Alabama Erases Its Doubters (and the Season's Drama) in Death Valley

Alabama came out determined to eliminate the last point of criticism about its perfect season to date. Now it's unclear what can stop the Crimson Tide from the nearly inevitable return trip to the playoff.
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BATON ROUGE, La. — College football coaches constantly say they don’t read newspapers, they avoid posts on the Internet and they absolutely never look at Twitter. But they, somehow, know enough to use the negative information on those platforms to motive their teams. Alabama coach Nick Saban offered the latest and greatest of those examples, using to his advantage the one real piece of criticism floating around about the Crimson Tide: They ain’t played nobody. “We really wanted to make a statement in this game,” he said afterward. “A lot of people talked about our schedule.”

Statement made. Exam passed. Hurdle leaped. Alabama bludgeoned LSU on the scoreboard and the stat sheet, whipping the Tigers 29–0, outgaining them 576–196 and crushing any hope that the non-Bama masses held that the Tide will drop a regular season game. This was supposed to be the one big regular season challenge, the four-quarter fight. Sure, maybe the third-ranked Tigers (7–2) wouldn’t win, but they could stay competitive, expose some Alabama flaws and force the nation’s hottest quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, to take significant snaps in the waning minutes.

None of that happened. In fact, what transpired at Tiger Stadium on Saturday night somehow topped the 50-point barrages the Crimson Tide released on their first eight opponents, none of which can expect to be ranked in the next Top 25. The best team in the country proved that it was the best team in the country. Those of us unsure of Alabama because of its schedule are very sure of it now. And if we’re not, we can take it up with Tide receiver Jerry Jeudy, who gained 103 yards against what was supposed to be Alabama’s toughest opposing secondary. “[They said] we haven't played nobody,” Jeudy said. “They can't say that no more. We done come and played one of the best teams in the country and did what we’re supposed to do.”

Thus, the question remains: Who will beat Alabama? Saban’s bunch shouldn’t be challenged before the SEC championship game, with three home games remaining against Mississippi State, The Citadel and Auburn. In Atlanta the Tide will meet a team, Georgia, that lost to LSU by 20 points a few weeks ago. In the playoff, they might get any number of programs: Clemson, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma. Are any up to the challenge? Do they have a defensive front that can pressure Tagovailoa, who favored his injured knee at multiple points but still ripped off a 44-yard touchdown run Saturday? Do they have linebackers and nose guards who can stuff Bama’s trio of backs (Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs, who averaged 7.13 yards a carry)? Do they have defensive backs who can shut down those elite pass catchers (four of which caught at least four passes against LSU’s vaunted secondary)?

So much for the night’s marquee matchup pitting LSU’s secondary against Tagovailoa’s receivers. Bad knee and all, Tagovailoa threw for 295 yards on 25-for-42 passing and, despite tossing his first interception of the season, came away with a 129.5 quarterback rating. No matter what Saban says—he noted Saturday that Tagovailoa isn’t hurt “anymore”—his quarterback isn’t playing at full speed, still nagged still by a right knee he injured in October. CBS cameras caught him limping at times, and he even, took a trip into Alabama’s sideline injury tent at one point.

Early on, it wasn’t so easy, as the score and stats revealed. In fact, Alabama’s first series ended with something other than a touchdown for the first time this season. And on that march, Tagovailoa took a helmet to a sensitive area, an incident that left him writhing on the turf as a slightly restrained wave of celebration rippled through Tiger Stadium. “We had gone through some trials tonight,” Tagovailoa said afterward.

It turns out, these guys are really good no matter who they play and no matter where they play them. Tiger Stadium rocked and roared, danced and swayed, as kickoff approached. The tailgating scene was a roiling purple-and-gold sea. There were fried turkeys, whole roasted pigs and ice luges that cooled shots of liquor. The environment was such that several longtime LSU athletics staff members claimed they’d never seen campus in such a buzz. “It’s like the Super Bowl,” one remarked.

Alabama ruined it all, like it has done here in its previous three chances—21–17 in 2012, 20–13 in ’14, 10–0 in ’16—and while the score this time was by a wider margin, the method was the same: the Tide dominated on both lines. It made a 16–0 game at halftime feel like a four-possession spread. Alabama harassed Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow on nearly every dropback, finishing with five sacks, and held the Tigers to 12 yards rushing. Its offensive front created running lanes for a whopping 37 rushes for 281 yards and gave Tagavailoa all the time he needed to eventually shred the secondary. At one point, Alabama had out-gained the Tigers 439 yards to 82.

What LSU coach Ed Orgeron said afterward probably puts the fear of God in the Crimson Tide’s upcoming opponents: “They stunned us. We tried everything we possibly could—go full wide, max protection. We just got beat.” During his postgame news conference, Orgeron spent much of his time on one of his favorite subjects: recruiting. “I got to recruit better defensive linemen. Got to recruit better offensive linemen. Same old thing. Got to beat Alabama at the line of scrimmage.”

Orgeron thought LSU was “comin’,” as he says. He figured he was closing the gap after keeping pace physically with Alabama in a loss at Tuscaloosa last year. Instead, his program lost an eighth straight game in the series, by the widest margin since the skid began with a 21–0 defeat in the 2011 national championship game. The Tide extended an incredible streak within the streak Saturday: They haven’t allowed a touchdown in Tiger Stadium over the last 11 quarters, dating back to the first quarter of the 2014 game. 

Saban continues to sting his old team with Louisiana players, too. Dylan Moses, a Baton Rouge native and Alabama’s starting linebacker, had six tackles and a tackle for loss. “Our defensive line dominated. They make me look good,” Moses said. “They were pushing them back, putting the quarterback under pressure.” Saban, Moses and others admitted after the game they were surprised that Alabama’s defense had so much success against LSU. “It was crazy. For us to shut them out ... I wasn’t expecting it,” Moses said.

So this team is shocking themselves now? Woo boy. This might not just be Alabama’s best team under Saban, it could be one of college football’s best ever. The Tide has trailed this year for a whole 70 seconds, they have a quarterback on pace for a Heisman Trophy, and their defense is just as nasty as ever. We digress. This is too much rat poison for one story. Let’s get to the negatives, and there were two of those: the Tide missed a pair of extra points. Ah, yes, that’s more like it. That’s what Saban wants—because motivation is as much a part of his sustained success as his personnel and schemes. “I never tell them what you’re saying when you say good stuff,” a smirking Saban said, “but if you say anything bad, I tell them.”