Alabama-LSU rivalry is back because Tigers transformed under Orgeron
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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:
And now, here the Tigers are – but who expected, well, this? With SEC supremacy and likely much more at stake, Alabama-LSU 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.
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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 touchdowns. 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 both 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.
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If Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s ankle is OK – and 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). And 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 single-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 from ’Bama and LSU – 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 back 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. And although 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 – he eventually adjusted his recruiting and his philosophy.
It morphed fully into something truly monstrous last season, with Tagovailoa throwing the football with abandon, setting virtually every school passing record and turning the Tide’s offense into a virtually unstoppable machine. This season, it’s been more of the same: Tagovailoa and a very talented fleet of receivers scoring touchdowns in bulk.
And 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.
“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 New Orleans 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 earlier this season, “and we finally got there.”
And now they’re finally back here, set for a shootout, with a legitimate shot at dethroning Alabama.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alabama-LSU rivalry is back because the Tigers transformed under Ed Orgeron
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