Alabama, LSU battle has major implications on multiple fronts

It’s more than the game of the year. It’s more than No. 1 in the Associated Press poll (LSU) against No. 1 in the Coaches’ poll (Alabama).

The Heisman Trophy may be decided Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa, when quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa duel, granted the Alabama junior’s high ankle sprain doesn’t prevent him from taking the field.

Even more than that, this showdown of undefeated SEC West powerhouses with matching 8-0 records could go a long way towards determining the College Football Playoff (LSU is No. 2 in the CFP rankings, Alabama is No. 3). It will have reverberations around the country, the winner all but locking up a spot in the final four and impacting several others. That’s how much is at stake.

“I think we’re going to see an outstanding show on Saturday,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said on a conference call.

If LSU prevails, Alabama may have a hard time reaching the playoff, considering its weak résumé and unlikelihood of winning the SEC West. It would give hope to the Big 12, Pac-12 and maybe even a second Big Ten team.

If Alabama prevails, the SEC starts to make a strong case for two teams, because the Tigers already have victories over Florida, Texas and Auburn, and a road loss to undefeated Alabama would hardly be something that could be held against them.

Under coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide have owned this rivalry, and the SEC for that matter, over the past several years, beating LSU eight straight times. They have won 39 of their last 40 SEC games — all but three of the victories have come by seven points or less — and won a program-record 31 in a row at home. Every SEC team but Auburn and South Carolina has a losing streaks of at least four games against Alabama.

“[The past] has nothing to do with it,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron insisted. “Just like when we play Auburn, just like when we play Florida — what happened in the past has nothing to do with this. This is a new game, a new week, a new football team. New players on their side, new players on our side.”

He has a point. So much is different as the two teams meet this time. This isn’t typical Alabama. The run game and defense are pedestrian by the ridiculous standards Saban’s teams have set, though the passing attack with Tagovailoa under center is scintillating. The Crimson Tide are averaging just 4.46 yards per rush in five SEC contests and allowing 20.4 points, not all too impressive considering Alabama hasn’t faced any of the conference’s three other ranked teams. Of course, the Tide are averaging 48.6 points per game, led by Tagovailoa’s 27 touchdown passes and 74.7 completion percentage.

This isn’t a typical LSU team, either. The Tigers aren’t reliant on their run game, as in years past. They don’t have to score points on defense or special teams to knock off an elite opponent. They have the Heisman Trophy leader (in our eyes) in Burrow, weaponized by a new spread aerial attack instituted by former Saints assistant coach Joe Brady and dynamic threats like Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase.

LSU put up 42 points and 511 yards of offense against Florida’s 11th-ranked scoring defense and 508 yards, albeit just 23 points, against Auburn’s 13th-ranked unit.

“They haven’t seen an offense like ours yet,” Jefferson told reporters. “We’re going to come for their heads. … We’re going to dominate.”

Indeed, Alabama has not seen anything like LSU. The best offense it has faced is Texas A&M’s 33rd-ranked group. LSU’s defense isn’t exactly stingy, giving up an average of 24.7 points in four SEC contests and was shredded for 38 points and 530 yards by Texas. The Tigers’ pass defense is susceptible to the big play — they are ranked 60th in the country against the pass — and the Crimson Tide have the most talented collection of wide receivers in the nation, three different players with at least six touchdown catches. A shootout may be in the cards.

It all sets up for a fascinating showdown. Can LSU get over the Alabama hump? Will Tagovailoa’s ankle be right? Has Burrow firmly set himself up to win the Heisman?

Alabama and LSU will clear up a lot of questions. Everyone will be watching, anticipating those answers.

Three questions for the Alabama-LSU showdown:

How’s the ankle?
Everyone expects Tua Tagovailoa to play three weeks after suffering a high right ankle sprain, even though coach Nick Saban said he will be a “game-time decision.” But how healthy will he be? CBS analyst Gary Danielson was at Alabama practice on Thursday and said the Heisman Trophy contender wasn’t 100 percent, lacking “that spring in his step.” That could make him more of a stationary quarterback who can’t move around in the pocket much, helping LSU create pressure.

Can Alabama get to Joe Burrow?

LSU scored a season-low 23 points in an Oct. 26 victory over Auburn, mostly because Burrow, its quarterback, was under heavy pressure and was sacked three times. Alabama isn’t typically dominant in getting to QBs, tied for 53rd in the country with 19 sacks and Burrow has gone down only 15 times this season.

Will LSU keep Jeudy and Co. in check?

Obviously, part of the answer is dependent on Tagovailoa’s health. But LSU’s secondary can be exposed — Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger threw for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns against the unit — and it has to deal with the explosive Alabama receiving trio of Jerry Jeudy (last year’s Fred Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s top receiver), DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III. They have combined for 121 receptions, 1,916 yards and 23 touchdown catches. They can wreck a game on their own.

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