BATON ROUGE, La. — The last question Ed Orgeron accepted in his postgame press conference would not involve his team’s next opponent, or the targeting call against his All-America linebacker, Devin White. LSU’s sports information director, Michael Bonnette, saw to that. “One more for coach,” Bonnette told a room full of reporters before a dramatic pause, “about this game.”
He was only half-joking. You don’t often see a postgame news conference like this one, where a minutes-old 16-point victory over a Top 25 team was roundly ignored by the media in attendence. That’s because LSU’s next game is against top-ranked Alabama, and that’s because LSU will be without one of their best players and top NFL draft prospects for the first half of that game. Officials flagged White for targeting with about six minutes remaining in a rainy, ugly 19–3 LSU win over Mississippi State at Tiger Stadium, an ejection penalty that carries a first-half suspension for the next game.
The home crowd booed officials between each play for the remainder of the game, and chants of “Ref you suck!” broke out in the half-filled stadium. Afterward, Orgeron and LSU players lamented the pending absence of a player who leads the team in tackles (by 22) and is considered the heart of the defense. Even Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, a noted LSU fan and friend of Orgeron’s who attended Saturday’s game, took to Twitter to weigh in on the call. “Someone is going to have to explain the definition of ‘targeting’ to me,” the tweet said. “From what I know, that wasn’t it. #GeauxTigers.”
Officials reviewed the play and upheld the targeting call, and the SEC released a statement after the game confirming the decision. That won’t stop two weeks worth of bickering in Baton Rouge over what appeared to be one of the more questionable targeting offenses you’ll see. Still, there is nothing to be done. There is no appeal allowed, the league office says. “Probably not going to have Devin for the first half,” Orgeron said afterward. “We got to make some adjustments there that’s going to hurt our football team. But, hey, we got to live with it. That’s what it is. That’s the rule.”
And so LSU must snap its seven-game losing skid to Alabama without its best player for the opening two quarters. It’s another juicy storyline in this annual drama-filled duel between SEC West powers, which will take place on Nov. 3 after both teams take their bye week in Week 9. This year’s rendition of the rivalry has it all, with two top-five teams gunning for a College Football Playoff appearance. LSU hasn’t beaten Alabama in 2,555 days, and last year at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Tide rubbed it in with pregame jumbotron clips of each of the previous six victories over the Tigers. There’s the return of former LSU coach Nick Saban, reviled in the state where he won a national title in 2003 and where he now wins pitched recruiting battles over the nation’s top prospects (for example, Saban pried cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. and defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs from Orgeron’s grasp with last-minute signing day stunners). This year there’s another unique connection between the two schools: Alabama starting cornerback and previous five-star prospect Saivion Smith transferred from LSU 18 months ago, attended a junior college and then signed with the Tide this offseason. His post-LSU journey is not lost on those around the football program in Baton Rouge.
CBS has made LSU-Alabama its primetime kickoff for an eighth straight year, and the two will meet for the 13th straight season as top-20 teams. Tickets on the secondary market are going for as high as $1,300 for a 50-yard-line seat, but even the nosebleeds are priced around $200. LSU running back Nick Brossette, a Baton Rouge native and lifelong Tigers fans who has participated in four of these already, summed it up like this: “It’s crazy.”
LSU’s losing skid to the Tide was touchy enough that Miles rarely used the word “Alabama,” nor did he talk about his predecessor, Saban. Orgeron took a different approach, magnifying the game in his introductory news conference. “You are judged by that game,” he said then. “That’s the nature of the beast. I welcome it. I bring it on. I can’t wait till the day we beat those guys.”
Orgeron’s quarterback, Joe Burrow, is aware of this one’s significance, even if the Ohio State transfer points out he’s not from “down here.” “As soon as I committed, people tweeted at me, ‘Go beat Bama for us.’ No pressure,” says Burrow. He’ll begin studying film on the Crimson Tide on Tuesday, locked alone in a dark room in Tiger Stadium, scribbling notes on a pad in an effort to reverse the trend of LSU starting quarterbacks crumbling against Alabama. The last three—Anthony Jennings, Brandon Harris and Danny Etling—have completed 38.9% of their passes, thrown four interceptions with just two touchdowns and were sacked 13 times over the course of four games. But LSU has been doubted all year and has responded by knocking off four top-25 teams. “A lot of people, if you told them LSU was going to be 7–1 playing Alabama, they’d tell you that you’re crazy,” Burrow says. “I didn’t feel that way.”
The Tigers will have to pull this upset without their best defender for the opening half. Jacob Phillips, the sophomore starting linebacker alongside White, saw his teammate in the locker room after the game. He described White’s demeanor as “upset.” He delivered a message to him: We got you. “We’re going to be playing for him and playing through him,” tight end Foster Moreau said. “I know Devin well. He’s going to have his defense—and it is his defense—he’s going to have those guys ready to play for 30 minutes without him.”
Here’s a stat that sums up LSU’s performance against Mississippi State pretty well: Midway through the fourth quarter, MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald had one more completed pass (four) than he had interceptions (three). This one sent the game of football back to the 1960s, with neither team cracking the 260-yard mark on offense, and was dominated in the immediate aftermath by talk of two weeks into the future. LSU has been thought of for weeks as the team that can finally put up a four-quarter fight against the Crimson Tide and force QB Tua Tagovailoa to actually take a snap in a closely contested second half. The Tigers didn’t really supply us with a whole lot of optimism on that front Saturday.
Don’t tell that to Orgeron, who, after being asked yet another Alabama or White-related question, scoffed to a reporter, “We’re going to enjoy this win first. Maybe I’ll give you the game plan on Tuesday.”