One Player May Make the Difference Between Alabama and LSU, and He’s Not a Quarterback

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The hype is real, and for a good reason. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and LSU’s Joe Burrow aren’t just considered the two best quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference, but the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.

They undoubtedly should be.

You know what they say about the most prestigious honor in college football, that it’s won and lost in November. Tagovailoa knows it as well as anyone because — to borrow from a military phrase on the weekend Veteran’s Day will be recognized — he won the battle of Alabama at LSU in 2018, but lost the war of the Heisman and national championship.

Nevertheless, this year's Heisman could be very well decided here at Bryant-Denny Stadium as the two SEC West rivals square off yet again.

For years Alabama vs. LSU has been football’s version of a slugfest, paced by staunch running games and powerful defenses. This one might end up as well, but all of the attention has been on the guys behind center.

They play in similar schemes. Have terrific wide receivers. Are putting up record-setting numbers.

They’re so close statistically, that Tagovailoa is second nationally in passing efficiency (212.40 rating), while Burrow is third (204.50).

Tagovailoa set the national single-season record last season, however no one has ever finished with a 200-plus rating. The player actually leading the nation is former Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts, but unless Oklahoma can scratch its way back into the national title picture he’s likely destined to finish as a Heisman finalist.

Burrow led LSU to a 10-3 record and No. 6 national ranking last season, yet the Texas game on Sept. 7 was viewed as his breakthrough performance. The Tigers racked up 573 yards and ended up needing every one of them during a 45-38 victory, only the Longhorns have since fallen off. 

Meanwhile, even though the teams play in the same division, they haven’t had a common opponent. LSU’s league games have been against Vanderbilt, Florida, Mississippi State and Auburn.

Thus, this head-to-head matchup may end up being a winner-take-all scenario.

Burrow is on pace to break every single-season passing record in LSU history.

He leads the SEC and ranks second in the nation in passing yards (2,805), passing yards per game (350.6), passing touchdowns (30) and points responsible for (200). He's also first in the league and third in the nation in total offense (366.3).

In eight games he’s 205-for-260 with only four interceptions. The Ohio State transfer has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 12 straight games and he's gone over the 300-yard mark in eight of the last 11.

Burrow is also throwing to some outstanding receivers. Ja’Marr Chase (43 catches for 749 yards and nine touchdowns) and Justin Jefferson (55, 819 yards and nine) are 1-2 in the league statistically by averaging 107.0 and 102.4 yards, respectively. LSU's third receiver Terrace Marshall (22 rec., 333 yards, seven touchdowns) is tenth.

“Joe is very capable of making every throw,” Nick Saban said “I think he’s very bright in terms of throwing the ball in the right place relative to the defense. I think he’s very athletic so sometimes when those plays aren’t there he extends plays and makes plays downfield and he also has the capability of running and creating some problems for the defense from that standpoint.

“He’s a very good scrambler.”

Tagovailoa is also considered to be very mobile, but is coming off Oct. 20 surgery to help a high-ankle sprain heel. That’s the great unknown about this match, not only because he’s not at full strength, but because it won’t matter if the Tigers can’t mount much of a pass- rush.

During its bye week, LSU had sack leader Michael Divinity Jr. leave the program. No one knows how Tigers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will try and compensate, or get pressure against Alabama’s extremely thick offensive line. 

The more he blitzes, the more it’ll likely feed into Steve Sarkisian’s slant-and-screen attack designed to get the ball to the Crimson Tide’s explosive players in space.

No one in college football may have a quicker release than Tagovailoa.

He’s completed 74.7 percent of his passes for 2,166 yards and 27 touchdowns despite playing in the fourth quarter only three times this season (when’s he’s 10-for-12, for 103 yards and two touchdowns and a 210.4 passer rating). He also missed the last game-and-a-half due to the injury.

That leads us to three crucial elements to this showdown. 

First, here’s the statistic that shows the difference between Burrow and Tagovailoa:

Tagovailoa has led 61 drives this season with 49 finishing in scores, including 42 touchdowns (not including end of half/game or any possession fewer than three plays). That’s 80 percent of his possessions, and 68.9 percent for touchdowns.

Those numbers blow away Burrow’s. The Crimson Tide has punted just 11 times in seven games with Tua on the field (1.6 per game) to go along with one lost fumble and two interceptions.

Tagovailoa is also averaging a touchdown pass every 7.2 attempts, or 13.9 percent of his total throws (194). His career numbers are one every 7.7 attempts, or 12.9 percent of his career attempts.

Second, Alabama has the better defense of the two teams.

They're statistically close on face value.

The Crimson Tide is second in the league in both scoring defense (15.2) and passing-efficiency defense (180.1), and third in total defense (307.5). LSU is sixth (20.0), sixth (115.5) and fourth (315.4), respectively. One area the Tigers have an edge is rushing defense, as they're second (97.9), and the Crimson Tide fifth (127.4).

Of course, LSU has played a tougher schedule with three ranked opponents, which again seems to indicate that there’s might not be much of difference. However, Alabama’s defense is clearly on an upswing, having looked vastly improved with outside linebacker Terrell Lewis back in the fold after suffering a hyperextended knee and the two freshmen interior linebackers continuing to improve and develop. 

The Tigers will still go after them, but they’re far from being a liability.

Consider last year’s game.

Despite playing with a knee brace that bothered him, Tagovailoa was 25-for-42, resulting in 295 yards with two touchdowns and one interception at LSU. His 44-yard touchdown run helped key Alabama’s 29-0 victory.

Burrow completed 18 of 35 passes for 184 yards. He was sacked five times and had a late pass intercepted in the end zone.

Even though he wasn’t the defensive coordinator at the time, Pete Golding called the plays that night for Alabama. 

Which leads us to the person who is in the best position to be the decisive factor: Lewis.

Both the redshirt junior and senior cornerback Trevon Diggs missed last year’s LSU game, and are now making up for lost time.

“It’s like 3-point shooters in basketball,” Saban said about his defensive playmakers. “When you’ve got them, they make a lot of threes.

“They make a lot of plays, whether it’s batted balls, pressuring the quarterback, knocking balls down, tackling guys, reacting quickly to plays that helps them recover in certain situations.”

Since Lewis was able to practice at full-speed again prior to the Texas A&M game, he’s been more of a terror with each passing week. Alabama’s been notching sacks, the defense has been affecting quarterbacks and the Crimson Tide leads the nation in turnover margin.

Look for Golding to move him around, making it extremely difficult for LSU to scheme against him, and even when they do there's redshirt senior Anfernee Jennings on the other side. 

“Just more comfortable and more confident,” the SEC's sack leader said about Burrow.

Lewis' primary job against LSU will be to change that.