As part of an ongoing series for the spring and summer months, SEC Country offers a point/counterpoint breakdown of some of the SEC’s biggest games on the 2016 calendar — in terms of subjectively clarifying which program needs a victory more than the other.
Today’s must-win debate: SEC Country writers Jay Clemons and Knox Bardeen tackle the Alabama @ LSU clash on Nov. 5, with Clemons taking the LSU side and Bardeen rolling with the Crimson Tide.
For Clemons’ pro-LSU breakdown, click here:
With the absolute certainty of tailgating and fried food in the Southeastern Conference, the annual gridiron meeting between LSU and Alabama means more for both programs than a simple win or loss to the tally sheet. Truth be told, in the South, this matchup ranks up there with sweet tea, barbecue and breathing.
First, let’s discuss how great these two stalwart football programs have been of late. The conversation should start with their combined five national titles since 2007 – Alabama owns four (2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015) with LSU earning the 2007 championship. But this exchange need not end there.
The last time neither one of these teams finished the season with an Associated Press top-25 ranking was 1998. Since then, LSU’s season has pinnacled with a top-10 ranking 15 times; Alabama 12. The Crimson Tide currently enjoy a streak of eight consecutive seasons in which they’ve occupied the top spot in the country at least for a week during.
To claim that these two programs have risen to elite status and their meeting each season is a true clash of titans is an understatement. When LSU and Alabama tangle, the rest of the football world slows down to pay attention.
Since 1998, the Tigers and Crimson Tide have met 19 times. Alabama holds a 10-9 advantage, including a national title game win over LSU to cap the 2011 season. Of late, however, Alabama’s been slapping LSU around.
Including that national championship over LSU, Alabama has won five straight head-to-head matchups, and only two have been particularly close. The margin of victory for the Crimson Tide have been 13.4 points, and they haven’t scored fewer than 20 points in a game over their last five, with LSU not scoring more than 17.
Recent history has been lopsided, but don’t expect Alabama to rest on its laurels. This game is of the utmost importance in Tuscaloosa. The 2016 version of this rivalry will be no different.
Here are three reasons why Alabama must beat LSU on Nov. 5:
Sure, the SEC is the best conference in the country, bar none. But Alabama’s schedule in 2016 lacks some of the oomph of past seasons.
On Sept. 3, Alabama will face USC, which most observers feel will be ranked when that battle occurs on neutral turf in Arlington, Texas. Ole Miss is up just two weeks later. The Rebels should also be ranked, unless the wheels come off their season early.
But those are the only two apparent roadblock games in the first half of the season. Tangling with Tennessee on Oct. 15 and then LSU should also provide resume-building points for the Crimson Tide, but the rest of the SEC West might not be as strong as in recent years, at least not in the rankings.
The SEC has typically been a gauntlet for all of its member schools. Make it through unscathed and potential College Football Playoff glory awaits. That won’t be so simple in 2016.
Not only will the SEC West not offer the normal plethora of ranked opponents, Alabama didn’t get too much help with its first cross-divisional game. Tennessee will be tough, but Kentucky won’t do much to move the playoff-committee needle.
This means Alabama must perform well against USC, Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU as potentially the only ranked opponents it may face. Of those four, LSU should be the toughest and highest-ranked foe.
It should help Alabama, from a playoff-committee standpoint, that none of those four games will be played at Bryant-Denny Stadium. USC is a neutral-site contest and the Crimson Tide must go on the road to win those three tough SEC battles.
No Derrick Henry Makes it Tougher
Losing a Heisman Trophy winner to the NFL is never easy, but being without Henry for the 2016 matchup against LSU means so mfuch more than just that glorious hardware.
Prior to it being awarded, the Heisman Trophy had just two front-runners: Henry and LSU running back Leonard Fournette. The Tigers still have Fournette, but Henry’s gone, as is starting quarterback Jake Coker and backfield mate Kenyan Drake.
Outside of wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who amazed during his freshman campaign, the Alabama offense, as it stands in April, is a bit of a mystery.
Will Bo Scarbrough be the next in a long line of Alabama running backs to captivate the country? Who will be under center once the regular season begins? How is this offense going to move? Will offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin drastically change his approach to play-calling? Which O.J. Howard will show up — the College Football Playoff version or the space-filler that only caught 30 passes with no touchdowns in the regular season?
The questions seem endless. Alabama can’t march into Death Valley, one of the toughest places in the country to play, and not have an offensive identity.
The Defense’s Chip
As front sevens go, there wasn’t a defensive unit in the country last season that could rival the first two levels of Alabama’s defense. Opposing offenses had nightmares trying to slow the attacking style of the Crimson Tide’s defensive front and punch through the impenetrable wall the front seven slammed down.
As quickly as Alabama’s defense figured out how good it was, the unit played with an obvious chip on its shoulder. Will that chip still be there in 2016?
Linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed were the heart and soul of the 2015 defensive front. They also all may be first-round picks in the 2016 NFL Draft.
The guys leaving to play on Sundays have an awful lot of confidence that their backups will jump up and shine. Reed said at the Senior Bowl that he didn’t think the defense would miss them.
While that’s hard to imagine, it’s of the utmost importance for that defensive front to get back as close to elite levels before the LSU game.
Only two teams last season held Fournette to fewer than 100 yards. One was Alabama, which kept him bottled up for a season-low 31 yards (he averaged 162.8) in the Nov. 7 meeting. Alabama might not be able to beat LSU in 2016 if Fournette is allowed to run roughshod.
The Crimson Tide defense needs to find its chip, and do so quickly.