The Tigers and Crimson Tide meet in Tuscaloosa on Saturday
LSU travels to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama in one of the most anticipated matchups of the 2019 college football season. The Tigers checked in at No. 1 in the latest Associated Press poll and ranked No. 2 in the first release of the CFB Playoff standings. The Crimson Tide rank a spot behind LSU in both polls and hold the top spot in the coaches poll going into Week 11. Needless to say, Saturday’s showdown in Tuscaloosa will have major ramifications for the SEC title and CFB Playoff picture.
Alabama doesn’t have a win over a ranked opponent in 2019, but coach Nick Saban’s team has dominated through eight games. Thanks to a high-powered offense, the Crimson Tide have cruised to an 8-0 mark and defeated all eight opponents by 19 or more points. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman and the catalyst for Alabama’s lethal passing game. However, according to Saban, Tagovailoa will be a gametime decision due to a high ankle sprain suffered against Tennessee. All signs point to Tagovailoa playing on Saturday, but his status won’t be officially known until kickoff.
LSU’s rise to No. 2 in the CFB Playoff rankings has been fueled by the offense. The addition of Joe Brady to the staff, along with the continued development of quarterback Joe Burrow, has elevated the Tigers into one of the nation’s top groups. LSU enters Saturday’s game with a stronger resume and is more battle tested than Alabama. The Tigers won 45-38 at Texas in Week 2 and defeated Florida (42-28) and Auburn (23-20) in SEC play. LSU’s other five victories this season have all come by 23 or more points. Orgeron’s team has proven itself in big-time matchups and dominated when it was favored to do so.
Alabama holds a 53-25-5 series edge over LSU. The Crimson Tide have won eight in a row in this series and none of the last three matchups have been decided by less than 10 points.
LSU at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -6.5
When LSU Has the Ball
LSU’s offense has been one – if not the No. 1 – biggest surprise in college football this season. Orgeron’s decision to hire Joe Brady from the Saints to team with Steve Ensminger in the offensive design has paid huge dividends. The Tigers are no longer a run-first, smashmouth offense. Instead, Brady’s influence has shifted LSU to more of a spread/RPO-style offense. The Tigers rank second in the SEC in scoring (46.8 ppg) and yards per play (7.5). LSU has also tied Alabama for the most plays in the SEC of 40 yards or more (13).
In addition to Brady’s arrival, the development of senior quarterback Joe Burrow has also played a huge role in the growth of LSU’s offense. Burrow has passed for 2,805 yards and 30 touchdowns to just four interceptions in eight contests this year. Additionally, he’s completing 78.8 percent of his throws and averages 10.8 yards per completion. Burrow torched Texas for 471 yards and four touchdowns in Week 2, tossed six scores against Vanderbilt and threw for 614 yards and four touchdowns combined in victories over Florida and Auburn. The senior is arguably the frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy and another big-time performance against Alabama would only entrench his position.
The shift on offense has allowed LSU to take advantage of its skill talent on the outside. The trio of Justin Jefferson (55 catches), Ja’Marr Chase (43) and Terrace Marshall (22) is perhaps the best in the nation outside of the receiving corps in Tuscaloosa. These three receivers are capable of getting open downfield for big plays or settling into the middle of the field to attack open spaces in the defense.
While Burrow and the receiving corps have grabbed the spotlight this year, the rushing attack is still a key piece of the offense. Clyde Edwards-Helaire paces the team with 683 yards and eight scores and was instrumental in the win over Auburn (136 yards). He also has 19 receptions out of the backfield and will be a valuable weapon as LSU looks to take advantage of Alabama’s youth at linebacker on Saturday.
Due to injuries at linebacker and turnover in the trenches, this isn’t the best defense of Saban’s tenure. However, Alabama is still holding teams to 15.2 points a game and is allowing just 4.5 yards a play. Similar to LSU’s defense, the Crimson Tide have a standout duo in place at cornerback. Trevon Diggs has scored a defensive touchdown in back-to-back games and earned a place on Athlon’s Midseason All-America team. He’s joined by Patrick Surtain (2 INTs) on the other side, with safety Xavier McKinney pacing the team with 56 tackles. Auburn had success against LSU by using a three-man front and loading the field with defensive backs. The Crimson Tide could employ a similar strategy, but their front is not as strong as the one the Tigers brought to Baton Rouge. Linebacker Terrell Lewis could help with getting pressure on Burrow, as the junior has been playing at a high level the last three weeks. This defense has allowed only one play of 40 yards or more this season and needs to maintain that trend in order to win on Saturday.
When Alabama Has the Ball
When Alabama takes the field on Saturday, it’s no secret which player most will be watching: Tua Tagovailoa. Just how healthy is the junior quarterback with just over three weeks to heal from tightrope ankle surgery? When healthy, Tagovailoa is one of the top players in the nation. He’s torched opposing defenses for 2,166 yards and 27 touchdowns to just two picks. Additionally, Tagovailoa has completed 74.7 percent of his throws and has nine passing connections of 40 yards or more. To keep Tagovailoa healthy, Saban and play-caller Steve Sarkisian emphasized taking checkdowns and not always loading up for the big play downfield this offseason. That work could be crucial on Saturday, as the Crimson Tide can’t win this game with Tagovailoa on the sidelines. LSU’s pass rush ranks fifth in the SEC with 20 generated sacks, so the junior’s ability to slide around in the pocket on a repaired ankle will be tested early and often.
When Tagovailoa throws, he’s got the nation’s best receiving corps at his disposal. DeVonta Smith (43 catches), Jerry Jeudy (52), Henry Ruggs (26) and Jaylen Waddle (21) are threats to score every time they touch the ball and have combined for 24 touchdown receptions this season. LSU’s secondary will provide the toughest matchup for Tagovailoa and his receiving corps this season. The Tigers rank sixth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and have allowed just 13 touchdowns through the air in 2019. The cornerback pairing of Kristian Fulton (8 pass breakups) and freshman Derek Stingley (four interceptions) is arguably the best in college football. Safety Grant Delpit was injured in the win over Auburn on Oct. 26, but coach Ed Orgeron has indicated he expects the junior to play on Saturday.
Stopping the pass won’t be the only challenge for LSU’s defense. Alabama’s offense is averaging 168 rushing yards a game, which is down from last year’s total (198.4). However, the line seems to be getting more push in recent weeks, and running back Najee Harris responded with back-to-back 100-yard games against Texas A&M and Tennessee and averaged 6.6 yards per carry in a 48-7 win over Arkansas. The Tigers rank second in the SEC against the run and are holding teams to just 2.95 yards per carry. Harris and the Alabama offensive line will test this group, as this is the best rushing attack LSU’s defense has seen in 2019. Additionally, the Tigers suffered a setback in personnel this week. Linebacker Michael Divinity (23 tackles and three sacks) left the team for personal reasons.
Stopping Alabama for all four quarters is going to be a tough assignment for coordinator Dave Aranda and his defense. However, LSU does rank near the top of the SEC in red zone defense and stopping third-down attempts. The Tigers are likely to trade yards to get stops in key situations.
Alabama has dominated this series in recent years. However, this is LSU’s best shot at knocking off the Crimson Tide since its last win (2011). After last season’s loss, Orgeron indicated the Tigers had to catch up to Alabama in the trenches. Has LSU done enough on both sides of the ball to win this game? With Burrow’s ability to move around and get rid of the ball quickly, some of the concerns up front could be mitigated by the scheme. And when Alabama has the ball, just how healthy is Tagovailoa’s ankle? With the firepower on both offenses, one or two defensive stops in the red zone could decide this game. Saban has lost only four games in Tuscaloosa since 2008. Assuming Tagovailoa operates the offense close to 100 percent, Alabama should find a way to edge LSU and extend its success in this series in a close game.