TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Since Nick Saban has gotten things rolling in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has been crowned kings of the Southeastern Conference a total of four times in the last seven years, including back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015.
The Crimson Tide also brought home an unprecedented four national championships during that stretch.
Only Auburn (2010 and 2014) and LSU (2011) have won the SEC since Alabama returned to being an national powerhouse, with Auburn winning the national championship in 2010.
While Alabama dropped a game each season, the Crimson Tide still had its way with most of its conference opponents.
One wonders if an SEC team will step up and dethrone the Crimson Tide as the face of the SEC from a national standpoint in 2016.
If there’s one SEC team who could push Alabama out and gain the national spotlight for the league, it’s LSU.
Yes, Ole Miss has beaten Alabama the last two seasons, but what has that gotten the Rebels? Despite beating Alabama, Ole Miss has yet to win the SEC West and make it to Atlanta. The Rebels are also likely to take a step back this season with Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche moving on to the NFL.
Tennessee, whom everyone seems to overhype every preseason, should be better this time around, but it’s hard to seriously put the Volunteers in the discussion nationally until they prove something on the field.
Pretty much every other team in the league has turnover at key positions. The difference is that Alabama consistently recruits at an elite level so losing talent to the NFL doesn’t affect the Crimson Tide as much as it does other programs.
For LSU, everything seems to be set up for the Tigers to make a serious run at the SEC West title and toward the College Football Playoff.
LSU fields an aggressive defense filled with playmakers year in and year out, so we shouldn’t expect anything different this season. The Tigers are making the transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 under Dave Aranda, the program’s third defensive coordinator in three years. The jury is still out on whether or not that’ll be a positive change or a negative one because LSU routinely fielded one of the country’s most aggressive defenses in previous seasons.
Les Miles will be motivated and out to prove critics and some LSU officials wrong who thought he should have been out last season.
But the three biggest keys for the Tigers are getting Alabama at home, returning arguably the best player in college football and the thought of improved quarterback play.
Going back to the 2011 national championship game, Alabama has owned LSU and currently holds a five-game winning streak in the series. But the games in Baton Rouge have been extremely close throughout Saban’s tenure. In 2008, then-No. 1 Alabama needed overtime to escape Tiger Stadium with a 27-21 victory in Saban’s first trip back to Baton Rouge as the Crimson Tide’s coach. LSU knocked off Alabama in the 2010 contest. In 2012, T.J. Yeldon saved the day for Alabama by taking a screen pass in for a 28-yard touchdown with less than a minute to go to give the Tide a 21-17 victory.
Alabama once again needed overtime in 2014 as Blake Sims led a late drive to tie it in regulation before the Tide put the Tigers away in the extra frame with a 20-13 win.
Point being, all of these games have been one-score contests that could have gone either way. No team in the SEC has been able to consistently match up with Alabama’s physicality year in and year out like LSU, and that is especially true when the two titans meet under the bright lights in Tiger Stadium.
Having this game at one could make all the difference for LSU when the two face off on Nov. 5.
Fournette is arguably the best player in the country
Offensively, LSU returns the best running back — and possibly the best player — in the country in Leonard Fournette. As a sophomore last season, Fournette rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns. He led the nation with 162.75 yards per game while averaging 6.51 yards per carry. Fournette was well on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy before getting shutdown in Tuscaloosa by what turned out to be an all-time great Alabama defense.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound running back will surely be motivated to improve on his season-low 31 rushing yards. Alabama was one of two teams to hold Fournette to less than 100 yards last season.
The Crimson Tide was able to shut down Fournette because of its incredible depth in the defensive front. But guys like A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Reggie Ragland are gone. Alabama will certainly be talented up front, but the Tide won’t have the same amount of bodies it ran out last season which could create some opportunities for Fournette.
That game changed the course of the season as Derrick Henry was pushed to the forefront of the Heisman Trophy race while Fournette became an afterthought.
If Fournette wants to prove he’s one of the best in the country, he’ll need a monster game against the defending national champions.
LSU should enjoy improved quarterback play
Every year it feels like pundits and fans say, ‘If only LSU could get more consistent quarterback play.’ Well, this season is no different.
In last year’s game, Alabama completely disrespected LSU’s passing game in order to dedicate more resources to stopping the run. And Brandon Harris and the Tigers receivers couldn’t make Alabama pay.
Harris completed 31 percent (6-of-19) of his passes for 128 yards while throwing his first interception of the season. On the year, Harris passed for 2,165 yards and 13 touchdowns to six interceptions while completing just 54 percent of his throws.
But with a full season of starting experience as well as the offseason work with the offense, there’s reason to believe Harris should improve this year.
Like Alabama, LSU doesn’t need a quarterback to be superman and make every single play. All Harris needs to do is make opposing teams respect the passing game, and if opponents overload the box, take advantage of the opportunities.
Getting this game at home and having Fournette back are major keys to success for LSU. But it all comes down to Harris to be honest.
If Harris can keep defenses honest and not make Fournette have to run against eight-, nine- or 10-men boxes every game, the rest of the SEC and the country should look out.