Rarely do college football fans get an in-season No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown (or No. 2 and No. 3 when it comes to the first College Football Playoff rankings), and it's fitting that the SEC is providing this one come Saturday when LSU (8-0, 4-0 SEC) heads to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama (8-0, 5-0). The winner goes on a direct path to the SEC Championship Game with a chance for a College Football Playoff berth while the other has to hope for some end of season pigskin magic to make the elite postseason dance card.
Even in today's game with a four-team playoff, fans are not guaranteed to see the top two ranked teams in the country throw down against one another and the likelihood of a "game of the century" meeting during the regular season is far less likely. The last such occurrence was in 2011 when No. 1 LSU traveled to Bryant-Denny Stadium and beat Alabama 9-6 in overtime. Not only was that the last time two top squads met in-season, it also was the last time the Tigers defeated the Crimson Tide. Since that game, Alabama has rattled off eight straight wins with only two meetings (2012, 2014) decided by seven points or fewer. Adding tension to this season's meeting is the fact that then-No. 1 Alabama crushed No. 3 LSU 29-0 in Tiger Stadium a year ago.
Beyond the banners and trophies that may come with to the victor, this is one of college football's best rivalries that pulls in fans from across the country. Both squads mirror each other in terms of talent, a wide-open offense, and defensive tenacity. All promises for a "must-see" college football event that will be full of dynamic on-the-field action.
5 Reasons Why LSU Will Beat Alabama
LSU's offensive production
One cannot understate the importance of the contributions of Joe Brady, LSU's new passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach. The former New Orleans Saints assistant has made all the difference in the world in helping the Tigers evolve from a productive offense into an elite unit that features a potent passing attack. Last season, LSU averaged 32 points and 402 yards per game. Decent numbers that ranked 38th and 69th in the country, respectively. This season, the Tigers are rolling up 47 points and 536 yards per contest, which places them fourth in both categories.
Alabama's offense was elite last season, and is again this season, scoring 49 points per game and producing 507 yards each outing. The difference in this year's head-to-head matchup could come down to the fact that LSU, at least on paper, has an offense that can go toe-to-toe with the Tide. Either way, the scoreboard operator at Bryant-Denny Stadium figures to be busy Saturday afternoon.
QB Joe Burrow
The 2018 season was Burrow's first in offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger's system after transferring from Ohio State. Burrow was more a game manager last season, throwing for 2,894 yards with 16 touchdowns. Through the first eight games this season, Burrow has already obliterated last season's numbers by piling up 2,805 yards and 30 touchdowns while completing 79 percent of his attempts. Burrow has rewritten the school record book, leads the SEC in every major statistical category, and is second only to Washington State's Anthony Gordon in both yards and touchdowns. Burrow has thrust himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation and can really make a statement with a strong performance against Alabama.
Joe Burrow may get the headlines as a Heisman contender, but there are weapons throughout the offense making this motor hum along. The offensive line has not only been solid in pass protection but also has paved the way to 158 rushing yards per game. Tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire is fifth in the SEC in yards (683) and tied for second in rushing touchdowns (8). At wide receiver, Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase are atop the conference in receiving yards (819, 749) and tied for the lead in touchdown catches (9). Beyond Jefferson and Chase, Burrow has six other targets with 100 yards or more on the year, including reliable playmakers Terrace Marshall Jr. and Thaddeus Moss.
The Tigers head into this national spotlight game well-versed in taking on top-rated programs. Alabama will be the fourth top-10 team LSU has faced in 2019 (No. 9 Texas, No. 7 Florida, and No. 9 Auburn). Playing on the road will not be overwhelming either as the Tigers took down Texas 45-38 in Austin earlier this season. Additionally, LSU's offense has already faced two top-30 defenses (Florida and Auburn) while the defense has squared off against a top-20 offense in Texas (No. 19).
Per USA Today, Alabama has played one of the lightest schedules in the nation, ranked 59th out of 130 FBS programs. LSU will be the first top-10 team the Tide have faced this season and just the second ranked team after clipping No. 24 Texas A&M 47-28 in College Station. Statistically, Southern Miss (No. 43) is the best offense Alabama has faced to date, while the top-ranked defense the Tide have gone up against has been Texas A&M, currently No. 29.
Defense vs. Defense
Even though Alabama has not really played anyone of note beyond Texas A&M, the defense is ranked 16th in FBS at 308 yards per game allowed. LSU isn't too far behind at No. 23 (315 ypg). The Tide have done a really good job against the run, holding teams to just 127 yards per game. But their toughest opponent in this respect was Ole Miss, a team with no passing attack that chomped up 279 yards on the ground. South Carolina true freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw for 324 yards with two touchdowns at home against Alabama back on Sept. 14. The most rushing yards the Tigers have given up this season have been 146 (at Florida on Oct. 12), while the most passing yards (409) came in the win against Texas, a team that ranks 14th in the nation in passing offense.
Fans wanting to draw comparisons to last year's meeting between the SEC West juggernauts should stop. The Tigers' offensive line struggled at the point of attack as Alabama held LSU to just 25 rushing yards, making the offense one-dimensional. Running a scaled-down passing attack, Burrow managed to complete just 18 of his 35 attempts for 181 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. All that has changed this year.
Conversely, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had a subpar day of his own, finishing 25-of-42 for 295 yards with two scores and a pick. Tagovailoa's 2019 stats aside, if he does play on Saturday, he is coming off of surgery after suffering a high ankle sprain nearly three weeks ago in the game against Tennessee. He's a game-time decision to face LSU, according to head coach Nick Saban. So if he plays, it's fairly safe to assume he will not be at 100 percent, which could impact his mobility in the pocket and ability to extend plays with his legs. How this may affect his accuracy will be something to keep an eye on as the game progresses, especially if he takes a hit or two along the way. If Tagovailoa does not play or is simply ineffective, that leaves the offense in the hands of redshirt sophomore Mac Jones, which completely changes the Tide's game plan for that side of the ball.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, LSU should have a clear run to the finish line in their final three regular-season games against Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Texas A&M. Alabama still has to finish the season against Auburn in the Iron Bowl, as well as a road game with Mississippi State and a home date with FCS opponent Western Carolina. Per usual, the stakes will be high for this game, especially considering there may not be enough time remaining for the loser to get back into the playoff discussion, depending on what happens elsewhere across the country.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.