Fresh off the first edition of this year’s College Football Playoff rankings, all eyes turn to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home of the No. 3 LSU Tigers.
The Tigers welcome in the #1 Alabama Crimson Tide this weekend at 8 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS. Alabama has been even more of a Death Star than usual this season, something that doesn’t seem possible. Yet, this year, the Tide are outscoring opponents by an AVERAGE of 38 points per game thanks largely to an offense that has been unleashed.
The main catalyst in that unleashing has been sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The hero of last season’s title game, Tagovailoa has picked up right where he left off, throwing for 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions so far this season while largely not playing in the fourth quarter of games. So, LSU has a tall task ahead as its SEC West rival comes to town. But, Death Valley is always a tough place for opponents to play.
While ‘Bama-LSU gets the top billing. It’s not the only big matchup on the network this weekend. Earlier in the afternoon (3:30 p.m. E.T.), No. 6 Georgia takes on No. 9 Kentucky in a battle for the top of the SEC East. Kentucky has surprised plenty of people this year with their play but a strong defense combined with a star running back in Benny Snell has made the Wildcats a real contender in the division. Some of the shine was knocked off the Bulldogs when they lost to LSU 36-16, but they are still a serious playoff threat as evidenced by the No. 6 ranking.
To get some insight into these matchups, we caught up with the man who will be on the call for Saturday’s game, Gay Danielson. You can watch the Georgia-Kentucky, Alabama-LSU doubleheader live on Saturday beginning at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS or stream it via CBSSports.com. (Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed)
CBS Local Sports: Gary, we’ve got Alabama-LSU this Saturday in Death Valley and at the moment, the Tigers are 14 point underdogs. I’m curious, can you recall a time when a Top 5 team was a two-touchdown underdog at home?
Gary Danielson: I don’t think it has ever really happened before and if it has, I don’t recall. But, I think it’s a factor of the way Alabama has been playing offense this year. Remember, it’s a betting line and you’re trying to get people to put money on LSU. The way that Alabama is scoring, it’s almost like in this particular game, how many points do you need to bet against the (Golden State) Warriors because when they get on a run, they can put 20 points up in six minutes. That’s how Alabama is playing this year.
CBS Local Sports: The biggest story around Alabama this year has been the play of the offense and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. As a former quarterback yourself, what are his biggest strengths and weaknesses from what you have seen?
Gary Danielson: It’s hard to come up with a weakness so far, I have to admit. But, here’s some of strengths. First of all, he has a tremendous football team around him. All three of his receivers are NFL-ready right now. In any other sport, Devonta Smith, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy are all good enough to play professional football right now, but they’re still in college. Irv Smith will be a 10-12 year tight end in the NFL and he has to fight for opportunities. The two tackles (Jonah Williams and Jedrick Willis Jr.), the New York Giants would take them right now and all four running backs will be pros when their day comes. So, it starts there.
Then, he’s also the first quarterback that Nick Saban has ever had that he has allowed to drive the car. Every other time, Nick has looked at his quarterback and said we’re so good I’m going to sit right next to you and put a governor on it because we’re going to run what I tell you to run because we’re going to win games and I don’t want you to mess it up. The biggest thing about Tua is, he was so good that even Nick Saban had to let him go and play. It reminds me a little bit of when Pat Riley had Magic Johnson. Pat had a way that he wanted to play but Magic was so good, he had to let Magic be Magic. I’m not comparing him exactly but you know what I’m saying.
The coaching philosophy that it takes a guy to have so much success like Saban and then to say this year we’re going to play offense. Instead of other years where it was more of “we’re going to hold you to ten points and our offense can at least score 20, you’re in trouble.” Now, his team has based it on, we’re going to score 42, can you? And that’s tough.
Individually for Tua, he’s very advanced. One of the things that doesn’t get talked about enough is these seven-on-seven AAU camps where he throws the ball and he’s been doing it since he was 14 years old. He’s so advanced now that he’s kind of like these young golfers that are coming out that have played tournament golf since they were 12. They get in these big tournaments and they’re used to playing in these things. Even though Tua hasn’t had a lot of starts, when you watch him play, he has the feel of a veteran.
When you take all that apart, you still have to have God-given gifts and his are being able to feel spatial awareness, judging the speed of his targets, and his mechanics have to be sound with the throws that he’s making. Now, it doesn’t mean he’s going to be a tremendous pro quarterback, he still has stages to go through. But, I’d take his body of work and potential and I’d put him in a class of just a very few that I have seen in my 25 years of being around college football.
CBS Local Sports: You mention the final stages of growth for Tua, what are they?
Gary Danielson: Being able to play when things don’t go well. What happens after he has a bad game or three interceptions? Everybody goes through those games. He has yet to have anything really bad happen in his career. Anybody can have a bad game or two or three but to be a professional where you go through something similar to what Baker (Mayfield) is going through this year in Cleveland.
We have to see how he handles that. There are two levels to being a quarterback. Being able to handle success, which is not easy and we have seen him be able to do that pretty well. Now we’re going to see, because it comes for everybody, what happens when he has to deal with a little bit of failure. Does that take the free-wheeling Tua and make him a different football player? I suspect not, but that’s another growth stage for him.
CBS Local Sports: He could deal with some adversity this week from a strong LSU defense in Death Valley. What do you think the game plan is from Ed Orgeron as his guys get ready to take on ‘Bama?
Gary Danielson: It’s going to have to be a multiple game plan, especially with Devin White not playing in the first half because of the targeting call in their last game. There is only one guy on the field that is even comparable in importance to his team as Devin White and that’s Tua. But even with Tua, if he were to be unable to play, Alabama plugs in Jalen Hurts.
I suspect that LSU will use that suspension to try and gain juice from it. Basically saying: ‘We have our best player over there and we’re going to get him back at halftime. Give me a half of football and we’re going to get our best player back.’ I think that could give them some juice.
The next phase is, they’re a man short. They have ten guys and they bring in a new one, but the person that could be their 11th guy is twofold. It could be Death Valley and the crowd. Instead of it being the 12th man, I look for the crowd to be the 11th man for LSU. On top of that, Alabama has had no pressure, no tough games, it’s been easy for them. Similar to the way it was for Georgia heading into their meeting with LSU. You saw how LSU took it, they went for fourth downs, controlled the ball, controlled the pace of the game.
The 11th guy could be a combination of that crowd and the pressure of a big game that they haven’t played in this year.
CBS Local Sports: Speaking of Georgia, they have a big matchup in their own right on Saturday earlier in the day, as they face No. 9 Kentucky with the top spot in the SEC East on the line. Kentucky has been strong defensively this year, what’s the key matchup in your eyes for this game?
Gary Danielson: As good as Kentucky’s defense has been, they’re going to have to figure out ways to score points. They have to find a way to score 24 points in this game. Georgia isn’t hitting on all cylinders like they were once they got into the playoffs last year. But, the potential could even be better for Georgia this season. Fromm is getting a bit more comfortable, he seems to have his pick of receivers and with Holyfield emerging, they seem to have that 1-2 punch in the running game.
What they’re really missing going into this game is the ability to shut down the run the way Roquan Smith did last year. That is the avenue that Kentucky could exploit, take advantage of and shorten the game a little bit. That’s the fear for Georgia. Kentucky has no fear going into this game and opportunities like this don’t come around often.
CBS Local Sports: The first College Football Playoff rankings have been announced, but I’m curious which teams you think are the favorites to land in the four spots come the end of the season?
Gary Danielson: I do it a little bit differently than most people, I like to talk about teams that take the committee out of it and control their own fate. The SEC champion, which is undefeated Alabama, or one-loss Kentucky, LSU or Georgia controls a spot. Clemson, controls another spot. I know the ACC is down this year, but still the ability to potentially go undefeated through the conference and what they have put on the field in the last three years I think gets them a spot.
Notre Dame going undefeated is a real possibility now. In fact, they should go undefeated because they are superior to the teams they play. It won’t be easy, it never is, but I think Notre Dame should be able to do it. So, there’s three spots.
The team right now that controls its own destiny, and it’s only one, is Michigan. If Michigan wins out, since the Big Ten wasn’t in there last year, they’re almost assured that spot. If Notre Dame goes undefeated, that’s Michigan’s only loss and it was in the opening game. Those are the teams right now that are going to the playoffs and that’s how I’d have my field set up.
CBS Local Sports: Final question for you, around this time of the year is normally when we hear more about the Heisman conversation. Tua is clearly in the conversation, but who are his biggest challengers for the award?
Gary Danielson: That’s a tough one. Usually we get to this point of the year and there are 6-8 guys that you put the arrows up and the arrows down, but there’s been no need to change any arrows this year. At this point usually Ryan, I have done 50 interviews where I get going into last week Baker Mayfield or a running back is the hot ticket. This year, it’s basically been a non-story. It will probably be the biggest vote ever for a player.
I have a hard time coming up with someone else. If it’s not Kyler Murray, it’s not going to be Herbert, I don’t even think Ian Book can get there. Really, until Tua stumbles, I don’t even have a name for you who could be second right now.