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 argument and Bardeen rolling with the Crimson Tide.
For Bardeen’s pro-Alabama breakdown, click here:
WHY LSU MUST BEAT ALABAMA …
1. The Tigers’ daunting schedule offers no ‘letdown’ protection
With a taxing slate of neutral-site and road games (vs. Wisconsin, at Auburn, at Florida, at Arkansas, at Texas A&M, SEC championship in Atlanta — if applicable), LSU will likely have a nil margin of error for conference home tilts against Mississippi State (Sept. 17), Missouri (Oct. 1), Ole Miss (Oct. 22) and Alabama.
And let’s be honest: If LSU cannot handle Mississippi State, Missouri or Ole Miss at Tiger Stadium, it probably won’t warrant a clear shot at the SEC West crown anyway.
That aside, it’s a major advantage for the Tigers to host Alabama this year, even if head coach Nick Saban (formerly of LSU) has taken three of the four Baton Rouge homecomings since taking over the Tide.
Bottom line: If Alabama lives up to the hype of perhaps being the most talented and deepest defending national champion since the mid-1990s, the Crimson Tide should enter the LSU game as the nation’s No. 1 team — setting up the Tigers faithful for this year’s Game of the Century.
2. Alabama can afford a road loss to LSU and still compete for the West title
Saban (four national championships since 2009) has lost a grand total of four road games this decade, an incredible stat which feeds into the mystique and aura of modern-day Alabama football.
That said, the Crimson Tide coaches and players know one road slip-up likely won’t be a death knell to their division-title chances, provided Alabama buckles down and takes care of business after that (similar to the way it did following Ole Miss home defeat last season).
Therein lies the crux of hosting Alabama: Even though LSU will likely be the underdog on Nov. 5, the Tigers will be under immense pressure to win the game. Of equal importance, they must find a way to quickly prepare to play at Arkansas (the following Saturday) — a team that has toppled LSU by 17 points in back-to-back seasons.
3. Leonard Fournette must beat Alabama to realistically contend for the Heisman Trophy
Fournette (1,953 rushing yards, 22 TDs in 2015) stood as the Heisman front-runner for the majority of last season. But that dream came crashing to a halt after losing the individual battle to Alabama’s Derrick Henry when the schools met last November (31 rushing yards, one TD … compared to Henry’s 210 rushing yards).
Adding to Fournette’s dropping off in the Heisman race, LSU lost to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss over three straight Saturdays, essentially putting the running back on the back-burner when compared to high-achieving candidates from elite teams (like Alabama’s Henry, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey).
Fast forward to this fall: If Fournette (above) can repeat his standout performances from last season — minus the art of losing to Alabama — his public perception, Heisman-wise, should be greatly enhanced.
The notable triumphs from 2015 include:
**Four games of 200-plus rushing yards (tying Henry, the national rushing champion).
**Averaging 162.8 rushing yards per game, a higher tally than McCaffrey (144.2 YPG), Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott (140.1 YPG), Oregon’s Royce Freeman (141.2 YPG) and Henry (147.9 yards per game) — the Crimson Tide’s second Heisman winner.
**A supreme average of 6.5 yards per carry.
**Twelve games with at least one touchdown (14 of 15 outings with at least one TD, dating back to 2014).
**Four games with at least three touchdowns.
**At least 150 rushing yards in his first seven outings.
**Nine total games of at least 150 rushing yards.
**Rolling for five touchdowns (four rushing) in the Texas Bowl (easiest prediction of the postseason, shredding the Charmin-soft Texas Tech defense).
4. LSU-Alabama cannot be the SEC’s greatest annual rivalry, if it’s a one-sided deal for the Crimson Tide
a) Since 2014 (citing 247Sports.com recruiting rankings), Alabama and LSU have finished 1-2 among SEC programs twice in the recruiting rankings. The Crimson Tide, according to numerous Web sites, have also collected the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class for six consecutive seasons (2011-16).
b) Alabama and LSU have combined for nine first-round picks in the last three NFL drafts.
c) In the past three November meetings (2013-15), the Crimson Tide and Tigers were both ranked in the top 15 (Associated Press poll).
ONE BIG NEGATIVE
Since 2013, Alabama has won every LSU meeting … with an average margin of victory of 14 points.
5. Coach Les Miles’ future with LSU could be directly tied to the Alabama result
Since 2009, LSU boasts seven top-8 national classes (source: 247Sports.com), putting Miles (one national championship, two SEC crowns, three SEC West titles, 112-32 record since 2005) in a rare strata of active college coaches.
There’s only one problem: As Saban’s successor at LSU, it’s only natural that Miles’ most convenient comp would be the championship-churning coach from the same division … and just 348 miles away.
As such, LSU hasn’t endured three straight seasons with nine or fewer wins since 1998-2000. However, that could change over the next eight months, if Miles (17-8 since 2014) fails to reach double-digit victories.
But don’t expect this to happen. In fact, go ahead and bet the mortgage against such an occurrence: LSU has everything in its favor this fall, suggesting that a 12- or 13-win season is far more likely than nine or 10 victories.
Celebratory points like …
**LSU will be loaded with talent, depth and size along the defensive line — not unlike Alabama from 2015 (national champions).
**The Tigers lost only two underclassmen to the upcoming NFL draft — cornerback Rashard Robinson and offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins.
**The Tigers have a surplus of experience and raw talent at quarterback, led by Brandon Harris (2,165 yards passing, 17 total TDs, 53.8 percent passer in 2015) and freshmen passers Justin McMillan and Lindsey Scott.
It’s worth noting: Only two LSU quarterbacks have reached the attainable seasonal mark of 2,500 yards passing in the Miles era (JaMarcus Russell, Zach Mettenberger).
So, perhaps we should assume LSU will average 30 points once again (five times since 2010 when rounding up) — with or without any developmental breakthroughs at quarterback.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.