd and 9 with about 2:30 left in the game rather than let a red-hot Zack Mettenberger hit Jarvis Landry or Odell Beckham with a first-down pass to salt the game away before attempting an ultimately unsuccessful field goal, and the ineffective John Chavis prevent defense at the end which allowed a quick Alabama drive to finish the Tigers off made the game a classic for the anti-Les Miles crowd. The last half of the fourth quarter of that game is almost surreal to watch.
And in 2014, that crowd had perhaps their finest moment. Alabama managed a 20-13 overtime win in a game they had virtually no business winning despite being a better team that year. The Tide was 12-2; they lost only to Ole Miss in the regular season and to Ohio State in the playoffs and murdered Missouri in the SEC Championship Game that year, while LSU was once again 8-5. But despite an 8-for-26 passing performance by Anthony Jennings and a succession of critical dropped passes, the Tigers managed to put themselves in position to close out a victory in the final two minutes of the game when Kendall Beckwith jumped on a T.J. Yeldon fumble at the Bama 6-yard line with just 1:13 left and the game tied at 10.
Somehow, LSU managed to lose the game, thanks to a stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalty which backed the Tigers up to the 21 yard line and an inability to do anything on offense as Alabama called all three time outs on that possession. Colby Delahoussaye ended up hitting a 39 yard field goal with 50 seconds left, and then Trent Domingue proceeded to knock the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, and Alabama mounted a last-minute drive against the ineffective John Chavis prevent defense for a last-second field goal of their own before winning it with a touchdown in overtime.
LSU is 1-3 in those four games, but as you can see they’re essentially three plays from being 4-0. Nobody with that history should believe they can’t win.
GAME MANAGEMENT WOULD HAVE TO BE BETTER NOW, NO?
One reason for the rough patch against the Tide in those four games has been the inexplicable game management – the poor play calls at crucial times, the inexplicable decision-making, etc., noted above.
That, love him or hate him, was part and parcel of the Les Miles experience. The strange gambles always seemed to work against Florida, and they never worked against Alabama. The bad clock management turned out to be an asset against Tennessee and, sometimes, Auburn, but it would kill him against Saban. That’s just the way things went.
So far, one thing which seems apparent with Ed Orgeron taking over is that while over time we might notice a new set of problems the Tigers don’t appear to have the ones they had when Miles was the coach. The fourth-quarter swoons Miles’ teams too often fell victim to could often, in retrospect, be traced to a pattern of his overworking his team with brutal, long practices – something strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt talked about quite a bit on 104.5-FM ESPN Radio in Baton Rouge this morning. Moffitt seemed to infer that the overworking of the Tiger team in practice contributed to dead legs on Saturdays and fatigue playing a part in poor late-game performances; consider the inability to close out the 2012 and 2014 Alabama games in that light, and you begin to see how a different approach could yield a different result.
Will Orgeron come up with ways to lose games late against top opponents? He might; as Ole Miss’ head coach from 2005-07 he came within a touchdown of beating Bama all three years, and he had lots of near-misses which could have given him a signature win and launched his program into positive momentum. But so far, though there is no evidence yet of how he’ll coach at LSU in a tight game with the pressure on, Orgeron hasn’t served up a lot of drama. The only game management decision really worth criticizing came on Saturday, when LSU had the ball deep in its own territory with about a minute and a half before halftime and a 21-13 lead. The smart call would have been to see if Derrius Guice could get rolling and pop out a first-down run, and if he did then launching the two-minute offense would make sense (if not, you run out the clock and go into halftime with an 8-point lead). Instead, Orgeron and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger called a deep dropback off play-action, and quarterback Danny Etling took a vicious blindside hit. The sack caused a fumble that Ole Miss recovered, and it led to a touchdown and a two-point conversion. That obviously can’t happen against Alabama if LSU is going to win.
IS LSU A BETTER TEAM THAN THOSE PREVIOUS FOUR?
We know Alabama is outstanding this year; they’re probably on par with the 2012 national championship team. What we don’t know is how good LSU is, simply because you can’t factor too much of the team’s performance in the first four games into an evaluation of what the Tigers will put on the field Nov. 5. Orgeron has made so many changes to the team’s preparation and launched what amounts to a redesign of the Tiger offense on the fly (it’s not so much that the playbook has changed as the playcalling has incorporated things which weren’t utilized before and some of what LSU is doing now looks like similar plays from different formations) since getting the job, that this really is a different team than the one which lost to Wisconsin and Auburn and posted unimpressive wins over Jacksonville State and Mississippi State. An interesting graph…
Week 1: #113 @ 257 ypg
Week 2: #113 @ 314 ypg
Week 3: #103 @ 340 ypg
Week 4: #111 @ 340 ypg (Miles fired)
Week 5: #81 @ 398 ypg
Week 6: #79 @ 398 ypg
Week 7: #67 @ 409 ypg
Week 8: #54 @ 424 ypg
That’s LSU’s national ranking and running average in total offense per game. You can see that it has advanced precipitously since Orgeron took over; going from 111th to 54th is no accident, particularly when you don’t even have Leonard Fournette for most of the increase. In addition, LSU is now averaging 7.0 yards per offensive play – good enough for 8th in the nation and best in the SEC. Orgeron’s Tigers are averaging 536 yards per game on offense – over a full season that number would put them 7th in the country. Sure, Wisconsin (No. 9) and Auburn (No. 18), who both did a decent job stymieing LSU’s offense, rank highly in total defense. There is no question this is a better offensive unit now than it was in September.
Those numbers would make this the best offensive team of the five which have played Alabama in Tiger Stadium in the Saban era there. And defensively, this is a very, very good LSU team – they’re 14th in the country at present averaging 313.9 yards allowed per game, which is a very good number, and 8th in the country in scoring defense at 15.0 points per game. This despite having played against some pretty good offenses – Missouri is No. 11 in total offense, Auburn is No. 14, Southern Miss is No. 19 and Ole Miss is No. 37. All of those teams managed considerably less offense against LSU than their season averages.
Not to mention there was a reason this LSU team was ranked in the Top 5 in the nation in the preseason, and it wasn’t because the pundits were blown away by Miles’ X’s and O’s. It was because this LSU team is loaded with pro prospects – Fournette, Jamal Adams, Ethan Pocic, Tre’Davious White, Kendall Beckwith, Lewis Neal, Malachi Dupre, Arden Key, Davon Godchaux, Travin Dural, Guice and on and on. The impressive numbers aren’t an accident; LSU has talent backing them.
This is a very talented team. It shouldn’t shy away from anyone.
ALABAMA ISN’T OVERRATED, IS IT?
The answer there is “probably not,” but on the other hand a great deal has been made of the offensive prowess of the Tide. And while they’re certainly fun to watch, some of the hype given them to date might be overblown.
Particularly where true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts is concerned.
Hurts has done a terrific job. There is no doubt about that. But his success is in no small part due to the advantageous circumstances he’s been put in by Saban and his offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. He’s able to run an offense with favorable down and distance thanks to a sound running game, Kiffin is using his legs as much as his arm, he’s been able to use play action to take shots down the field against single coverage and he’s had lots of time to throw. He’s keying the No. 15 offense in the country and nobody can take that away from him.
All of which might well be in effect on Nov. 5. But consider this – statistically, the toughest defense Hurts has played against thus far was Kent State, who checks in at No. 28 in total defense. After that, the next best is USC (No. 45). From there, it’s a deep drop down to Western Kentucky (No. 69), Kentucky (No. 80), Tennessee (No. 82), Arkansas (No. 84), Texas A&M (No. 96) and Ole Miss (No. 107). Kent State and Western Kentucky are anomalies where the stats are concerned since they generally play much lower-level competition; otherwise there isn’t a good defense in the bunch. Some have noted Orgeron’s offensive renaissance has come at the expense of the Rebels, Missouri (No. 109) and Southern Miss (surprisingly, No. 19); on the whole LSU’s offense has had much stiffer competition than Alabama has.
Is Alabama’s defense, which ranks 4th in the country, overrated? That’s a lot tougher argument to make. Those lousy defensive teams Hurts has feasted on have come attached to some pretty salty offenses that the Tide has mostly defused. Texas A&M is No. 17. Western Kentucky is No. 22. Ole Miss is No. 37. USC is No. 42. Those are pretty good offenses. After that, it’s not quite such a murderer’s row. Arkansas is No. 61. Tennessee is No. 80. Kentucky is No 98. Kent State is second-to-last at No. 127.
By the way – guess who’s got the worst offense in the country right now. Would you believe Stanford, with Christian McCaffrey? We were pretty shocked at that ourselves.
If you take the entire season, LSU, at No. 54, is about average of the teams Bama has played. Orgeron’s LSU would be the best offense of the bunch, statistically speaking.
We’re not convinced that Alabama is overrated. Clearly they’re very good. But it’s not unreasonable to say this is far and away the toughest test they’ve faced, offensively and defensively, this season – and maybe we don’t yet know as much about them as their record might indicate.
There’s only one common opponent in the bunch so far, which is Ole Miss. Of the two games LSU and Alabama have played against the Rebels, clearly LSU had the better performance. The Tigers convincingly dropped Ole Miss 38-21 on Saturday, in a game which felt like it should have been more lopsided, while Alabama supremely struggled to win a 48-43 squeaker.
LSU dominated the yardage totals against the Rebels, outgaining them 515 yards to 325. That isn’t quite how things went for Alabama; Ole Miss actually outgained Bama 522-492. Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly had a big day throwing the ball on Alabama’s secondary, going 26-of 40 for 421 yards and three touchdowns, and Ole Miss managed 101 yards on the ground despite three sacks allowed. Meanwhile Alabama did most of their damage on the ground, with 334 rushing yards against the Rebels’ defense. Hurts had an OK, if pedestrian, day throwing the football – he was 19 of 31, but for only 158 yards and no touchdowns. Almost half of Alabama’s passing yardage came on two plays; a 45 yard pass to Calvin Ridley and a 30 yard pass to Gehrig Dieter. Almost everything else was just a quick pass at the line of scrimmage for, essentially, negligible yardage.
Bama won that game, after being down 24-3 late in the second quarter, on the strength of defense and special teams. They came from 24-10 down with a little over a minute until halftime to tie the score shortly after the third quarter began on two big returns – an Eddie Jackson punt return from 85 yards out, and then a three-yard fumble return for a score by Da’Ron Payne. Later, Jonathan Allen made the game 48-30 with a 75-yard scoop-and-score. If Alabama doesn’t get 21 points from the defense and the special teams, they probably lose their third straight game to Ole Miss.
But Alabama would argue a number of things. First, while LSU got Ole Miss in Tiger Stadium Alabama had to play them on the road, and that’s a tougher assignment. Second, when they played Ole Miss they were brimming with confidence at having nearly knocked off Florida State, while LSU caught them reeling, coming off a disturbing loss to Arkansas. Third, for whatever reason Ole Miss always seems to give Saban a tough time – though LSU fans would sympathize since the near-annual poor showing against the Rebels had become a tradition in the Miles era. And fourth, Alabama is arguably a better team than they were in the third game of the season.
All of which is fair.
But then there is the biggest reason LSU fans are allowed to show some confidence…
IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT IN TIGER STADIUM!
CBS announced Monday morning that they’d be showing the game in a special prime-time broadcast rather than the usual 2:30 slot. That would put this year’s contest in a similar atmosphere to the 2012 and 2014 games, when an inferior Tiger team final record-wise came within one break of knocking Alabama off both times.
And 2012 and 2014 were years in which the LSU program was entering a slow-at-first, but gradually-escalating decline under Miles. The atmosphere in Tiger Stadium was still a big deal for the Alabama game, but most of the folks you talk to who were on hand for Ole Miss this year will tell you it was electric in the building like it hadn’t been in a long time.
That was Ole Miss. This is Alabama. And with LSU largely still alive in the national championship picture – the only help they need to win the SEC is for somebody to beat Auburn, and otherwise if they win out they’re in Atlanta, and from there it’s entirely possible a few games could fall the right way and get them into the playoffs at 10-2 – this is the biggest game in Tiger Stadium since that 2012 contest.
It will be loud. It will be crazy. And there will be magic in the air.
You can almost hear Phil Collins in the distance.