BATON ROUGE, La. — One of those the-apocalypse-is-nigh preachers wandered through the hordes of tailgaters on LSU’s campus Saturday afternoon holding three giant signs and yelling into a megaphone. “You’re all going to need some mercy soon,” he said.
By soon, he must have meant halftime.
We’ve spent most of the season marveling at the difference quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has made in Alabama’s offense. That obscene production obscured the fact that Alabama, as usual, has an elite defense. The Crimson Tide’s first team defenders—finally allowed to play most of a game because LSU’s defense made Alabama’s offense look occasionally mortal for the first time all season—reminded the nation Saturday that scoring on Alabama still remains as difficult as stopping Alabama from scoring.
LSU linemen simply couldn’t block Tide linemen Quinnen Williams, Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis as the Tide rolled to a 29–0 win. Through three quarters, LSU had gained 108 yards and averaged 2.5 yards a play. They had rushed 19 times for minus-3 yards. “They did an amazing job,” Alabama safety Deionte Thompson said of the defensive line. “They just made it easier for us in the back end to see the routes and the route concepts. And they made it easier to cover the receivers just because of the pressure they put on the quarterback.” The SEC’s blockbuster matchup had turned into a laugher, and not because LSU is that terrible. We’ve seen the Tigers beat Georgia by 20 and rack up wins against one of the nation’s more challenging schedules. Alabama is just that good. Let’s just ask this LSU fan how good.
With the win, Alabama clinched the SEC West title. “Is that true?” coach Nick Saban said when asked about clinching the title. “I didn’t know that.” The Crimson Tide will face Georgia on Dec. 1 in Atlanta with the league championship and at least one berth in the College Football Playoff on the line. After Saturday, it seems inevitable that Alabama will be one of the four teams in the bracket.
Though there wasn’t anything to criticize about Alabama's on-field performance prior to Saturday, the backloaded nature of the Tide’s schedule raised questions about whether Alabama could be as dominant against better competition. Saturday, against a proven team in possibly the most difficult road environment in college football, the Tide did what Saban said Thursday that he hoped they’d do: They elected to kick ass. “What better opportunity is there to make a statement than this?” Saban said.
Saturday offered up a few firsts for this season.
• It was the first time Alabama didn’t score a touchdown on its first drive.
• It was the first time LSU gave up a first-quarter TD.
• It was the first time Tagovailoa threw an interception. He was picked off by LSU’s Todd Harris Jr. late in the second quarter. Of course, Alabama’s defense then forced a three-and-out and Tagovailoa completed consecutive passes to Jerry Jeudy and Irv Smith to find the end zone again.
• Tagovailoa took his first fourth-quarter snap.
Because Tagovailoa’s day wasn’t done at halftime, someone who only sees the score Sunday morning might assume the Tigers made Alabama’s offense look mortal. Not really. Through three quarters, Alabama was averaging 9.6 yards a play. “It shows you the kind of personnel that we have, the kind of talent that we have,” Tagovailoa said. “It shows what kind of things we can do against basically anyone.” And on the Tide’s first possession of the fourth quarter, they drove 80 yards in eight plays, capping the march with a one-yard Damien Harris touchdown run.
“That [expletive] feels so goooooood,” Alabama cornerback Saivion Smith said as he skipped off the field following the win. (Smith started his career with LSU and then went to Alabama after a stretch in junior college.)
Still, for a few moments in the first half, it seemed like a team with an elite defense and a rocket-armed quarterback—cough, cough, Clemson, cough, cough—might have the talent to hang with the Tide. So maybe all hope is not lost for the field.
But when Buggs, Williams and/or Davis are bearing down on a quarterback, it sure feels as if all the hope gets sucked out of the stadium. By the time Harris scored that last Alabama touchdown, most of the seats in Tiger Stadium were empty. “They were so loud before the game,” Alabama’s Smith said. “When it ended everybody was gone.”
Everyone had gone to seek mercy somewhere else, because the Tide weren’t offering any.