Big stakes for Alabama, LSU

Ri­valry is back with the Tigers trans­form­ing un­der Ed Org­eron

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Ge­orge Schroeder

The bat­tle for SEC supremacy and likely a whole lot more is on the line as No. 1 Tide clash with No. 2 LSU. Usu­ally a de­fen­sive fight, this time it’s the of­fenses that may de­cide fate.

Per­haps we shouldn’t be sur­prised. Ed Org­eron promised, af­ter all, that things would change, and the LSU coach made sure to tell ev­ery­one a cou­ple of years back, af­ter yet another loss to Alabama: “We com­ing!”

And now, here the Tigers are – but who ex­pected, well, this? With South­east­ern Con­fer­ence supremacy and likely much more at stake, Alaba­maLSU is fi­nally all the way back, a clash of un­beat­ens, maybe more im­por­tant than ever be­fore – and at the same time, com­pletely dif­fer­ent from any­thing we’ve ever seen from the ri­vals. With LSU’s rad­i­cal of­fen­sive trans­for­ma­tion, an epic show­down has mor­phed from potential shutouts to a prob­a­ble shootout.

Flash back to 2011, eight years ago this week­end, the last time this game was this big. A No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup played into over­time – wholly without TDs. LSU won 9-6 in a showcase of sti­fling de­fenses and grind­ing of­fenses that, well, ground to a halt.

Come Satur­day, it’s No. 1 vs. No. 1, if you use the Amway Coaches (Alabama) and AP polls (LSU). It’s No. 2 LSU vs. No. 3 Alabama ac­cord­ing to the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off’s se­lec­tion com­mit­tee.

It will not be 9-6 – un­less five min­utes in they’ve missed a cou­ple of ex­tra points. Given the com­bi­na­tion of pow­er­ful of­fenses and slightly sus­pect de­fenses (by their stan­dards, at least),

the Crim­son Tide and Tigers might trade touch­downs all af­ter­noon.

If Alabama quar­ter­back Tua Tago­v­ailoa’s an­kle is OK – that lin­ger­ing ques­tion could be the most im­por­tant el­e­ment to the en­tire show – he and Joe Bur­row, his LSU coun­ter­part, might put up huge num­bers and duel­ing Heis­man mo­ments.

Alabama is scor­ing 48.6 points per game, No. 2 na­tion­ally, 506.6 yards (No. 8) and 7.72 yards per play (No. 2). But for the Crim­son Tide, it’s Year 2 with Tago­v­ailoa in the wide-open sys­tem, and so we’ve grown used to it.

What LSU is do­ing takes some get­ting used to: spread for­ma­tions and shot­gun snaps into empty back­fields, Bur­row throw­ing touch­down passes to a fleet of tal­ented re­ceivers at rates un­prece­dented in school his­tory.

“This is their first time to re­ally open it up,” Alabama coach Nick Sa­ban said, “and it’s paid tremen­dous div­i­dends. It cer­tainly fea­tures the skill play­ers they have in a very pos­i­tive way, and the quar­ter­back. … These guys make a ton of ex­plo­sive plays be­cause of what they’ve evolved to.”

The Tigers av­er­age 46.8 points (No. 4 na­tion­ally), 535.9 yards (No. 4) and 7.56 yards per play (again, No. 4). The cat­a­lyst is Bur­row, a sec­ond-year starter who leads most lists of Heis­man can­di­dates. Bur­row ranks No. 2 na­tion­ally in pass­ing yards (2,805, a 350.6-yard av­er­age) and TDs (30). He sur­passed sev­eral of LSU’s sea­son records in Oc­to­ber. He’s com­plet­ing al­most 79% of his passes.

Maybe it’s co­in­ci­den­tal – or maybe not – but both teams have de­fen­sive is­sues. Alabama ranks 16th in to­tal de­fense, al­low­ing 307.5 yards (though only 15.3 points) per game; LSU ranks 23rd, al­low­ing 315 (and 20 points). Those num­bers aren’t ter­ri­ble, but they’re a far cry from what we’re used to – and they seem un­likely to im­prove much Satur­day.

It all sets up for some­thing that might re­sem­ble a Big 12 shootout – think Baker May­field vs. Pa­trick Ma­homes in 2016, Ok­la­homa vs. Texas Tech and all those points and yards (and hisses and chuck­les, too) – more than a tra­di­tional

SEC show­down.

But let’s stop for a mo­ment. How did we get here?

Af­ter that 9-6 thriller in 2011, the teams re­matched in the BCS na­tional cham­pi­onship game, a 21-0 Alabama win that was the first of eight con­sec­u­tive against LSU and count­ing. (The score was de­ceiv­ing; there was one touch­down scored, and it came late in the fourth quar­ter, af­ter five field goals.)

The Crim­son Tide took off from there, dom­i­nat­ing the SEC and win­ning three more na­tional cham­pi­onships. And Alabama evolved along the way. Sa­ban saw the of­fen­sive wave com­ing, though he ini­tially re­sisted it. In 2012, he fa­mously de­cried the move to hurry-up of­fenses, ask­ing rhetor­i­cally, “Is this what we want foot­ball to be?” and try­ing to push through a rule change to slow the pace but even­tu­ally ad­justed his re­cruit­ing and phi­los­o­phy.

It mor­phed fully into some­thing truly mon­strous last sea­son, with Tago­v­ailoa set­ting nearly ev­ery school pass­ing record and turn­ing the Tide’s of­fense into a vir­tu­ally un­stop­pable ma­chine. This sea­son, it’s been more of the same.

A year later, but even more sud­denly, LSU is do­ing the same thing. This sea­son’s trans­for­ma­tion is un­like any­thing we have seen from the Tigers’ of­fense. Ever.

“To­tally dif­fer­ent of­fen­sive scheme than what they’ve played in the past,” Sa­ban said.

It took a coach­ing change from Les Miles to Ed Org­eron, and then it took un­til Org­eron’s third sea­son be­fore his prom­ise to change the of­fense came to fruition. The pieces have fallen into place over the last year and a half.

Bur­row ar­rived from Ohio State as a grad­u­ate trans­fer be­fore the 2018 sea­son. He pro­vided a steady pres­ence at quar­ter­back and the Tigers showed flashes late of of­fen­sive potential. But it wasn’t un­til Org­eron hired Joe Brady as pass­ing game co­or­di­na­tor this off­sea­son from the NFL’s Saints; Brady teamed with vet­eran of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Steve Ens­minger to com­pletely – and fi­nally – open up the throt­tle.

“It’s the vi­sion I al­ways had when we took over,” Org­eron said this sea­son, “and we fi­nally got there.”

Now they’re fi­nally back here, set for a shootout, with a le­git­i­mate shot at de­thron­ing Alabama.

JERRY JEUDY AND JOE BUR­ROW BY USA TO­DAY SPORTS

MARK J. REBILAS/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Ed Org­eron’s LSU team is 8-0, ranked No. 2 and, more im­por­tant, is fourth na­tion­ally with 46.8 points per game.

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