BATON ROUGE, La. — From Michigan-Ohio State to Army-Navy, there are a lot of huge rivalries in college football. But since 2007, one in particular has stood out to ESPN’s Rece Davis.
“I think that during Saban’s time at Alabama, [the LSU-Alabama] rivalry has been the most significant one in college football because of the stakes and what both teams have had at stake,” Davis said. “I think because of the way LSU finished its season last year, people sort of forget that they were the higher ranked team headed int Tuscaloosa last season. LSU was the higher ranked team. It cost them a ton. The loser of this game, it has cost them a ton every time. Because of that, I don’t think it’s lost [any importance].”
Davis — an Alabama grad — and the rest of ESPN’s College Gameday crew descended on Baton Rouge Friday in advance of their live broadcast from the quad on LSU’s campus Saturday morning. The game, which will be broadcast at 7 o’clock on CBS Saturday, pits undefeated No. 1 Alabama against a 5-2 LSU squad that checks in at No. 13 in the first College Football Playoff rankings.
Getting past Alabama will be a tough task for LSU. But to Davis, is the Tigers can win Saturday, they’ll be in as good of a position as any two-loss team in the country.
“They might need a little help from Auburn to get in the West, but if LSU wins this game, they’re not that far away from having a two-loss team in the playoff,” Davis said. “LSU would set itself up at least within shouting distance of making a title run, albeit against a very difficult closing schedule.”
After Alabama, LSU faces Arkansas and Texas A&M on the road, as well as the Florida Gators at home. But that’s the distant future. Right now the entire focus is on a new-look Alabama team with a dynamic offense led by freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and an imposing defense led by likely All-Americans Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster.
As with almost all of the Alabama-LSU games of the Saban era in Tuscaloosa, Davis said he thinks this game will come down to defense.
“You look at the stats that LSU’s defense has put up,” he said. “While Alabama’s has been dynamic, LSU’s has been stifling. I think you’re going to see pretty much what we’ve come to expect in these games. I think you’re going to see a typical Alabama-LSU grown man game.”
That said, LSU running back Leonard Fournette is poised to be an x-factor.
Alabama held Fournette to 31 yards on 19 carries last year, the worst game of his career. But Fournette comes into Saturday off the best game of his college career, a 284-yard and three touchdown performance that re-energized the LSU offense and, to College Gameday’s Desmond Howard, pushed Fournette back into the Heisman Trophy discussion.
“What he did against Ole Miss, to me he’s in the Heisman race,” Howard, a Heisman winner himself, said. “He has to be. People say ‘Well, he missed three games.’ I said ‘To hell with that! Tom Brady missed four games. You look at the odds who’s favored right now to be MVP of the NFL.’ If your performance warrants you being in that conversation, then so be it. To me, Leonard Fournette, when you watch him, he’s an elite running back.”
With the shadow of last year’s game against Alabama looming, Howard said that Fournette is going to have to stay within himself to not let personal vendettas distract him from the ultimate goal. But given what he’s heard about Fournette, he doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“The thing that I like about Leonard is I heard they just had a players only meeting and Leonard was instrumental in calling for a players only meeting,” Howard said. “I think that he’s mature enough to understand that this isn’t about me having a big game against Alabama. This is about us walking off the field with a victory. If we win by one point and we beat Alabama, I don’t care how many yards I have or how many touchdowns I score. We just pulled off something that nobody thought we could do except us.”