Roughly 60 to 75 minutes after Georgia and Kentucky settle the SEC East, Alabama and LSU will very likely decide the SEC West. This is not win-and-in the way UGA-UK is, but the winner of this game will certainly win the West if Alabama prevails, and probably go to Atlanta even in LSU’s case.
By Matt Zemek
The Tigers would just have to get past Texas A&M to survive the rest of November (Arkansas figures to be a piece of cake this year) if they can handle the Crimson Tide. They would be in position to make the College Football Playoff and play for the national championship. How far the Bayou Bengals have come.
Beating Alabama will be an enormous challenge, but this is well within LSU’s capacity to pull off.
Here is why the Tigers will move to the top of the college football pecking order and prevent the reigning national champions from defending their title in the playoff:
Alabama’s season has been a cruise ship journey thus far. The Crimson Tide have never been tested in a fourth quarter. They have never had to smell their own blood. They have never needed to spend a halftime in grave doubt about their prospects.
Tua Tagovailoa hasn’t had to face a pressure situation late in a game — not this season. Tua has not encountered a significant pass rush, either, owning ample time to make his extremely accurate throws. Don’t misunderstand: Tagovailoa has turned college football into his own private video game. He makes passes with uncanny accuracy, dropping them in the bucket or threading the needle with a laser beam. Tua is a good structural thrower in the pocket when looking at his first or second read, but he can also make improvisational throws when plays break down. He can dazzle when he gets outside the pocket. He is terrific. Moreover, he is not overrated.
BUT… he hasn’t had to face pressure from either the scoreboard or an opposing defensive line. If he actually has to make very quick decisions without being able to sit in the pocket for three or more seconds, he might press. If he has to cope with fourth-quarter, game-on-the-line pressure, he could crack.
That last detail has been part of sports for a very long time: A player or team which wins a ton of blowouts, then gets roped into a tight game late in regulation, becomes very nervous simply because close games have been unheard of. The lack of in-season familiarity with close games makes the moment larger than it otherwise would be. Players panic. Teammates sense the panic and try to overcompensate. Plays break down. Disjointed errors and aberrationally sloppy fundamentals emerge from a sense of crippling anxiety that a dream season will suddenly dissolve into agony.
A classic example of this dynamic came in the 1991 Final Four. UNLV destroyed everyone in its path and played backups in the final minutes of games. It roared into the Final Four with an even more seasoned and polished version of the 1990 defending national champions. Yet, that polish over the course of the season didn’t matter much when Duke played its best game and took the Rebels into the final two minutes in a razor-close battle. Duke was fearless and composed, but UNLV was agitated and unsure of itself. The Blue Devils won the game, and the legend of Mike Krzyzewski was born.
That’s how LSU can beat Alabama — it all starts by keeping the game close deep into the fourth quarter and forcing Alabama to handle huge pressure. How can the Tigers get to that point? By pressuring the heck out of Tagovailoa and making sure he can’t eviscerate LSU’s back seven from the pocket. Tagovailoa is a quarterback defenses want to run. So many other quarterbacks have to be contained and kept inside the pocket. Tua breaks the mold. He is a lethal pocket passer. Making him scramble dramatically reduces Bama’s odds of generating a huge play. If LSU can fluster him, that’s more than half the battle in the attempt to keep the game close in the fourth quarter. Getting home on the pass rush is what LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has to figure out how to achieve.
On offense, LSU doesn’t have to be flashy to win. See the victory over Georgia a few weeks ago. The Tigers busted a few big runs that day, from both their running backs and quarterback Joe Burrow. They were bold on fourth down and converted when they had to. LSU has shown that it doesn’t need to go wild in the passing game to flourish against a good, tough opponent. Just enough third-down conversions, mixed with a strong running game and above-average special teams, give the Tigers a great foundation against Bama. Those ingredients might not lead to a huge point total for LSU, but they would keep the ball away from Tua and shrink Alabama’s margins. Provided LSU doesn’t make a critical — and severe — mistake in a big situation or a specifically important spot on the field, a ball-control offense can be sufficient. The Georgia game represents the template.
It can’t be stressed enough that LSU’s win over Georgia gives the Tigers a concrete example of the principle that they don’t have to become a different kind of team to win. They can be who they are — remaining secure in the approach they have used all season — and impose their identity on Alabama. The Tide have not had to face a tough test. If LSU can simply show enough toughness to play Alabama on even terms and steer a close game into the fourth quarter, the Tigers can force Alabama to make high-stakes plays under pressure. That’s where 2018 Alabama could become 1991 UNLV.
That’s where — and how — LSU can move to the very top of the mountain in college football, a possibility few were willing to consider on Labor Day weekend.