As Saturday evening in Baton Rouge approaches, anticipation continues to build for the biggest Alabama-LSU regular season matchup since the "Game of the Century" in 2011. But the anticipation is unique. Alabama enters the game as a 14.5-point favorite, the biggest spread LSU has seen as a home underdog in 20 years.
Not many outside of Baton Rouge expect the Tigers to fare any better this time than they have the last seven meetings -- all losses by an average of 9.25 points. And yet, the anticipation remains because if anyone can match athletes with this Alabama team, it's LSU. To take that a step further, if anyone can beat this Alabama team, LSU at home might just be as good an opportunity as exists.
Whether Alabama leaves Tiger Stadium reaffirmed as everyone's No. 1 or limps out humbled and exposed boils down to one matchup above all else: LSU's defensive backs against quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his fleet of receivers.
First, let's state for the record what we're dealing with in that Alabama offense. Just pick a stat. Tagovailoa has thrown 25 touchdown passes and only 45 incompletions, none resulting in an interception. The Tide are averaging 8.3 yards per play. All four of Alabama's top receivers are among the top 26 nationally in yards per reception, averaging between 18 and 26 yards on every catch. Tagovailoa has yet to attempt a fourth quarter pass.
Now for the LSU argument.
Perhaps with the exception of Donovan Wilson at Texas A&M, Alabama hasn't faced a single defensive back that would start for LSU. It's hard to make a case that many would even factor into the nickel or dime packages in Baton Rouge. According to S&P+, the best pass defense Alabama has faced was Arkansas State, ranked 50th in the country. The average rank in S&P+ pass defense for Alabama's eight opponents is 87.25. LSU ranks third in the same formula.
While Tagovailoa is completing 70 percent of his passes this fall (7th nationally), LSU has held opposing QBs to only 50 percent (6th nationally). While Tagovailoa's TD-INT ratio is an absurd 25:0, LSU leads the nation in interceptions with 14 and has allowed only seven passing touchdowns. Tagovailoa is on pace to smash the national record for passer rating while playing primarily in first halves. LSU's defense has allowed the lowest passer rating in the country in first halves.
But it's not just the numbers. LSU's talent in the secondary, led by a future NFL corners Greedy Williams and Kristian Fulton as well as the next great LSU safety in Grant Delpit, allows the Tigers to challenge Alabama's wide receivers in a way they're not used to experiencing.
Through the first eight games, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Ole Miss are the only units that have consistently challenged Alabama wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and none of those programs have the athletes that LSU has. Against LSU, Alabama shouldn't expect to get the kind of free releases its receivers have been enjoying throughout the season. It will face press coverage, re-routes, and a unit that will try to dictate the action.
There is some risk-reward to that approach. LSU is 78th in the country in pass plays allowed of 30 yards or more with 13. Alabama is second in the country in pass plays of 30 yards or more with 27.
As long as LSU is able to muster some points against the most vulnerable defense Alabama has fielded since 2007, then that LSU secondary against the Alabama passing game will be the difference between upset and blowout.
With the initial release of the College Football Playoff Rankings on Tuesday night, four teams that were ranked inside the preseason Top 10 didn't land in the Top 25 and six preseason top 15 teams were out. Among them, here's who actually has a case for being most disappointed with the way the season has gone and who should stay positive.
1. Is time running out for Wisconsin? This was supposed to be the year. Ranked No. 4 in the preseason, it was finally getting the respect it deserved as a legitimate playoff contender and one of college football's heavyweights, with resume-building, cross-division games on its schedule and an entire offense returning with what is always a trusted defense. But that defense has been mediocre at best. That offense is still searching for a passing complement to the run game, and that schedule proved to be more than Wisconsin could handle. There is no question that Wisconsin will continue to be a Big Ten West contender but with Purdue and Nebraska poised to cycle up, Northwestern always a thorn in its side and Iowa being Iowa, the road isn't getting any easier and the window is getting smaller.
2. There's no excuses for Auburn. Before the season, it was ranked No. 9. But things crumbled quickly for the Tigers. Jarrett Stidham is a talented quarterback that made a remarkable regression in his second year on The Plains. This season is wasting a loaded defense. Successful wide receiver recruiting isn't paying off in passing yards. Multiple starters deciding to transfer midseason is a troubling sign. There's just no way to spin this positively towards the future. With Jimbo Fisher's arrival at Texas A&M, Auburn could be slinking back to the middle of the SEC West pack one year after reaching the title game. This weekend will be another telling indicator as the Aggies come to town.
3. There's nothing to worry about at Washington. Preseason ranked No. 6, the defense has remained stout and one of the best in the country this fall. However, the injury bug reached in mass. Yes, the offense has had some issues. The departure of OC Jonathan Smith to Oregon State was probably a bigger loss than anyone expected. But talent is still there. The Huskies have emerged as one of the recruiting heavyweights in the Pac-12. Jacob Eason is waiting in the wings and ready to upgrade the quarterback position next year in a big way. This is a program that is still healthy and stable. Three losses by a combined 10 points is just the way a season goes sometimes. Hold on to your Huskies stock.