Forde-Yard Dash: Six Storylines Dominating the Alabama-LSU Megaclash

Same teams, same rankings, same stakes—but completely revamped offenses: Next week's No. 1-2 showdown between LSU and Alabama underscores the changing nature of college football.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“We’re A Basketball School” T-shirts sold separately in Tallahassee):

Same schtick, new website. Thanks for following. Let’s roll.

MORE DASH: The 21-Game Test | LSU-Bama Notes | 5 CFP Rankings Questions

FIRST QUARTER

THE ALABAMA-LSU MEGAGAME, REIMAGINED

Eight years ago, the Tigers and Crimson Tide met in Tuscaloosa in a hotly anticipated No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. Saturday they will do it again, with the same rankings and same stakes but drastic stylistic alterations. Here are the leading storylines:

Storyline one: This showdown is a microcosm for the changing nature of the sport (1). The game eight years ago was a defensive slugfest that ended 9-6, a Cro-Magnon tussle that produced zero touchdowns. This year’s version could well end up 39-36. It may more closely resemble a Big 12 shootout than the grim field-position slog waged in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 5, 2011.

If you had stopped watching college football after that game eight years ago and just tuned in again this season, you would not recognize either program. The old ways are gone. LSU and Alabama have gotten up-tempo, pitch-and-catch religion.

They are No. 2 (Alabama) and No. 4 (LSU) nationally in scoring offense. They are No. 2 (Alabama) and No. 5 (LSU) in yards per play. They are No. 2 (Alabama) and No. 3 (LSU) in pass efficiency rating. Neither school has ever had a quarterback win the Heisman Trophy, but both have prime candidates at that position this season.

Viewed over time, the makeover is stunning.

LSU scoring in 2011: 35.7 points per game
LSU scoring now: 46.8.
Increase: 23.7%.

LSU scoring defense then: 11.3 points per game.
LSU scoring defense now: 20.0.
Increase: 43.5%.

LSU pass efficiency then: 147.6.
LSU pass efficiency now: 195.4.
Increase: 24.5%.

LSU passing yards then: 152.5.
LSU passing yards now: 377.6.
Increase: 59.6%.

LSU run-pass ratio then: 68% runs, 32% passes.
LSU run-pass ratio now: 49% runs, 51% passes.
The Tigers already have thrown more passes in eight games this season than they did in 14 games in 2011.

Alabama scoring in 2011: 34.8.
Alabama scoring now: 48.6.
Increase: 28.4%.

Alabama scoring defense then: 8.2 points per game.
Alabama scoring defense now: 15.3.
Increase: 46.4%.

Alabama pass efficiency then: 142.5.
Alabama pass efficiency now: 200.8.
Increase: 29%.

Alabama passing yards then: 215.
Alabama passing yards now: 338.6.
Increase: 36.5%.

Alabama run-pass ratio then: 59% runs, 41% passes.
Alabama run-pass ratio now: 51% runs, 49% passes.

Nick Saban’s offense began trending this way five years ago before fully embracing the wide-open attack last season. LSU, first under Les Miles and then under Ed Orgeron, did not come around until this year.

In total, this has arguably been the most defensive-minded rivalry in the nation. Across 88 meetings, the losing team only once has scored more than 28 points. In the last nine matchups, the losing team has never scored more than 17, and has been held without a touchdown four times.

That’s going to change Saturday. Expect an LSU-Alabama game unlike any you’ve seen before.

Storyline two: How healthy is Tua Tagovailoa (2)? Ankle Watch has been ongoing and all-consuming for Alabama fans since their star quarterback sprained his right one against Tennessee Oct. 19 and had a tightrope procedure done the following day. Tua missed the Tide’s breeze past Arkansas the following week, and Saban basically put the question of his readiness to bed by declaring he will be a “game-time decision” more than a week before game-time. (In other words: stop asking because he isn’t saying.)

Three weeks is a quick turnaround. Tagovailoa had the same procedure done last season on his other ankle, with a four-week recovery between the SEC championship game and a playoff semifinal against Oklahoma. He was masterful in that game, completing 24 of 27 passes for 318 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions—against a truly terrible defense. This is a shorter recovery time against a better opponent with a quality secondary; ‘Bama could need their guy to be 100% to come out with a victory.

Storyline three: Could a loss Saturday actually be a good thing (3)? It’s not ideal, of course, due to the committee’s nonsensical fascination with winning a conference championship—the loser of this game will almost certainly not win the SEC West and thus not play for the league title. But an 11-1 finish and avoiding the threat of a loss in that championship game to the SEC East winner (Georgia in all likelihood) would not be a terrible position heading into Selection Sunday. That’s especially true for LSU, which has quality wins over Florida, Auburn and Texas on its ledger. For Alabama, it could theoretically play the Tua Injury Card and pair that with a win over Auburn (but not much else on the resume).

Storyline four: Can LSU finally get over on Nick Saban (4)? The fan base is obsessed with beating the one man the Tigers cannot beat—their former coach turned tormentor, the guy who delivered the program a national title and then left a year later for the NFL and ultimately for Tuscaloosa. The current losing streak in the rivalry is eight, longest since Bear Bryant won 11 in a row from 1971-81. The last four, and six of the eight, have been by double digits. But this is the first time during the current streak that LSU has the offensive personnel to match up.

Storyline five: Will Ed Orgeron (5) be a conquering hero? One of the biggest reasons why LSU Miles is no longer the LSU coach is that he stopped beating Alabama. After starting a sassy 5-2 against the Tide, he lost his last five meetings—and out the door he went. Orgeron is 0-6 lifetime against Alabama, with half those losses coming during his dismal tenure at Mississippi. He’s also 0-4 against Saban, and his LSU teams have scored just 10 points total in the past three meetings with ‘Bama. Orgeron has completely flipped the narrative on his LSU tenure, from looking like a lazy hire who would be in over his head to a guy moving toward the forefront of his profession. If he can finally beat Saban, expect a massive contract enhancement to follow in the near future.

Storyline six: Does this game cement Joe Brady (6) as the hottest rising star in coaching? The Tigers’ stunning offensive makeover has put their 30-year-old passing coordinator on the radar of many college programs and NFL franchises as a rising star. Brady is so new to the scene he doesn’t even have an agent, and they are now in pursuit. (“He’s the five-star recruit,” one agent told The Dash.) The pertinent question: Does the former New Orleans Saints staffer want to stay in the college game or return to the NFL? And how much is he ready for now? With the runaway successes of thirty-something offensive savants like Lincoln Riley, Ryan Day, Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, could Brady be a babyfaced head coach somewhere in 2020? Or is that too much, too soon?

FOUR FOR THE PLAYOFF — NOW IT GETS REAL-ISH

When the College Football Playoff selection committee rankings debut Tuesday, it’s important to remember that a lot will change over the following month. But this is our first window into how the committee has viewed the season to date, so it’s worth paying attention.

This is how The Dash would arrange the playoff bracket, if today were Selection Sunday (worth noting that none of the top four played Saturday):

Top seed LSU (7) vs. fourth seed Penn State (8) in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

The Tigers get a slight nod for the top spot over Ohio State because the resume simply is better, while the Buckeyes win the look test. Quality wins over ranked opponents both at home (Florida, Auburn) and away (Texas) carry weight, as does the fact that LSU led for nearly the entire game against the Longhorns and Gators, and the entire fourth quarter against Auburn. Next game for LSU: see above.

The Nittany Lions merit this spot over Clemson after playing a tougher schedule than the Tigers—the nation’s No 39 slate, per Jeff Sagarin’s ratings, compared to Clemson’s No. 64-rated schedule. Penn State was in dogfights with Pittsburgh, Iowa and Michigan, all one-score games, but nothing quite as scary as Clemson’s one-point win over North Carolina that came down to a failed Tar Heels two-point conversion with just over a minute remaining. Next game for Penn State: at Minnesota, in a big one we will discuss later.

Second seed Ohio State (9) vs. third seed Alabama (10) in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Buckeyes remain the most complete team in the country, ranking in the top three in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Nobody has come closer to beating Ohio State than 24 points, and that’s not going to change for the next couple of weeks. They simply need to stay healthy while ramping up for the closing tandem of Penn State and Michigan. Next game for Ohio State: Maryland in a name-the-score special at home Saturday.

The Crimson Tide have won 31 straight at home, the longest active streak in the nation and the longest in school history. (Though not the longest in Tuscaloosa history. ‘Bama won 57 straight on campus from 1963-82, when it played several home games at Legion Field in Birmingham.) The game Saturday figures to be the first time the Tide has been a single-digit favorite at home in four years. Next game for Alabama: see above.

Also considered: Clemson.

MORE DASH: The 21-Game Test | LSU-Bama Notes | 5 CFP Rankings Questions