(CBS Local)- The annual November showdown between Alabama and LSU has been rather lopsided in recent years. The Tide has won eight straight in the series, dating back to the 21-0 shutout in the BCS Championship Game in 2012. In an era of evolving offenses with flashy, explosive passing games, this matchup more often resembled a game tape you could find in the archives on microfiche. Defense and running the football ruled the day.
This year, however, the two teams could not be more off script. While Alabama’s offense updated to the 20th century in the last several years, LSU only recently learned how to fully deploy their nuclear-grade offensive skill-position talent. Entering Saturday’s battle in Tuscaloosa on CBS, the Tide rank second in scoring (48.6 PPG) and the Tigers rank fourth (46.8 PPG). In addition to posting comparable scoring averages, the teams are built similarly. As SEC on CBS sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl says, “These two teams are one and two for a reason. They are so good in so many facets.”
Erdahl, who will be on the call for Saturday’s matchup with broadcast partners Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson, says she thinks LSU receiver Justin Jefferson put it best when she spoke to him this week.
“Both wide receiver groups think they are the best wide receiver group in the country,” said Erdahl. “Both quarterbacks are in the Heisman race. Both defenses, you could write up and down how skilled they are.”
It is that seeming lack of separation between the two teams that has Erdahl falling back to the idea of ‘something’s gotta give’. Just what that something is, she isn’t quite sure. That uncertainty results, in large part, from how close these teams seem to be on paper, which is saying something at the quarterback spot.
One of the best stories of the college football season has been the improvement of LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, as the Tigers offense has erupted into a weekly fireworks show. After throwing for 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns while completing 57.8 percent of his passes last season, Burrow has already nearly doubled his touchdowns (30) and is close to surpassing last year’s yardage total (2,805) in just eight games. Oh, and his completion percentage has improved 21 percentage points to 78.8, which ranks first in the nation among qualified passers.
Erdahl has had the chance to see Burrow grow over the last year since coming to LSU from Ohio State, and she says the biggest difference this year is Burrow’s level of comfort with not just the conference, but himself.
“Everyone is more comfortable with Joe Burrow this season, including Joe Burrow. I see that a lot in him in his post-game interviews,” said Erdahl. “A lot of his teammates will say this about him. He just has this cool, calm, collected mentality that really comes across on the field and comes across in postgame.”
While Burrow’s “Joe Cool” personality has surfaced this season, Alabama’s quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, has picked up right where he left off. In seven games, he has completed 74.7 percent of his passes (up from 69.6 last season) for 2,166 yards and 23 touchdowns. But health is once again a question mark, as we come to the stretch run of the season. Tagovailoa missed the team’s last game against Arkansas after injuring his ankle in the Tide’s win over Tennessee. Erdahl points out that the injury doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one suffered in last year’s SEC title game, but Tagovailoa did have the same surgical procedure to help speed his recovery. Head coach Nick Saban has been noncommittal about Tua’s status for Saturday, but Erdahl says the Tide’s coach likely already knows whether the junior will be on the field Saturday or not.
“I would think he (Saban) already has a pretty good answer as to what he is going to get out of Tua if it is not 100% heading into this weekend,” said Erdahl. “If I had to make a guess, I think he plays. That is kind of what his behavior is leaning towards.”
If Tagovailoa weren’t able to go, that would likely make a significant difference in the outlook for this game. But, assuming he’s on the field, there doesn’t appear to be too much separation in these offenses. Even defensively, the teams are similar. Both started the year with questions, due to the departures of several key starters, and out of the gates, they struggled a bit. But, in their last few outings, things appear to be rounding into form. Alabama is allowing opponents just 307 yards per game and just 4.5 yards per play. LSU is allowing 316.5 yards per game and 4.7 yards per play. The Tide have been slightly more susceptible to the run (3.65 yards per carry vs. LSU’s 2.95), while the Tigers have allowed more success through the air (6.2 yards per attempt vs. 5.4).
However, with explosive offenses on the other side, this will be the biggest test that either unit has faced this season. So, with oddsmakers favoring the Tide by a shade under a touchdown (6.5), what is going to be the difference in the game? For Erdahl, it comes down to sustained execution on offense and defense by LSU.
The hardest part about facing an Alabama team is that they are so sound for nearly 100 percent of the game. If you can get them to the fourth quarter and have it be neck and neck or ahead, it’s the finishing the game against Alabama that I think is tough for anybody,” said Erdahl. “We saw Georgia in the SEC championship game last year struggle with that. What I think is going to play out here, without having to pick a winner, is LSU has to have their explosive offensive and defensive plays. But it’s not just about a play here or a play there. You have to sustain quality play against Alabama, because that is what Alabama requires of you when you face them, especially at home.”
Brad Nessler, Gary Danielson and Jamie Erdahl will have all the action for you from Tuscaloosa, Alabama when the #2 LSU Tigers take on the #3 Alabama Crimson Tide at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS.