No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama
When and Where: Saturday, Nov. 9, Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala., 3:30 p.m. EDT.
A potential inside track to the SEC West title -- among other things within the national college football landscape -- awaits the winner of Saturday's much-anticipated showdown between No. 1 LSU and second-ranked Alabama, but the Crimson Tide continue to wait on the availability of star quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Tua Tagovailoa.
Both teams had their bye week to get healthy, which was substantially more important to the Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0 SEC West). Tagovailoa suffered a high ankle sprain in Alabama's 35-13 win over Tennessee on Oct. 19, and underwent what's known as a "tightrope" surgical procedure to accelerate the healing process.
Alabama coach Nick Saban offered few details during the off week but did note last Wednesday per 247sports.com, “Tua was able to take some snaps today at practice, did a few things on air, was not involved in any team situations. And again, this is going to be a day-by-day, game-day decision. There’s nothing really else that I can say about it."
Tagovailoa, who has thrown for 2,166 yards and 27 touchdowns while completing 74.7 percent of his passes in seven games, sat out the Tide's 48-7 thrashing of Arkansas on Oct. 26. Backup Mac Jones was impressive, completing 18 of 22 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns before Tagovailoa's brother Taulia finished up completing 6 of 8 passes for 45 yards.
LSU (8-0, 4-0 West) had no such grave injury concerns, but the week off may have been most beneficial to sophomore wide receiver Terrace Marshall. He made his return after a five-game absence due to a foot injury in LSU's 23-20 win over Auburn on Oct. 26 and had two catches for 29 yards and a touchdown.
Marshall, who is part of a dynamic receiving trio with Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase, had 20 catches for 304 yards and six TDs in the Tigers' first four games as the three wideouts helped propel quarterback Joe Burrow into the Heisman Trophy race alongside Tua Tagovailoa.
“It looks like I passed the test,” Marshall told the Baton Rouge Advocate last Friday. “I'm back now.”
A win by LSU would make the Tigers extremely difficult to overtake in the West considering Ed Orgeron's team already has a victory over Auburn -- which already has two conference losses but can still factor in the division race since it hosts the Crimson Tide in their annual "Iron Bowl" grudge match Nov. 30.
A victory by the Crimson Tide would give Saban's club a direct path to the SEC title game as the only unbeaten team in the West, with games at Mississippi State and Auburn the remaining obstacles to a sixth division title in eight years.
This is the first time the top two teams in the AP Top 25 poll are meeting since then-No. 1 LSU won a defensive slugfest 9-6 in overtime over the Crimson Tide in Baton Rouge in 2011. That was also the last time the Tigers got the better of their former coach as Alabama has since reeled off eight straight wins in the series.
LSU has been nationally ranked in all of them and in the AP Top 5 on four occasions. That includes a 29-0 shellacking by the Crimson Tide in Death Valley last year as Tagovailoa had two first-half touchdown passes and added a 44-yard scoring run in the third quarter.
Alabama rolled up 576 yards of offense to LSU's 196 and held the Tigers to 12 rushing yards. Burrow completed 18 of 35 passes for 184 yards and was picked off once while Tagovailoa had 295 yards passing.
Three of Alabama's eight wins during this current run have been by shutout, including a 21-0 victory in the 2012 BCS Championship game that started the streak.
This is the 24th regular-season meeting between the AP No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the country, with the No. 1 team victorious in the last three. Overall, the No. 1 team has a 15-6-2 record in these matchups, with the last victory by the No. 2 team coming in 1996 when Florida State toppled Florida 24-21.
Orgeron confident heading into showdownLSU was ranked second in the initial College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday night, but for all intents and purposes, this counts as a must-win game because there would likely be no road for the Tigers to reach the SEC title game with a loss unless Alabama was to lose its last two games.
But after the Tigers have gone so many seasons without an offense good enough to at least challenge what is almost always a nationally elite Crimson Tide defense, the LSU coach thinks this year he has the personnel for success.
“I like our quarterback, obviously. I like the way our offense is putting points on the board," Orgeron noted at his Monday press conference. "We’ve gotten better on the line of scrimmage on the offensive side of the football. Our guys have been tested against Auburn, they’ve been tested against Florida.
"Obviously they’re going to be tested again this week. I do believe we have better depth on the defensive line. I think that our guys are equipped. This is the best football team we’ve had going into this game.”
Orgeron is also preparing his defense as if Tagovailoa will be under center for Alabama, saying, "Tua is a fantastic player. A great competitor. We totally expect him to play."
While this is only Orgeron's third full season as LSU head coach, he also noted the evolution of both the program and offense in general heading into this showdown considering the offenses are expected to have the upper hand in this contest -- a stark contrast to the 2011 contest in which both teams failed to find the end zone or reach 300 yards.
The legend of Joe Burrow grows.— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) November 4, 2019
Last year vs #Bama, #LSU's QB played with a separated throwing shoulder he suffered 2 days prior.
On a kid at center of a 1-v-2 clash. How he spurned the Tide's interest to sign him & the time he played hurt against themhttps://t.co/PCjmyd7Kwt
"It goes to show you the direction of the SEC and the spread [offense]," Orgeron said when asked about the amount of talent in his receiving corps. "All the top players in the country have an interest in coming to play in the SEC. We basically can go anywhere in the country and get the top receiver.
"We have a great wide receiver recruiting class right now. So I think it’s a tribute to having a great quarterback and the spread offense.”
Burrow leads the nation in completion percentage (78.8) and second in passing yards (2,805) and touchdowns (30). All of his year-on-year improvements are noticeable, but one key difference from last season is his yards per attempt. Burrow ranks fourth in the nation at 10.79, and it is 3.15 more than 2018.
“I’m glad that we have a great quarterback," Orgeron said about Burrow. "Championship teams that I’ve been on have always been led by a great quarterback. Whether he was very talented, whether he had great character or toughness. I think our quarterback has it all."
LSU's defense does not rank as an elite unit, but it has done its job. The Tigers rank 19th in red zone defense at 73.7 percent and tied for 20th in scoring defense at 20 points per game allowed. They also have created 10 of their 12 takeaways in the last five games.
Orgeron expects safety Grant Delpit to be available for this game as he deals with an ankle injury. He is third on the team with 43 tackles and has one of LSU's nine interceptions.
Saban trying to keep Tide steady and focused on detailsSince every game is a big game for Alabama, which is just behind LSU at No. 3 in the CFP rankings, there is not much Saban has to do differently. The road to the College Football Playoff becomes substantially more direct and slightly less challenging with a victory in this game, and that is the message the Crimson Tide coach has been trying to get across to his players.
"I think the big thing you want the players to do is not get involved in the hype surrounding the game, or even think about the implications of the game, but prepare for the game as if this is the best team you’ve played and the player you’re going to play is the best player you’ve played against at his position all year long.
"And therefore you’re going to need to challenge yourself to play your best and be your best as a football player and stay focused on that. And not the distractions that surround the game relative to implications or whatever gets created relative to the circumstance of the game."
The breathless reporting on Tagovailoa's status has had the potential to cause distractions, more so because it has been going on from the moment he suffered the ankle sprain versus Tennessee.
He ranks second nationally in completion percentage (74.7), tied for third in touchdown passes (27), and seventh in passing yards per game (309.4) -- Saban has not been playing coy when it comes to his star's availability for this game, but severely measured because it could truly be a game-time decision as he has repeatedly said.
Jerry Jeudy on how Tua Tagovailoa looked at practice last week: “He looked pretty good. He was out there. He felt comfortable. He did everything he needed to do.” pic.twitter.com/vI3uQP3jT7— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) November 4, 2019
"He did practice two days last week. We’ll see where he’s at today, and then we’ll manage the reps accordingly," Saban said during his Monday availability. "When I say that, we cannot predict -- if he goes out there today and he looks good, aight, then his rep count’s going to go up and we’ll prepare him as if he’s going to have an opportunity to play in the game. If he has a setback during the week, aight, you can’t really control that, but that would change the plan."
With Tagovailoa less than 100 percent, Alabama's ground game will have to deliver versus LSU. After a slow start, Najee Harris has found a groove with three 100-yard efforts in his last five games and had an efficient 86 on 13 carries last time out versus Arkansas.
Harris had limited touches but did significant damage against the Tigers last season, gaining 83 yards on just six rushes as he and Damien Harris combined for 190 of Alabama's 281 rushing yards. LSU is substantially better against the run this season, entering the contest 13th nationally while giving up 97.9 yards per game, but Alabama is still a formidable force on the ground with 168 per contest.
"I think Najee has always been a really good back," Saban said. "I think his understanding of the opportunity that each plays presents if you trust the hole and sort of read the gaps as they come to you, I think he’s gotten much more comfortable with that and I think he’s had a very positive outcome because of that. So we’re very pleased with what he’s been for us as a runner, a blocker and a pass-receiver. He’s been very effective."
While LSU has a fleet of quality receivers, Alabama counters with its own standout trio of Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs III. Jeudy likely classifies as Tagovailoa's go-to receiver since he leads the Tide with 52 catches, but Smith and Ruggs have been potent deep weapons as both are averaging over 16 yards per catch. In the case of Ruggs, that average is nearly 20 per reception, and they have combined for 23 touchdowns through the air.
Alabama's defense continues to be among the nation's best, ranking ninth in scoring defense (15.3 ppg) and 16th in total defense (307.5 ypg). Where the Tide have really excelled is in forcing turnovers -- they are tied for eighth with 18 takeaways and have a plus-13 margin, which trails only Oregon nationally.
Update: (11/8): Tagovailoa is considered to be a "game-time decision". According to SEC on CBS analyst Gary Danielson, he's isn't at full form yet.
"I watched Tua practice yesterday, he's not 100 percent," Danielson said on SiriusXM. "I don't care what Alabama says ... he doesn't have that spring in his step, it's not natural. He's okay...I'd be playing if I was him, but he's not the Tua that started season."
- 13-3 ATS in its last 16 road games vs. teams with an above-.500 home record.
- 7-3-1 ATS in its last 11 road games vs. Alabama.
- 13-5 ATS in its last 18 games vs. SEC teams.
- 0-5 ATS in its last five home games vs. teams with an above-.500 road record.
- 0-5 ATS in its last five games following an ATS win.
- 3-7 ATS in its last 10 games following a straight up win.