This time last year, an unstoppable force named Leonard Fournette met an immovable object called Alabama, and LSU’s star running back splattered like a bug on the Crimson Tide’s windshield as they roared toward another national championship.
Fournette’s seemingly sure-thing Heisman campaign disintegrated upon impact, as he went from 150-plus yards rushing in each of his first seven games to 31 yards on 19 carries against Alabama. Saturday night in Baton Rouge, although injuries have already derailed another Heisman shot, he and the Tigers can exact a measure of revenge.
It will not be easy, mind you. The challenge is just as stiff, if not stiffer, this time around. Fournette finally had another signature game last week – 16 carries, 284 yards, 3 touchdowns against Ole Miss – but Nick Saban’s defense is in the midst of a signature season. It is more suffocating than ever.
The Tide ranks No. 1 nationally in run defense, allowing a mere 70 yards per game and 2.2 yards per carry. Alabama has scored more touchdowns on fumble returns (five) than it has allowed rushing (three). That’s one reason there has been an air of inevitability about No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) riding roughshod over the rest of the league and into another College Football Playoff.
Fournette remembers that feeling of being an unstoppable force. And of getting stopped in his tracks. Now that interim coach Ed Orgeron has breathed life back into 15th-ranked LSU (5-2, 3-1) and unleashed the potential of its offense – 536 yards and 42 points per game in the three since he took over – perhaps the Tigers are ready to stand their ground as the immovable object.
If that happens, if Orgeron and Co. can snap a five-game losing streak to Alabama that dates back to the 2011 season when both programs looked for a moment like they were on equal footing, he deserves serious consideration as Les Miles’ permanent replacement. So it’s kind of a big moment.
There are plenty of those around the league this weekend. In fact, you might call it Separation Saturday in the SEC. Here are the other games that matter:
No. 10 Florida (6-1, 4-0) at Arkansas (5-3, 1-3): Tennessee’s disastrous loss at South Carolina last week means the Gators can all but clinch the awful East with a win over the Razorbacks, who are reeling after getting run over by Auburn two weeks ago. Florida would still have the Gamecocks in Gainesville and a trip to LSU – and the Volunteers (5-3, 2-3) do have a head-to-head tie-breaker – but a win in Fayetteville almost locks it up. How will one of the league’s best passers, Austin Allen, fare against the nation’s stingiest secondary? The Gators have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 39.3 percent of their passes.
Georgia (4-4, 2-4) at Kentucky (5-3, 4-2): The Bulldogs are a mess in Kirby Smart’s first season. A loss in Lexington would put bowl eligibility in serious jeopardy with just three games to go, two of them against Auburn and Georgia Tech. The Wildcats, meanwhile, are red hot. They’ve won 5 of 6 games and, improbably, still have a real shot at winning the East. Florida, which crushed Kentucky in Week 2, needs to lose twice (see above) and Mark Stoops’ team needs to upset Georgia and Tennessee. But the program’s first SEC title game appearance is still on the table. This is where we find out how significant the Cats’ growth really is. Their five wins have come against teams with a combined 15-25 record.
Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-3) at Auburn (6-2, 4-1): The Commodores stunned Georgia on the road two weeks ago, but these Tigers are a different animal. They’ve ripped off five consecutive victories on the back of big Kamryn Pettway, a 6-foot, 240-pound running back who is built like a monster truck and zooms like a Corvette. He’s gotten better every week – 169 yards, then 192, then 236 – to the point that he might just be the best in the league. Now, Auburn suddenly seems like a legitimate challenger for rival Alabama. Everyone outside of Nashville and Athens (UGA is up next) should be rooting for the Tigers to keep winning and set up an epic Iron Bowl.
Missouri (2-6, 0-4) at South Carolina (4-4, 2-4): Don’t watch this. It’ll hurt your eyes. But check the box score, because with Western Carolina still to go, Will Muschamp can all but clinch bowl eligibility in his first season with a win Saturday. And on second thought, maybe do watch, because the Gamecocks’ true freshman quarterback, Jake Bentley, has been a revelation since burning his redshirt two weeks ago. The kid looks like the real deal.
Don’t forget: No. 7 Texas A&M (7-1, 4-1) is at Mississippi State (3-5, 1-3). Prediction: bloodbath. Georgia Southern will likely run wild on Ole Miss (3-5, 1-4), because everybody does. The Rebels have allowed 617 yards and seven touchdowns rushing the last two weeks. And Tennessee (5-3, 2-3) will show Tennessee Tech what a tire fire looks and smells like up close.