Will Clapp has heard the stories. His veteran teammates, the guys who have been through this game before, have told him what it’ll be like.
They compare it to a fistfight, a war or a clash of titans. LSU and Alabama have recently sported some of the most physically overpowering teams in the country, and when they meet, any of those descriptors are applicable.
“Some of the older guys that have played in this game have talked about it, how different it is from playing any other team,” Clapp said. “It’s not like each team is getting chunks of yardage. You have to fight for it, and that’s what we’re expecting. We’re ready for this. It’s gonna be a dogfight.”
The redshirt freshman offensive guard and his fellow linemen will be on the front line of the physical affair when the Tigers (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) and Crimson Tide (7-1, 4-1) tangle at 7 p.m. Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. College Football Playoff positioning will be at stake after LSU and Alabama debuted at No. 2 and No. 4 in the initial rankings released Tuesday night.
The game is shaping up to be one of the classic slugfests that has defined the rivalry in recent years, pitting a pair of bruising running backs against top-six rushing defenses.
“Two great fronts going against each other, you can’t ask for a better game than this,” junior left tackle Jerald Hawkins said. “This what you come LSU for, these games. ...This is what we play for, what we live for.”
History shows the bitter, annual rivalry is usually won in the trenches. In LSU and Alabama’s six meetings since 2010, the team with more rushing yards has won all but one game. The only exception is last year’s contest, which Alabama won in overtime, when the Tigers out-rushed the Tide by 77 yards on almost twice as many carries. Over that span, the squad with more sacks won every game.
This time around, Heisman Trophy front-runner Leonard Fournette and the nation’s No. 5 rushing offense are on a collision course with Alabama’s third-ranked rushing defense. The sophomore running back has drawn most of the headlines the past two weeks, but he knows the offensive line’s physicality plays a big role in his success.
“Well, it starts with those linemen,” Fournette said. “It’s going to be tough against those guys, so we have to just get ready. Like I said, it’s going to be a fistfight.”
Alabama’s 3-4 base defense allows only 78.5 yards rushing per game, its punishing group of linebackers and eight-man defensive-line rotation twisting and stunting their way to one suffocating performance after another.
Hawkins said the Tide’s defensive linemen can play every position along the line. Alabama’s three primary linemen — juniors A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen and senior Jarran Reed — have started at least one game at defensive end and nose tackle. In response to the Tide’s ever-shifting defensive front, LSU’s offensive linemen spent the open date last week poring over hours of film to prepare for each player individually.
“It’s like studying for a big test,” Hawkins said. “You have to know each guy. You can’t focus on one guy because you never know who’s coming to get you.”
That’s even more of a problem when it comes to Alabama’s pass rush. Fourteen players have recorded a sack this season. Allen has been the most disruptive defender, leading the team in both sacks (six) and tackles for loss (eight).
“They don’t quit. When they rush, they keep coming,” Hawkins said. “Most guys probably die off after two or three combos. But these guys just keep going.”
But LSU’s offensive line is no slouch against blitzing defenses. The unit has given up only eight sacks this year, and keeping Brandon Harris upright will be crucial as the sophomore quarterback tries to take pressure off of the running game.
What can the Tigers’ big men do to move Alabama’s front seven and keep its pass rushers at bay? The little things, it turns out, may make the biggest difference.
“Against a team like Alabama, everything has to be perfect,” Clapp said. “They make your flaws show easily. It’s something I personally have to work on, making sure every bit of my technique is ready for this game.”
Maintaining proper pad level and hand placement here or holding a block for just a second longer there can be the difference between winning and losing, as the Tigers understand all too well. Excluding two 21-point Alabama wins, the average margin of victory in the past six games between the schools was 4.25 points per game, and two of those required overtime. LSU has lost four straight, and the pair of home losses featured final-minute Tide scoring drives.
The Tigers will try to end the streak knowing whichever team can physically dominate and control the line of scrimmage will likely emerge as the victor. Take it from senior right tackle Vadal Alexander, who has started the past three games of the knock-down, drag-out rivalry.
“Two goliath teams going against each other. Just a battle, a war,” Alexander said. “That kind of epitomizes the matchup every year.”