Perhaps the most unique aspect of playing at LSU -- apart from the 100,000-plus fans, many of whom began tailgating Tuesday -- is the feline campus resident who typically hangs near the visiting team’s sideline during warm-ups. This particular feline weighs 500 pounds and eats 25 pounds of meat a day. His name is Mike VI. He is, as you’ve probably guessed, a live, freaking tiger.
Though Mike is caged during these encounters, he has unnerved the occasional visiting player. Alabama guard Arie Kouandjio is not one of those. Presumably, Kouandjio paid rapt attention in 2012 when then-teammate Damion Square offered the following advice, reported faithfully by Andrew Gribble of AL.com: “As soon as you come out of the locker room, to your left will be a live tiger. Be ready for that.”
Kouandjio will be ready Saturday when the Crimson Tide visit LSU. “I’m not afraid of tigers,” Kouandjio deadpanned to reporters this week. One asked: What are you afraid of? “Not reaching my full potential,” Kouandjio said. “Sometimes the dark.”
Somewhere in his office with the robo-close door, Alabama coach Nick Saban probably smiled. Another one Processed. Saban wants his players terrified of not reaching their full potential. That way, they will concentrate on the moment in front of them. This is the essence of Saban’s Process and every other one-play-at-a-time gimmick coaches use to convince their players to think small to big instead of the other way around. Want to bench 500 pounds? Then complete this rep perfectly first. Want to win a starting offensive tackle job? Then perform this next kick slide exactly as coached. Want to beat LSU? Then learn that when the tight end pretends to cut block, he’s going to pop up and leak into the flat and needs to be covered.
Ignoring the big picture is tough for the Tide these days, because the big picture finds players even when they aren’t looking for it. Alabama didn’t even play last week and climbed from No. 6 to No. 5 in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings. Of the top nine teams in those rankings, Bama is the only one that has yet to beat a team with fewer than three losses at this point. The Tide are close to the magic cutline because they’ve been in contention for the national title up to the final week of the regular season in five of the past six years. That likely isn’t how the committee is supposed to evaluate teams, but that’s how things shook out this week.
Those who believe Alabama is ranked so high because of reputation and not in-season accomplishment will find a kindred spirit in Saban, who probably wishes the Tide could maintain a lower profile so his players aren’t inundated with playoff talk. He doesn’t want them thinking about New Orleans or Pasadena when their sole focus needs to be on Baton Rouge. “Be where your feet are. This is where we are right now,” Saban said this week. “This is the most important thing to us. Rankings really mean nothing right now at all to our team. But if we’re going to have a chance to end up where we have any opportunities at the end of the season -- whether it’s SEC or playoff or anything like that -- then we have to take care of business today. What do we have to do today to get ready for this game?”
The truth is that if Alabama makes the playoff, it will have earned its way there. It would have to beat LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn to get in, but none of that will matter if the Tide can’t beat an LSU team that looks entirely different from the one that got trounced at Auburn five weeks ago.
On Oct. 25, LSU’s defense shut down the same Ole Miss offense that scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat the Crimson Tide 23-17 on Oct. 4. LSU’s offense averaged 4.8 yards a carry against the same Ole Miss defense that held Alabama to 3.8 yards a carry. The Tigers, who seemed an easy out early in the season, now look capable of beating anyone. That’s why this game feels more like the slugfests of the past few years and less like the matchup Alabama dominated in Tuscaloosa last fall. LSU looks more like itself, right down to the scattershot quarterback play.
Saban wound up describing the current version of the Tigers quite well this week while answering a question about LSU freshman tailback Leonard Fournette. “He’s a very physical player, and they have a very physical team, and they’re playing physical football right now,” Saban said. “There’s not a lot of trick ’em to it. You’ve just got to match and be the same kind of physical team to be able to match and have any kind of chance to be successful.”
The last part of that quote might be why we’re usually so captivated by this game. When I talk to other coaches about LSU and Alabama, they rave about the simple elegance of their schemes. Then they typically say something to the tune of, “If I had the kind of athletes they do, I’d do the same thing.” But most teams don’t have the kind of athletes these two programs have.
Want to see Saban rave about an opponent? Read this: “They play a lot of man-to-man, and they’ve got very good players,” Saban said of LSU. “They’re very athletic. They’ve got nice-sized corners, and they like to pressure. So, the combination of the pressure and the man-to-man has affected people’s ability to have any kind of efficiency in the passing game.”
That may not sound like the most ebullient praise, but that’s among the ultimate compliments Saban can give a defense. LSU’s coaches have used their lists of critical factors to identify and sign cornerbacks who can cover receivers one on one, thus allowing coordinator John Chavis to send an extra rusher every once in a while. That’s about the sexiest thing Saban can think of.
Fortunately, Saban has a weapon this year that might help nullify that advantage. Quarterback Blake Sims can run. Even with sacks included, Sims has averaged 5.4 yards a carry this season. That adds a dimension Alabama hasn’t had since the days of Tyler Watts and Andrew Zow, and it’s certainly a new wrinkle for the Saban era. “It’s not as routine,” LSU coach Les Miles said Wednesday. “Quarterback mobility is certainly an element you have to take into account when you prepare defense. Looking forward to preparing well for formations, sets, you always have to account for that very mobile quarterback.”
So, while LSU defenders account for the speedy Sims, Tide players will try to keep the roar -- from the human denizens of Tiger Stadium and from the feline one -- from affecting the way they play. “Things happen all the time, right?” Alabama’s Kouandjio said. “If a tiger is going to get me, a tiger is going to get me.”
Kouandjio was kidding when he said that. He didn't sound as if he was kidding when he said he feared not reaching his full potential. For the Crimson Tide to have a chance to do that, they’ll have to emerge victorious from Baton Rouge.
• Clemson at Wake Forest: Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said this week that freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson (hand) will dress out and might play against the Demon Deacons. Clemson probably doesn’t need Watson to win this one, but this means he’ll be back and ready to play against Georgia Tech next week and, more importantly, should be available on Nov. 29 when Clemson tries to break its five-game losing streak against South Carolina.
• Baylor at Oklahoma: With all the focus on Kansas State and TCU, we seem to forget that the Bears remain in pretty good shape to compete for the Big 12 title. If the Wildcats beat the Horned Frogs on Saturday, then Baylor would control its destiny if it can get past Oklahoma. That’s a huge if, because while we’ve written the Sooners out of the national title race, they could still have an impact on the Big 12 race. Remember, Oklahoma’s two losses came by a combined five points.
• Georgia at Kentucky: What should we expect from Georgia after last Saturday’s mystifying 38-20 loss to Florida? Kentucky shouldn’t be able to run the ball like the Gators did, but the Gators shouldn’t have been able to run the ball like the Gators did. This will be the Bulldogs’ final game before Todd Gurley gets out of NCAA jail.
• Wisconsin at Purdue: Since a baffling 20-14 loss at Northwestern on Oct. 4, the Badgers have won three games by a combined score of 127-35. During that stretch, tailback Melvin Gordon has averaged 6.5 yards a carry. It’s killing his career average, but hey, Wisconsin is winning. This game is the Badgers’ final tune-up before Nebraska visits Madison for a game that should determine the Big Ten West title.
• Texas A&M at Auburn: The Aggies are in a tailspin, and now they head into one of the toughest games on their schedule without their starting right tackle (Germain Ifedi, knee) and possibly without their most experienced cornerback (Deshazor Everett, elbow). Remember when Johnny Football brought Texas A&M to Jordan-Hare Stadium two years ago during Auburn’s 3-9 season? Unless the Aggies have some serious secrets up their sleeves, expect the opposite of that.
• Notre Dame at Arizona State: Fighting Irish true freshman Nyles Morgan will get the ultimate baptism by (Sun Devil) fire when he replaces injured linebacker Joe Schmidt just in time to face one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses. Schmidt, who was lost for the season after dislocating his ankle in a 49-39 win over Navy, has been trying to help get his replacement up to speed as quickly as possible. Still, it's tough to be truly be ready for quarterback Taylor Kelly, running back D.J. Foster and company.
• Virginia at Florida State: Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said quarterback Jameis Winston’s sprained ankle shouldn’t hamper him against the Cavaliers, but Florida State must protect Winston better against a solid Virginia defensive line than it did against Louisville in last Thursday’s 42-31 win. If Winston keeps getting hit the way the Cardinals hit him, he might not be fine for the next game.
• UCLA at Washington: Twice this season UCLA has looked something like the team we thought it would be in the preseason. The first time was the 62-27 drubbing of Arizona State in Tempe on Sept. 25. The second was last week’s 17-7 victory over Arizona. The Bruins are not out of the Pac-12 title hunt. The road ahead won’t be easy, but a run is possible if that team keeps showing up.
• Kansas State at TCU: ESPN.com has a very cool interactive series called Inside the Office. On Wednesday, Jeremy Crabtree took readers inside Kansas State coach Bill Snyder’s office. Not pictured: The bowl full of Werther’s Original that has to be in there somewhere. Will more Big 12 championship gear wind up there? Saturday’s matchup in Fort Worth will help provide the answer.
• Ohio State at Michigan State: How much do the Buckeyes respect the Spartans? So much that some players aren’t even saying Michigan State’s name. “I’m not sure what the rules are about that,” linebacker Joshua Perry told The Cleveland Plain-Dealer this week. “I’ll just call them ‘The Team Up North State’ right now.” Given the storied history of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, for the Buckeyes to give the Spartans treatment on the same level as the Wolverines is a sign that Ohio State players understand how good Michigan State is, and how important this game is. While Nebraska and Wisconsin are playing too well at the moment to call this the de facto Big Ten title game, the rematch of last year’s Big Ten championship will decide who represents the East in Indianapolis. Right now, the Spartans are the kings of the conference. If the Buckeyes want that label back, they’ll have to win in East Lansing.
• Oregon at Utah: The Ducks had everything humming in last week’s 45-16 rout of Stanford, but this might be the most dangerous game left on Oregon’s schedule -- including the Pac-12 title game. Utah returns home after a heartbreaking 19-16 loss to Arizona State, and the Utes, who own the most disruptive defense in the league, desperately need a win to stay alive in the Pac-12 South title race. Stay up for this one, committee members. (And everyone who just loves good football.)
Vintage video of the week
Ohio State fans will be thrilled at a reminder that the underdog sometimes wins in this series, but they won’t enjoy watching this particular reminder. In 1998 John Cooper’s Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in the nation. Michigan State was 4-4 and a 24-point dog in Columbus. This is where that guy I wrote about at the top of this column comes into play. When I was writing about the Sabanization of college football in 2012, Saban told me a watershed moment in his coaching life came that week. For the first time in his career, he told his team not to worry about winning. He told the Spartans to worry about each snap and nothing more.
Early on the Spartans looked as if they didn’t care if they won the game. They quickly fell behind 17-3. Ohio State was ahead 24-9 in the third quarter when a Michigan State punt bounced off a Buckeyes player and was recovered by the Spartans to set up a Bill Burke-to-Lavaile Richardson touchdown. Michigan State clawed back for a 28-24 win, and the Process was further refined. Ohio State didn’t lose again, and this loss kept the Buckeyes from playing for the first BCS title.
Take it away, Brent Musburger …
On the menu
I’m headed to Baton Rouge for Alabama-LSU, but because I have a barbecue-minded travel agent named Andy Staples, I hope to visit The Shed in Ocean Springs, Miss., on the way. Those headed to Ohio State-Michigan State will find only outrageously expensive hotel rooms in East Lansing. Stay about an hour away near Clarkston, Mich., and eat better. (There are a ton of hotels in the Auburn Hills area.) Union Woodshop offers tremendous barbecue and maybe the best mac and cheese in America. The mac and cheese recipe actually comes from sister restaurant Clarkston Union Bar and Kitchen, so make it a lunch-dinner combo if you have a free Friday travel day.