TUSCALOOSA — For all the attention on the surgically-repaired right ankle of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, LSU has its own Heisman Trophy-hopeful making his own waves down on the Bayou.
Under the tutelage of passing wunderkind Joe Brady and the Tigers’ revamped offensive system, LSU senior quarterback Joe Burrow is among the national leaders in several passing categories and has spearheaded a transformational passing attack that has already taken the college football world by storm this season.
It’s what has Burrow as the Heisman-frontrunner as the plus-160 favorite to win the annual bronze statue, according to FanDuel’s Sportsbook, ranking ahead of both Oklahoma (and former Alabama) quarterback Jalen Hurts and Tagovailoa himself at plus-280 and plus-300, respectively.
And with a nation’s-leading 78.8-percent completion percentage (205-of-260 passing) along with 2,805 yards and 30 touchdowns, who can really argue? Certainly not his own head coach.
“I do believe he’s as good, for sure, or better than the quarterback we’re playing (Tagovailoa),” LSU’s Ed Orgeron said of Burrow this week. “But the only way to answer that is on the field.”
Even Alabama head coach Nick Saban acknowledges the elite level that Burrow is playing at heading into Saturday’s SEC West showdown between No. 2 LSU (8-0, 4-0 SEC) and No. 3 Alabama (2:30 p.m.) inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“I think that Joe is very capable of making every throw. I think he’s very bright in terms of throwing the ball in the right place relative to the defense,” Saban said this week of Burrow. “I think he fits the scheme very well, and I think he’s a very talented guy. I think he’d do well in any system, but because this is more of a spread system now, I think he can see what’s happening and make good decisions and he’s been very effective.”
Last season, his first with LSU after transferring from Ohio State, Burrow struggled in the Crimson Tide 29-0 shutout in Baton Rouge, when he was limited to just 184 yards on 18-of-35 passing while getting sacked five times.
With that in mind, here are three things Alabama (8-0, 5-0) can do to make Burrow’s day a difficult one Saturday:
Unleash pass rushers
Much of Alabama’s success defensively last season came courtesy of a relentless pass rush that never allowed Burrow or the one-dimensional LSU offense to get comfortable.
Former nose guard Quinnen Williams, the eventual No. 3 overall NFL Draft pick, feasted in the game with 2.5 sacks for 18 yards lost to go along with 10 total tackles. Meanwhile, Jennings and then-senior outside linebacker Christian Miller added a combined 2.5 sacks and two more quarterback hurries as Burrow spent much of the night running for his life.
If Alabama is going to have any success defensively against LSU and its new-found aerial attack, it’ll be because its pass rush — in this case Jennings and revitalized redshirt junior Terrell Lewis — gets after him with regularity.
Lewis is currently tied for the SEC lead with six sacks, five of which have come in the last four games, leads the team with nine tackles for loss and is coming off a six-hurry game against Arkansas. Meanwhile, Jennings has been equally as reliable, ranking right behind Lewis in most categories with 48 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and four sacks on the season.
“I think they’re both playmakers. I think they’ve both played very well,” Saban said of Jennings and Lewis. “I think that’s improved our pass rush, helped us on the edges in terms of the overall defense and I think it’s important that we continue to have both of those guys for the remainder of the season because it makes a huge difference, I think, athletically when they are in there.
The pair has been a pass-rushing force in recent weeks and will both need to be on their game Saturday to disrupt Burrow and the potent LSU passing attack.
Lock down the perimeter
Alabama’s secondary entered the season as the defense’s most experienced unit with four returning starters — Diggs, Surtain, safety Xavier McKinney and nickel back Shyheim Carter.
Despite that experience, the entire pass defense struggled early in conference play, surrendering an average of 262 passing yards per game against South Carolina, Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
But with improved play in the middle, the Tide secondary has limited both Tennessee and Arkansas to an average of just 112 passing yards per game.
Of course, neither of those offenses has the firepower that LSU does with a receiver corps — featuring 6-foot-3 Justin Jefferson, 6-4 Terrace Marshall Jr. and 6-1 Ja’Marr Chase — that rivals Alabama’s own four-deep unit.
Still, these are the matchups that Diggs and Surtain — both of whom stand 6-2 and more than 200 — were recruited to Tuscaloosa for, and both have shown themselves capable of locking down even the best receivers. But the proof is in the pudding and Saturday’s game will be their biggest test to date.
Get the running game going
Much like other opponents have tried with Alabama all season, one way to limit an opposing offense is to not let them see the field.
Of course, as Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide attack have proven, that mission is far easier said than done.
Still, with Tagovailoa — who is a game-time decision but is expected to play — unlikely to be 100-percent healed three weeks out from his tightrope ankle surgery; the ability to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible and establish a strong running game could be dually-beneficial.
Not only should it keep LSU from bringing too much pressure defensive, and thus putting Alabama’s quarterback at greater risk of re-injury, but moving the ball on the ground will also serve to eat much-needed clock and limit Burrow’s opportunities with the ball.
And Harris has proven himself capable of handling a heavier workload, averaging 97.2 rushing yards on 15.4 carries over the last five games, including finding the end zone twice in each of the last two games. Backup tailback Brian Robinson Jr. has also been more effective in recent weeks, averaging 54.75 rushing yards and 5.45 yards per rush over the last four games.
Two of the nation’s Top-5 scoring offenses will face off Saturday, with Alabama ranking second nationally averaging 48.6 points per game and LSU right behind averaging 46.8 for fourth, which has led most prognosticators to predict a rare shootout.
But stingy defense has been a staple of the largely-contested series over the past decade, beginning with the famous 9-6 overtime game in the Tigers’ last victory over the Tide in 2011.
Since then, though, Alabama has dominated, winning the last eight straight with three shutouts, including a lop-sided 29-0 rout last season in Baton Rouge.
Given the production Burrow and the pass-happy LSU offense has already shown this season, even against some stout defenses like Florida and Auburn, another shutout isn’t likely.
That said, don’t discredit either team’s defense or the ability for two of the better defensive minds in the country — LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and the combination of first-year Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding and Saban — to simply allow either offense to run away with things.
Both defenses have heard the excessive talk about the other team’s offenses and will undoubtedly be motivated to send its own message.
It’s because of that, and how Saban has seemingly been invincible with 31 straight wins inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, and even better with two weeks to prepare for LSU — remember the eight consecutive wins in the series — that it’s hard to bet against Alabama when it comes to this game.
The Tigers will undoubtedly provide plenty of offensive bite Saturday, and possibly put up more points than it has in any season since scoring 41 in Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa (2007), but the turnover-happy Crimson Tide defense will do its part to keep Burrow and company off balance enough for a one-footed Tagovailoa to make enough plays for a narrow victory.
Alabama 35, LSU 31