- When Nick Saban and Ed Orgeron aren't on opposite sidelines, they frequent the same living rooms in cutthroat battles for the nation's top prospects that rival the games themselves in intensity.
AMITE, La. — The white mantle is the first thing guests see when stepping inside the Sopsher family’s mobile home. It is overflowing with memorabilia: athletic trophies, specialty letters, game-worn lanyards, newspaper clippings. Wanda Sopsher has turned her mantle into a shrine to her three children, and the biggest of them—6'5", 305-pound Ishmael—is at the center. Ishmael just happens to be the No. 1-ranked defensive tackle in the 2019 signing class, a teddy bear of a kid whose size and vigor on the football field has made him the most sought after prospect in one of the nation’s most fertile and hotly contested recruiting grounds.
Ishmael and his mother hover over the mantle like a grocery shopper in the produce section. Which items should we show off? Wanda plucks from the group an oversized birthday card that LSU coach Ed Orgeron sent to the residence, his signature underneath a handwritten message in the top left corner, Have a great day! From another side of the mantle, Ishmael grabs a personalized flyer sent to him by Alabama’s Nick Saban, the coach’s photo in the top right corner and, like the LSU card, a message from him at the top left, Ishmael, good luck to you and Amite HS this season!
Ishmael awakes to text messages from these two men. He speaks to them weekly by phone, and they swing by his high school, sometimes via helicopter. He’ll see them both on Saturday when their teams converge at Tiger Stadium in what many in Baton Rouge are referring to as the Game of the Century Part II. While No. 1 Alabama (8–0) and No. 3 LSU (7–1) meet this weekend for a renewal of what has recently been one of college football’s most intense series, their true battles are waged elsewhere.
The real war between the Tigers and the Crimson Tide is fought not at a bloated stadium on game day, but during the other 364 days of the year, in theaters like this—inside a three-bedroom trailer in rural south Louisiana, where at stake is one of the nation’s most decorated players from a region that Orgeron is trying to protect and Saban is trying to pillage. “That recruiting is … woooo!” says longtime college defensive line coach Pete Jenkins, 77, who has worked under both Saban and Orgeron. “Recruiting is as much a part of the rivalry as Saturday night is going to be.”
LSU and Alabama are embroiled in the most vicious school-on-school recruiting war the country has seen in the past decade, says Barton Simmons, a national recruiting expert for 247Sports. It is an eternal struggle for elite talent that Jenkins admits drove him into retirement. Their most heated fights unfold in what Simmons refers to as the “battleground state” of Louisiana, bitter heavyweight bouts with massive prizes to the victor: five-star prospects to deploy on the first week in November. The result is a pair of programs that churn out more NFL players than any other two college teams, having tied for the nation’s lead in players drafted from 2008 to ’17 (65 each) and ranking first and second in former players on opening-day NFL rosters this season (Alabama with 44 and LSU with 40).
You think their game days are nasty slugfests? You should see them the other 364. Their snooping on one another knows no bounds. In 2011, a few weeks before a national championship showdown against LSU, Saban brought to Tuscaloosa former LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton in what Crowton thought was an interview for a position on Saban’s staff. He’s not so sure now. “I don’t know if he was interviewing me or trying to get information on LSU,” Crowton says. A few years later, former LSU coach Les Miles hired Alabama assistant Kevin Steele as his defensive coordinator, at least partially because of his knowledge of Alabama’s program, according to one former LSU staff member. The teams even synchronize their bye weeks, strategically placing them a week before their meeting for maximum rest and preparation, something Saban began at Alabama in 2009 and LSU started the following year.
Meanwhile, Orgeron has spent his first two seasons preparing his program to win this game. Just this offseason, he replicated Saban’s staffing structure, hiring a deep crew of analysts geared for advanced scouting. He and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger overhauled a run-centric offense that, while bludgeoning less talented foes, had averaged just 10.4 points a game in the last seven duels with the Crimson Tide. It’s all in an effort to topple college football’s unquestioned king and his championship-winning dynasty, to reshape a rivalry that has tilted heavily crimson and white.
Alabama has won seven consecutive games against LSU, the Tide’s longest winning streak in the series since Bear Bryant claimed 11 in a row from 1971 to ’81. The streak lingers over LSU, a dark shadow in the shape of its former coach, who was responsible for the program’s meteoric rise in the early 2000s but has recently brought the Tigers to their knees. “We don’t talk about that. That’s not something that’s discussed,” Orgeron said Monday of the losing skid. “We take it one game at a time, but obviously I think all of us feel it. We understand the importance of beating Alabama at LSU.”
Accomplishing that feat, more than expanding that support staff and overhauling that offense, is done through recruiting, rebuilding what Orgeron says has been LSU’s ultimate deficiency against the Tide: the offensive and defensive lines. “Trenches. Got to win the game in the trenches,” he says.
Alabama has held a firm edge in recruiting the trenches. Over a seven-year stretch, ending with the 2017 recruiting class, Alabama signed four more defensive linemen and three more offensive linemen than LSU. The more glaring numbers are the talent levels. The Tide signed 13 offensive linemen ranked in the top five at their position to LSU’s four and signed 17 defensive linemen ranked in the top 10 at their position to LSU’s 11. In response, Orgeron has stocked up on linemen, signing 11 in last year’s class and signing 10 defensive tackles in the past three classes—more than the school signed in the six previous classes.
He’s seeing the effects already, contending that the Tigers “matched [Alabama’s] physicality” in a 24–10 loss in Tuscaloosa last season—which is why a boastful Orgeron made a statement in his postgame news conference that went viral. “We comin’,” he said, “and we ain’t backing down.”
Is LSU there yet? “We comin’,” Orgeron told Sports Illustrated in an interview Monday. “We’re aggressively ... we want to be a national championship football team, and we’re comin’. They’re the guys we’ve got to chase. We’ve got to stay on the attack. We’ve got to beat them. We’ve got to beat them in recruiting and got to beat them on the football field. We comin’.”
Beating the Tide on the recruiting trail, for LSU and others, has proven just as difficult as beating them on the field. After all, Alabama had pulled in the top-ranked signing class for seven straight years before the latest cycle, when Georgia edged out its national title game counterpart. Since Saban’s arrival, Alabama has been the biggest thorn in the Tigers’ side when it comes to keeping Louisiana’s top-flight talent in the state. Since 2012, the Tide have signed 13 players ranked in the top 10 in 247Sports’ Louisiana state rankings. During that same seven-year stretch, other non-Louisiana programs combined to sign 16. Six of the Tide’s 13 remain on its roster: receiver DeVonta Smith and safety Shyheim Carter, both from Sopsher’s hometown parish of Tangipahoa; linebackers Chris Allen and Dylan Moses, both originally from Baton Rouge; and defensive linemen Phidarian Mathis and Isaiah Buggs, two north Louisianans.
Buggs was a heartbreaker for the Tigers. A lifelong LSU fan whom even Orgeron expected to sign with the Tigers, Buggs flipped late in the process, announcing his decision in a bizarre letter on social media that ended with, of all things, this: “Geaux Tigers.”
Mathis’s recruitment included drama as well. A top-10 defensive tackle nationally in 2017, Mathis told reporters that a factor in his decision was his relationship, or lack thereof, with his potential position coach at LSU, Jenkins: He’d never met him. Jenkins was an at-will employee during his 18 months at LSU, working without a contract and rarely recruiting. “I never met Big Phil. That played a part in us losing him,” Jenkins reveals this week in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “It was one of the reasons why I felt I needed to go. That hurt Ed losing that boy to Alabama. I can’t tell you how bad I felt.”
The most significant recruiting loss to the Tide came this past February in prized cornerback Patrick Surtain, the top uncommitted player in the 2018 class on signing day. Surtain, a Floridian whose family is originally from New Orleans, stunned the country by signing with Alabama—where he has quickly ascended to a starting role—over the years-long favorite, LSU. That one burned. There are plenty more connections. The Tide’s other starting cornerback for much of the season, Saivion Smith, transferred from LSU to a junior college before the 2017 season and then signed with the Tide last December. Then there’s the case of Matt Womack, who started on Alabama’s offensive line last year but has battled injury this season. The SEC penalized LSU for recruiting violations after Womack reneged on a financial aid agreement he signed with the Tigers in 2014, eventually signing with Alabama.
The recruiting rivalry isn’t completely one-sided. LSU had finished in the top seven of the 247Sports composite team recruiting rankings up until last year’s No. 15 finish. The Tigers took future NFL linebacker Kwon Alexander out of Alabama in 2012 and have signed the majority of the top-10 players in the Louisiana in eight of the last 11 cycles. They even fought off the Tide last year for Louisiana safety Kelvin Joseph, but the big losses sting—running back Eddie Lacy in 2009, safety Landon Collins in 2012, tackle Cam Robinson in 2014. The Louisiana-to-Alabama trend is such that the Tuscaloosa News’ game-day cover ahead of last year’s matchup featured a big, bold headline running across a depiction of the state of Louisiana: THIS IS BAMA TERRITORY, it said.
This is a recruiting hotbed that Orgeron is so bent on protecting that he figuratively shut down Louisiana to outsiders during the satellite camp craze of 2016–17. He convinced officials at the state’s small college and high school programs to not invite, or in some cases, to uninvite, non-Louisiana teams to camps. “It’s my job to protect the state of Louisiana,” Orgeron says. “[Nick Saban] or anybody comes in here, it’s my job. I’m the head coach of Louisiana State, from Louisiana. We want our Louisiana young men to stay home. It’s my job to get that done.”
That’s why Simmons contends the battle for Sopsher is paramount from a perception standpoint alone. “That’s what Ed Orgeron is there for: galvanize the state, win the tough recruiting battles and build a fence around that state,” Simmons says. “Maybe even more so than any coach in the country, he takes it personal. When you’re creating a program with such strong cultural foundation—being Louisiana’s program—it’s important to keep your biggest intruder out.”
Most recently, Alabama’s biggest foothold in the state is in the area in and around Amite, a town of about 4,100 nestled in Tangipahoa Parish. The Tide plucked Carter, the safety, from Kentwood in 2016 and Smith, the receiver, from Amite High in 2017. Is Sopsher next? “Right now, I think Alabama is leading,” says Tim Watts, a reporter for 247Sports’ BamaOnLine.com who has covered Alabama recruiting for the last 20 years, “but there’s plenty of time for him to change his mind.”
Saban has created a staff with Louisiana flavor, two of them with close ties to Tangipahoa. Pete Golding, the Tide’s co-defensive coordinator hired this past offseason, is from Hammond, a town of 20,000 that sits 45 miles from Tiger Stadium and 15 miles south of Amite. Sam Petitto, Bama’s director of personnel operations, is a native of Amite. None of this is lost on LSU’s head coach. “When I leave this campus, Tangipahoa Parish is the first place I always go,” Orgeron says, “and we’re doing everything that we can legally to get these young men here. That’s all I can do.”
Because of Smith and Carter, Tangipahoa is labeled as a part of Alabama's footprint, and some of its residents fight against that, including the football staff at Amite High School. “It’s a situation that we pull for our home school,” says Chris Gordon, an assistant on the staff. “A lot of people think we are pro-Bama. We’re pro–our kids. Any time LSU is playing, we’re LSU fans. Even this week!” Sopsher is one of the better players to come out of this place. He’s a smart, hard-working kid who is durable and versatile. He’s never missed a game in four years of playing high school ball, says Amite head coach Zephaniah Powell, and sometimes coaches line him up at offensive tackle and even fullback.
Orgeron’s relationship with Sopsher dates back to the player’s eighth-grade year. “He always told me I was going to be somebody,” says Sopsher, who has a 6'7" grandfather, a 6'6" uncle and a 6'1" aunt. He hears from purple-and-gold fans quite often on social media. He mutes the conversations, just to have some peace. It’s not just fans. Orgeron even texted Sopsher during the player’s visit to Alabama a few weeks ago, the same day LSU upset Georgia. He made sure the recruit knew the final score: LSU 36, Georgia 16. Sopsher has a handful of other finalists outside of LSU and Alabama, but his biggest deciding factor in this decision is reaching the NFL. “They’re the top two schools for that,” he acknowledges. “They’re going to have to show me they can get me to the next level.”
Orgeron describes Saban’s foray into Louisiana as relentless and “aggressive.” The Tide is pushing hard for Sopsher while having eight defensive linemen committed in the 2019 class. LSU has one. A former LSU staff member who worked under Miles told Sports Illustrated this week that he believes Saban “comes into Louisiana just as a mind game on LSU.”
Alabama does have a history recruiting Louisiana dating back to the days of Bear Bryant, who Orgeron says recruited him out of Larose, La. “Bear was going to come to my house, but my daddy told him not to. He said, ‘My boy is going to LSU!’” Orgeron recalled. The Tide’s latest recruiting run here began in 2009 by landing Lacy and receiver Kenny Bell, both of whom were recruited by Crowton, LSU’s offensive coordinator from ’07 to ’10. Crowton says Lacy was an academic risk that the Tigers “couldn’t take.” Bell flipped his commitment from LSU to Alabama the night before signing day when the Tigers landed a commitment from another Louisiana receiver, Rueben Randle. Crowton remembers the frantic phone conversations with the players the night before signing day. “We were right on the phone that night telling Rueben, ‘You’re the guy. We need you,’” Crowton says. “Then, we’re trying to talk to Kenny to hang in there. [Another school] was telling him something else. He was calling asking ‘Well, what’s going on with Rueben?’” Bell signed with the Tide a few hours later.
Crowton is still a big LSU fan who often dons purple-and-gold apparel in his current role as the offensive coordinator at Pine View High School in his home state of Utah. In December 2011, a few weeks before the Tide beat the Tigers 21–0 in the BCS National Championship Game, Crowton found himself back in the middle of the rivalry, even though he had just completed his first season at Maryland after leaving Baton Rouge for a job with the Terrapins. “Coach Saban called me. Wanted to talk football. His [offensive] coordinator [Jim McElwain] was leaving,” Crowton remembers. “He asked if I would talk to him. He brought me in. I talked football with [defensive coordinator] Kirby Smart. I said a little, but not too much, about LSU. It was a weird situation. I loved LSU and still do.”
Nearly 10 years later, the tricks are still being played and Louisiana remains a battleground state—at least until LSU snaps the losing skid. “It is definitely a chicken or the egg,” Simmons says. “Do you have to beat Alabama in recruiting to win the game or beat Alabama in the game to win recruiting? I think until LSU gets one from Alabama on the field, they’re going to have holes in the fence.”
Orgeron spent last Friday night outside of the proverbial fence. He surprisingly showed up at a high school football game in Alabaster, Ala., about 50 miles east of Tuscaloosa, to watch Taulia Tagovailoa, a highly touted Alabama quarterback commitment and the younger brother of Tide starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Orgeron even spoke to Tua briefly, with TV cameras and cell phones capturing evidence of the meeting. Some believe his appearance was a ploy, a poke at his chief rival on the recruiting trail. Oh you’re gonna come into my state? Well, here I am in yours. “I don’t know if that was a troll job or what,” laughs Watts.
Back in Louisiana, the Sopshers are seated in their living room—parents Wanda and Rodney Sr., and their sons Rodney Jr. and Ishmael. Their daughter Dynasty, the oldest, lives in New Orleans. Rodney Jr., a junior college player who played at Amite High, has an offer from LSU, too. His academics must improve, but “the plan,” Ishmael says, is for the duo to sign somewhere together. The town of Amite, though nestled in Louisiana, is split on that destination. Smith’s success in Tuscaloosa—you’ll remember that he caught the game-winning pass to beat Georgia in the national championship game—has this place somewhat torn. “I’d say I get 60% saying LSU and 40% saying Alabama,” Wanda says. “At the grocery store, at the pharmacy, wherever. They come up to me.”
Ishmael doesn’t plan on making his choice until February’s National Signing Day, and Orgeron has made him aware of the significance of his decision. “I know this battle here,” Ishmael says, “is one everybody wants to see him win.” That includes the governor of Louisiana.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, an Amite native and close friend to Orgeron, has inserted himself in the Alabama-LSU war. In an interview with Sports Illustrated earlier this year, he bemoaned the loss of Smith to the Tide, and he encouraged, unprompted, his hometown’s next big star to choose a different route. After all, this is Alabama-LSU, where the real battles are fought away from the football field and, sometimes, involve elected officials. “I’m excited about Ishmael,” Edwards says. “As the governor of the great state of Louisiana, I’m encouraging him, not directly, to stay in-state, and if he does that, in all likelihood, it means LSU.”