Preview: Alabama and LSU meet in the latest ‘Game of the Century’

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Every college football Saturday is a huge day given the limited number of them each fall but November 9 has been a date fans of the sport have had circled for several weeks, or even months, given its importance on the calendar and the 2019 season in general. It’s not just that history is being made with a pair of games on the slate involving teams 8-0, it’s that we’re firmly into the thick of the College Football Playoff race after the Selection Committee released their first set of rankings on Tuesday.  

The season, now 11 weeks in, is really set to kick into high gear as a result.

With all due respect to the undefeated Minnesota Golden Gophers and Penn State Nittany Lions getting together at high noon in the Twin Cities though, the main course this Saturday is undoubtedly happening in Tuscaloosa when Alabama hosts LSU in the first ever regular season meeting of the No. 1 teams in both the Coaches Poll and the AP Poll. While the CFP rankings making Ohio State the top team in the land has dampened a bit of the ‘Game of the Century’ talk, the meeting between rivals nevertheless carries huge division, conference, playoff and national title implications — plus may very well be a quasi-Heisman Trophy elimination game for each side’s respective leading candidate. 

There are big games… and there’s turning things up a few notches for the upcoming edition of Tigers vs. Tide that we’re all excited to take in. With that in mind, CFTalk decided to dig a little deeper into the game and fully preview the biggest game of the season in a heavyweight fight that is hopefully as epic between the lines on Saturday as it is being billed in the lead up to kickoff.

The Details

Who: No. 2/1/2 (CFP/AP/Coaches) LSU vs. No. 3/2/1 Alabama

When: 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

How to watch: CBS or CBSSports.com

The line: Alabama -6, over/under 62.5

The Background

These two SEC West rivals have clashed with plenty on the line over the years but it has felt like stakes were raised significantly once Nick Saban arrived in Baton Rouge and eventually won a national title with LSU in 2003. After a brief stint in the NFL, he returned to college football as Alabama’s head coach and has since built the Tide into a dynasty with few historic peers — winning five national titles in the past decade. The Tigers hoisted the national championship once more since Saban left town and the program’s historic significance and the loads of NFL draft picks produced have in turn made this an annual must-watch game.

The programs have been in a similar spot before too of course, clashing in 2011 as the top two teams in the country in a game similarly labeled as ‘The Game of the Century.’ That one turned out to be a defensive masterpiece for both sides in a 9-6, double-overtime affair that had tension in the air for every snap. That was, however, the last time LSU emerged victorious in the series as the Tide have won eight in a row — including a rematch in New Orleans later in that 2011 season with the national title on the line. 

The Tigers have had their opportunities in the years since but it felt like last year’s shutout loss in Baton Rouge marked a turning point for head coach Ed Orgeron. He re-tooled his offensive attack this offseason thanks to former Saints assistant coach Joe Brady and the results have been startling: LSU is one spot behind Alabama for third in the country in scoring at 47 points per game. Given that the Tide are sitting at 49 ppg coming into this season’s matchup, it’s no wonder that oddsmakers see a very un-2011 like score with over/under betting opening as high as 65 in some places.

Safe to say the 2019 edition will be unique as a result and could feature over 40 future NFL players across the two teams when all is said and done. In short, it doesn’t get much better than this in college football and perhaps that’s why even the President of the United States will brave some ridiculous traffic and the potential for boos from the crowd in order to take it all in.

The Key Players

Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa

All eyes on both sides of this matchup will be on the Tide’s signal-caller from the moment he steps off the bus. There’s real questions as to just how effective he can be after undergoing surgery on his ankle a few weeks ago, with reports from practice showing that he’s not close to 100% moving around. Though Tagovailoa is not a noted dual-threat like some others around the country, moving around the pocket is key to his game and his ability to scramble for a first down at times has helped sustain drives and bust open more than a few games with a back-breaking score. 

It helps that he’ll have a quality offensive line in front of him and can rely on perhaps the most dangerous set of skill position talent in the country between tailbacks like Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. plus a dangerous receiving corps that is straight pick your poison between Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle. No offense to backup QB Mac Jones however, but Alabama’s success in this game will come down to how well Tagovailoa plays and what he is able to do when the pocket starts to break down.

Alabama K Joseph Bulovas 

Yes the Crimson Tide have a ton of defensive stars that deserve a mention but kickers are people too and nobody knows the thin line they walk quite like Alabama’s fan base in recent years. Bulovas, a sophomore, has made some big kicks during his time on campus but has also struggled plenty too this season, missing two field goals and a PAT coming into the game. It feels like all of the country holds their breath when Saban ever elects to send on the field goal unit and that will certainly be the case on Saturday afternoon. Given how close this game figures to be, don’t discount how important special teams will be for the home side as a few points here or there could be the difference between being playoff bound or sitting at home for a semifinal. 

LSU QB Joe Burrow

The Ohio State transfer has shot up NFL draft boards and jumped to the top of many folks’ Heisman lists given just how different he’s looked running the Tigers’ offense this season. While his past body of work was solid in leading the team to a New Year’s Six Bowl win his first year on campus, things have taken off since Brady arrived on campus and Burrow is now completing nearly 79% of his passes while ranking second in the country at 350 yards per game. His 30 touchdowns (against just four picks) are already an LSU single-season record and he broke the mark weeks before Halloween even arrived. 

LSU safety Grant Delpit 

Delpit has been limited in practice this week with an ankle sprain but is expected by everybody to play in the game, a big factor for the Tigers given how important he is flying around on defense. He’s an All-American in the secondary and is LSU’s third-leading tackler coming in plus qualifies one of the team’s hardest hitters too. Given how loaded the Tide are at receiver and the way they love to attack deep, having the ball-hawk roaming all over will be key in grabbing a victory on the road. 

Three Keys

1. Turnovers

There is nothing that turns Nick Saban red hot quite like mistakes and in that subcategory, few things anger him more than turnovers. While this team is second in the country in turnover margin (+13), they haven’t played anybody at LSU’s level. The Tigers have been tested this season by Texas, Auburn and others and come out with flying colors but that doesn’t mean they are immune to giving the ball away. They’ve lost the football eight times already and have just 12 takeaways on the year despite a big talent advantage over most of their opponents. 

Given the propensity for this one to likely turn into a shootout and with margins so thin between the two teams already, whoever can get an extra possession or two will be huge. 

2. Establishing the Run

The aerial attacks both Alabama and LSU sport have been the big talking point coming in but both head coaches (and their respective offensive coordinators) would still very much prefer to keep things in front of them and slow the game down. That means running the football and wearing out the opposing front seven with a punishing attack that later sets up more than a few play-action passes. Pay particular attention to Najee Harris for the Tide and Clyde Edwards-Helaire for LSU, with the latter really coming on strong lately as a bowling ball going downhill. Each guy can also contribute in the passing game so expect a few screens or passes in the flat to mix things up when they’re on the field too.

3. Pass Rush

If you tune into this game expecting future first rounders chasing down the quarterback, you wouldn’t be wrong per se but rushing the passer is not quite the strong suit of these two defenses quite like it was a few years ago. There’s still plenty of talent like LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson or Bama’s Terrell Lewis but the production hasn’t quite followed for the most part. The Tide are 56th nationally in sacks this season while the Tigers aren’t much better off at 49th. The former’s offensive line has generally been better at protecting their QB (Tagovailoa’s injury came as he was scrambling to the sidelines) and getting pressure in Burrow’s face has led the signal-caller to make more than a few bad passes this year. Something has to give on Saturday and the team who can win the battle in the trenches will have a decided advantage. 

The Pick

Here’s how the CFTalk experts see the game shaking out: 

Zach Barnett: LSU 30, Alabama 27

I think it’ll be lower scoring than expected. The defenses—who, lest we forget, are plenty talented too—will have their say early, and I think Tua’s ankle will compel Alabama to slow the pace down.

John Taylor: LSU 34, Alabama 20

In snapping its eight-game losing streak to Alabama, LSU will hand Nick Saban his worst loss in SEC play since 2010 (at South Carolina, 35-21) and his worst home loss in the conference since the head coach came to Tuscaloosa in 2007.

Kevin McGuire: Alabama 24, LSU 20

While neither team has been playing the kind of defense they may be accustomed to, I strongly believe they show up in this one. LSU’s offense may be the biggest threat they have had to throw at Alabama, but I’ll play it safe and say Alabama gets the win.

Bryan Fischer: Alabama 31, LSU 24

It feels like the gap between these two programs has never been smaller since those dueling 2011 epics but for as good as LSU has been this season, it feels so strange to see people writing off a Nick Saban team playing at home. The Tigers do finally have the firepower to keep up for once but Bama always seems to rise to the occasion and capture the win when there’s a bit of doubt coming into the game.