It’s not “The Game of the Century” or a national championship game, but that doesn’t matter. When No. 1 Alabama travels to No. 15 LSU on Saturday the college football world will be watching.
CBS elected to make the game one of its primetime matchups this season, as the Crimson Tide and Tigers will kickoff at 7 p.m. from Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. ESPN’s College Gameday also picked the matchup as its game of the week and will broadcast live from LSU’s campus Saturday morning.
Alabama (8-0, 5-0 in the SEC) is looking for its sixth straight win against LSU (5-2, 3-1), giving a lopsided trend to what was recently a back-and-forth rivalry. That doesn’t mean the matchup has lost any of its significance.
The winner of the rivalry has gone on to represent the SEC West in eight of the last 11 conference championship games. That likely won’t change this year, as the Tigers can control the division with a win over the Tide. Alabama enters the game as a 7-point favorite, according to Vegasinsider.com.
Here are five things to watch for heading into the matchup:
1. Let’s get physical
Alabama has played a slew of “fastball” teams this year, but this week’s game against LSU figures to more of a battle in the trenches. Led by 6-foot-1 running back Leonard Fournette, the Tigers love to run right at their opponents, wearing them down out of the I formation.
Fournette doesn’t need to be reminded how physical this rivalry can be. He was leveled by Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster on a kick return during the final play of regulation in the Tide’s 20-13 overtime win against the Tigers in 2014. Alabama’s defense then delivered even more blows to the LSU back during last year’s 30-16 win in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama has shown a knack for delivering big hits this season and leads the nation in run defense, limiting opponents to 70.13 yards per game. Heading into Saturday’s matchup, the Tide is expecting another slugfest.
“You've got to do a good job of tackling. You've got to do a good job of playing team defense when you play against a team like LSU, who's very good at running the ball and has got two great backs,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said last week. “This will be a big challenge for us. Last year, we had enough speed that we could play the spread teams and we had enough big guys that we could do the other thing. This year we don't have quite as much depth in that regard, but I still think we've got guys that can play it.”
2. Speaking of Fournette
Despite playing in just four games this season due to an ankle injury, Fournette has already racked up 670 yards and five touchdowns on the ground for the Tigers. Two weeks ago the junior showed that his ankle is just fine, breaking the LSU single-game rushing record with 284 yards and three touchdowns on just 16 carries against Ole Miss.
Coming off a bye last week, a fully-charged Fournette will look for similar success this week. A big game against the Tide will be extra sweet for Fournette, as Alabama held him to 31 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries last season. Fournette had rushed for more than 150 yards in his previous seven games.
Tide defenders know the powerful back will be out for revenge come Saturday night.
“We expect everybody we play to come out that way, so that’s not going to be surprising to us,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “I’d hope he’d come out that way, and I’m expecting it. And I’m going to be ready for it.”
3. Balancing act
As dominant as the Tigers can be on the ground, LSU has looked improved in the passing game recently.
In its two losses, this season LSU has combined for 249 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions through the air. However, junior quarterback Danny Etling appears to have figured things out for the Tigers. Against Ole Miss, Etling completed 19 of 28 passes for 204 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Etling, a Purdue transfer, won’t need to be dominant Saturday. If he can stop Alabama from stacking the box, it should go a long way toward opening up LSU’s offense.
“(Etling) has played very well and created a lot of balance for them in the last couple of weeks,” Saban said Monday. “They've got a couple of really, really talented receivers that are really, really good players. They've got a big, strong, physical offensive line that does a great job of executing their running game.”
4. Resume boost
This is also a huge game for LSU interim head coach Ed Orgeron, who replaced Les Miles following the Week 4 loss to Auburn.
Since taking over the team, Orgeron has coached the Tigers to three straight wins. The switch has given LSU a new identity, breathing life into what was an anemic offense. After averaging 16.7 points against FBS opposition this season under Miles, the Tigers have scored 38 points or more in all three of Orgeron’s games as head coach.
“The team seems to be playing with a lot of energy and a lot of confidence,” Saban said. “They've executed really well and haven't made a lot of mistakes. I just feel like in the last three games they've played really, really well.”
When Orgeron was first named interim head coach, most figured he would be a placeholder until LSU hired a new coach this offseason. If he can pull off the upset against Alabama, Orgeron might not make it out of Tiger Stadium on Saturday without signing a new long-term contract.
5. Pro potential
As always, this season’s Alabama vs. LSU game is chalk full of future NFL talent. The two teams combined for 12 players selected in the first three rounds, including eight first round picks in walterfootball.com’s 2017 NFL mock draft.
Eight players are represented in ESPN’s Mel Kiper’s Big Board, including No. 2 Fournette, No. 4 Allen, No. 5 Jamal Adams (LSU safety), No. 6 Foster, No. 8 Tim Williams (Alabama linebacker), No. 18 Marlon Humphrey (Alabama defensive back), No. 21 O.J. Howard (Alabama tight end) and No. 24 Cam Robinson (Alabama offensive tackle).