LSU football could not have been in a better place when the night of Nov. 5, 2011 came to a close.
The Tigers, ranked No. 1 in the country at the time, had just strolled into famed Bryant-Denny Stadium and escaped with a 9-6 overtime victory over No. 2 Alabama in perhaps the most-hyped regular season game of the 21st century.
Les Miles was 3-2 against his predecessor Nick Saban, whose decision to return to the SEC ranks had sparked a modern day rivalry between the two schools. Saban had only one national title to his credit at Alabama, the same number Miles had won since taking over the Tigers following Saban’s 2005 departure for the NFL.
The win cleared a path to the BCS National Championship Game, to be played roughly 80 minutes south of LSU’s campus at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. As the Tigers prepared for the final stretch of their quest for a perfect season, they appeared to hold a minute edge in this budding rivalry.
It is amazing what five years can change.
Starting with a national title game rematch later that season, in which the Crimson Tide embarrassed LSU in a 21-0 shutout, it has been nothing but downhill for the Bayou Bengals — especially when it comes to Alabama.
The Tigers are in the midst of a five-game losing streak to their division rival. Given the dominance of the Crimson Tide during this stretch, which includes three national championships, such a downturn is not a travesty in itself. When seemingly every season’s aspirations are dashed with an early-November dagger from big brother, though, the reality of LSU’s five-year nightmare begins to set in.
Given new life under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, the Tigers have an opportunity to dispose of these demons.
“I’m from Louisiana, and I’m a Tiger fan too, so I get it,” Orgeron said.
“Everywhere I’ve been I’ve put on the LSU-Alabama game, whether it was Miami, New York or USC. I get the passion, and that’s the way it should be. I know that the people are not satisfied with the way it’s going. We understand that.”
The predictability of the offense was blatant as ever as the team stumbled out to a 2-2 start to begin 2016, and Miles was show the door accordingly. Orgeron’s first order of business after undertaking his new duties was to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Tight ends coach Steve Ensminger stepped into this void, and the result has been a re-energized offense that has put up a total of 125 points in three games since the departures of Miles and Cameron. The defense, meanwhile, has continued to thrive in its first year under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
When playing at peak form, LSU is one of the few teams in the country that, from a talent standpoint, is capable of competing with Alabama. Talent is only one factor in the equation, however.
For the Tigers to have a chance on Saturday, they will need to be almost perfect in all phases of the game.
Defensively, LSU is tasked with attempting to contain emerging Heisman candidate Jalen Hurts — easily the most dynamic quarterback of Saban’s tenure at Alabama. Hurts, a true freshman, is completing 63.2 percent of his passes for a total of 1,578 yards, 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He has also rushed for an additional 521 yards and nine touchdowns, and has accounted for multiple touchdowns in all but one game this season.
The Tigers’ strong performance two weeks ago against Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly provides some promise in this area. Kelly, a dual-threat that is widely considered the best passer in the conference, had his worst game of the season against LSU, throwing for one touchdown and two interceptions while compiling a modest 274 total yards.
The difference between Ole Miss and Alabama is simple — and concerning for the Tigers. The Rebels rely on Kelly to carry them to victory essentially every week, allowing defenses to hone in on the quarterback position. Hurts, as dangerous as he can be, is only one aspect of a highly-potent and well-rounded Crimson Tide offense that is built to capitalize on the mistakes of opponents.
Speaking of capitalizing on mistakes, there is no better segue to the Alabama defense. The Crimson Tide lead the nation with nine defensive touchdowns through eight games, more than double the amount of any other team in college football. The offense may be taking an exciting new direction with Hurts at quarterback, but it is on defense where Alabama poses its greatest threat.
The Crimson Tide smothered LSU running back Leonard Fournette last season, holding the Consensus All-American to 31 yards on 19 carries. A nonexistent passing game was largely to blame for these struggles. With quarterback Danny Etling having shown increased poise as of late, passing for 1,129 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions since taking over the starting job earlier this season, the tools are in place to keep Alabama honest defensively.
When facing a defense that averages more than a touchdown per game, as well as an offense that ranks eighth in the country in scoring, keeping mistakes to a minimum is critical. Texas A&M is a perfect example. The Aggies led the Crimson Tide by one point midway through the third quarter two weeks ago, but as a series of missteps unfolded, Alabama proceeded to score 20 unanswered points to turn a nail-biter into a 33-14 blowout.
LSU could experience a similar fate, or it could turn the page on this dark chapter. Execution in the mental aspect of the game will dictate which path the Tigers take on Saturday.