BATON ROUGE, La. — The LSU football program and its fans have lived through this feeling before. A new coach “brings the magic back.” Expectations rise. And maybe — just maybe? — it culminates in a win over No. 1 at Tiger Stadium.
The gold standard
LSU has won three national championships. But the Tigers have only beaten the No. 1 team in the nation in the regular season on one occasion.
Oct. 11, 1997.
Florida came to Death Valley — a place where opponents were living quite comfortably in the early ’90s — on a nine-game winning streak against LSU. The Gators were the defending national champions and had beaten the Tigers down the year before. Elsewhere in sports, the Cleveland Indians were on their way to an American League pennant and a seven-game loss in the World Series.
LSU picked off Doug Johnson and the explosive Florida passing attack four times and walked away with the biggest upset in school history, a 28-14 final that brought the goal posts down at Tiger Stadium.
The background similarities coming into Saturday’s showdown are impossible to ignore.
A new coach has captured LSU’s imagination. In the 1997 case it was the ultimate outsider, Brooklyn born-and-bred Gerry DiNardo. In this case it is the ultimate local boy, Lafourche Parish born-and-bred Ed Orgeron.
Alabama, like Florida back then, is the SEC’s bully with three of the last four conference titles. Florida had won four straight going into the 1997 game.
And, of course, if you’re into reading the stars from totally unrelated events, Cleveland is fresh off its first pennant — and ensuing extra-inning loss in Game 7 of the World Series — since ’97.
More than magic needed
The celestial symmetry is nice, particularly for fans grasping for reasons to enter Saturday in a positive frame of mind. But it will take far more than that to take down the top team in the nation.
The game of Danny Etling’s life: No pressure, kid.
Etling has done a very good job since taking over for Brandon Harris at quarterback during the season opener against Jacksonville State. To beat Alabama, it will take a great job.
Etling knows how to manage a game. That skill will be put to its ultimate test against an ultra-talented defense that capitalizes on mistakes like no one else in the country. The Crimson Tide don’t just force turnovers; they turn them into points. Alabama leads the nation with a mind-boggling nine defensive touchdowns.
But against Bama, mere game-management won’t be enough. The Crimson Tide smother all their opponents on the ground, allowing just 70 yards per game. And while Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice represent the best backfield Alabama has seen this season, victory likely hinges on Etling and his receivers connecting on at least one game-changing play.
Aranda winning the game of schemers: The most innovative coordinators in the Southeastern Conference this season will be pitted against one another in Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
No one has been able to outfox either one of them. Though the Tigers have two losses, you can’t blame the defense, which has yet to surrender more than 21 points. And while Alabama’s star-studded defense deservedly gets the lion’s share of attention, one can’t ignore an offense averaging nearly 500 yards per game.
Both are likely to have a wrinkle or two the other has not seen this season. If Aranda has a couple more cards up his sleeve than Kiffin, the Tiger defense may be put in a position to make the game-changing plays that were the signature of the ’97 win over Florida.
OK, a little bit of magic can’t hurt: Magic can come in many different forms.
A tipped ball turned into an interception. A blocked kick. Deafening noise to create a down-and-distance that puts Alabama in a more likely position to make a mistake.
Both teams have had two weeks to prepare for this game. Seemingly every contingency has been planned for. But LSU will need to create — and take advantage of — one (or more) of football’s unscripted moments to make the dream of the second win over No. 1 in Tiger Stadium history a reality.