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Making a Case: Can LSU Pull an Upset and Knock Off No. 1 Alabama?

The last time I checked, No. 1  Alabama is a 14.5-point favorite to beat No. 3 LSU in a highly anticipated Saturday-night showdown in Death Valley. That’s a lot of points for the road team, even mighty ‘Bama, to lay to the home team.

Especially considering that LSU is in dangerous form, having whacked Georgia, No. 2 at the time, 36-16 in Baton Rouge back on Oct. 13. That was followed by a 16-3 stuffing of another respectable visitor — No. 22 (at the time) Mississippi  State.

Sure, it’s Alabama.

An 8-0 empire that’s averaging 54.1 points per game.

A relentless and ruthless machine built and maintained by Nick Saban, who’s coached Alabama to five national championships since 2009. Barry Odom has lost 18 games in his two-plus seasons at Mizzou. Saban has lost 14 games in his last 10+ seasons at ‘Bama.

The Crimson Tide has quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the best player in college football. He hasn’t taken a snap in the fourth quarter all season because Alabama knocks out opponents early, winning by an average of 38.2 points. Alabama’s most narrow margin of victory has been 22 points vs. Texas A&M on Sept. 22.

Alabama hasn’t been seriously challenged by an opponent this season — but here’s hoping LSU makes it a game. And that’s my only rooting interest. I want to watch a tense, thrilling drama. Let this one go down to the final minute before the winner emerges.

Judging by the point spread it’s obvious that most college football fans — and certainly the gamblers —  are expecting another Alabama blowout. Am I crazy for thinking this one can be, at minimum, a close call for the Crimson Tide?

Yeah, probably so. I’m being nuts here. After all, Alabama has won seven in a row over LSU, and this may be Saban’s best team yet. This is clearly Alabama’s best offense. Blame it on my wishful thinking. These two old-south rivals dueling in a suspenseful game is what I want to see.

So if I had to make a case for an LSU upset or even a last-minute win by Alabama, it would go something like this:

1. Alabama hasn’t confronted a defense as good as LSU’s this season. Until now, the best defense faced by Alabama was Mizzou’s — ranked 90th nationally in yards per play allowed. LSU stands at No. 29 in the same statistical category.

2. Alabama’s offense has scored on 61 percent of its possessions this season, a rate that ranks second to Oklahoma. But LSU’s defense comes into Saturday’s game ranked No. 7 nationally in stopping opponents at a rate of 80 percent via punt, takeaway or turnovers on downs.

2a. Until now, Texas A&M had the best stop rate among the defensive units that tried to slow Alabama. Not including the Alabama game, Texas A&M has stopped the other team’s offense on 79 percent of possessions. But the Aggies couldn’t shut down Alabama, who had seven scoring drives in a 45-23 victory.

3. LSU can deny the big play.  Alabama’s rocket-fueled offense already has gone off for 12 plays of 50+ yards this season — all through the air. LSU’s defense has given up only one play of 50+ yards so far.

4.  Tagovailoa has the best passing efficiency rating (238.8) in FBS. And when Tua needs to get a first down for his team, he usually comes through. His passing efficiency rating on third down this season is a preposterous 279.9. And ‘Bama averages an astonishing 13.7 yards per pass attempt on third down. But LSU’s pass defense is excellent, having been scratched for only 4.6 yards per pass attempt on third down. LSU is known as DBU — Defensive Backs University — for a reason. And the Tigers have another great one this year in cornerback Greedy Williams, who will likely become a top-10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

4a. “I think the (LSU) secondary wins against Alabama,” said former LSU head coach Les Miles, speaking on the Paul Finebaum Show on SEC Network. “I think they’re going to have to run the football to beat LSU and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

4b. Miles also said LSU’s secondary was unmatched in college football and  “will make plays and will make Tua uncomfortable.”

4c. That won’t be easy. After all, Tua has 25 touchdown passes this season without a single turnover.  He’s attempted 152 passes without being intercepted. But surely the phenomenal sophomore QB will throw an errant pass or two … and LSU’s ballhawks have the talent to swoop in for an interception or two. The Tigers have the seventh-based pass defense in the nation and lead FBS with 14 interceptions.

4d. Tua and his receivers like to go deep, and strike fast, from the first offensive series. Alabama is notorious for connecting on long passes on the first or second play of a game. Or at least trying to go over the top of a defense to put that defense on its heels. The Bama offense is an extremely aggressive and confident group. But the same can be said for LSU’s defensive backs.

5. LSU should have at least some success running the ball against Alabama’s defense, and long drives would keep Tagovailoa off the field. No offense in the SEC has more rushing attempts this season (352) than LSU’s. Not counting sack yardage that distorts rushing totals, Alabama has allowed an average of 4.63 yards per running play. That ranks 55th in the nation. Not awful … but not good, either. LSU has three quality running backs and quarterback Joe Burrows is a nifty scrambler.

6. Special teams efficiency ratings according to ESPN: Alabama is ranked 49th nationally; LSU (11th) is much better on special teams. And the Tigers have a big edge at kicker.

7. If LSU head coach Ed Orgeron comes out in a bold, badass mood — that will work to the Tigers’ advantage. As Yahoo Sports pointed out, LSU’s offense has been extra conservative in red zone setups against Power 5 conference teams, putting up more field goals (15) than touchdowns (11.) This isn’t one of those old Les Miles vs. Nick Saban scrums where the most field goals win. Because Alabama scores so frequently, LSU needs touchdowns on offense. Chipping away with field goals won’t be enough to upset Alabama.

8. Along those same lines, if LSU wins the pregame coin toss, the Tigers should take the football and put their offense on the field. There are a few reasons for this thinking:

— Alabama has scored on its opening possession in all eight games, so why hand the ball to Tua Tagovailoa and take the risk of going down 7-0 early? That just makes it more difficult for LSU to win. Better to want the ball, put together a drive, and put points on the board before Alabama’s offense has a chance to get to work

— LSU’s most feared defensive player, the disruptive linebacker Devin White, won’t play in the first half as he serves his suspension for targeting in the Tigers’ most recent game. White will return in the second half against Alabama. By winning the coin flip and choosing to go on offense, LSU has an immediate chance to work some clock and limit Alabama’s possessions. And if it’s possible to limit Alabama’s possessions, the most sensible time to get it done is during the first half when Devin White is in the locker room. And if this game is close as the second half begins, the reappearance of D. White will provide a huge morale boost for his teammates and the LSU fans.

9. Joe Burrow, the LSU quarterback, doesn’t have gaudy stats. At first glance, they look kind of mediocre. But the numbers are a poor way to assess Burrow’s value. LSU has been lining up skittish, mistake-prone quarterbacks for years. Guys who looked scared and played timidly. Burrow is a tough guy who isn’t afraid of pressure. He gets after it. He won’t be intimidated by Alabama. And he won’t crawl into a shell and mentally check out of the competition. Burrow is a street-fighting man. 

9a. “Joe is not going to panic,” said Orgeron, perhaps speaking of last year’s starting quarterback Danny Etling, who missed a wide-open receiver that had gotten deep. The terrible throw damaged LSU’s chance to spring an upset. “Joe is going to be confident.” 

9b.  Doesn’t Alabama lead the SEC in sacks? Yes. Isn’t that a problem for Burrow? More from Orgeron: “He’s got that linebacker mentality. He’s tough. This is a big man’s game. This is a tough game. You’re going to get hit. There’s going to be some punches thrown. You can’t back down. There’s going to be some rough sledding. They’re going to make some plays. But I think Joe is seasoned enough that he can go through that, not panic, put us in the right situation … get us out of bad situations. I do know this. I believe in Joe. The team believes in him.”

10. This is imperative: LSU must put some pressure on Alabama. Not just pass-rush pressure, which would be helpful. But in winning all eight games this season, Alabama has put all eight opponents away by halftime. We don’t know how the Crimson Tide players would react if they’re hounded, pounded, challenged, backed into corners, and surrounded by Tigers. How would Alabama respond if truly threatened in this game? I’d imagine the Tide players would respond with championship-caliber calm. But we won’t know unless LSU can put Alabama in a precarious situation.

LSU can do this, right?

Um, no. I’m just hoping to see a classic … but I’m not predicting one.

What we’ll see is Alabama 33, LSU 17.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Another Maddening Loss For Mizzou. Why is Drew Lock Getting Worse Instead of Better?