Alabama coach Nick Saban wants his players to understand that facing 14th-ranked LSU in Death Valley’s famously frenzied atmosphere Saturday night is one of the hardest things they’ll do all season.
He also wants the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide to embrace it.
“If you’re a great competitor, I think you like challenges like this,” Saban said. “Hopefully, our players are looking at it in a real positive sense in terms of the difficulty of the challenge.”
As usual, there’s a lot at stake for the Crimson Tide (7-1, 4-1), which would win the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division by winning its final three league games.
The Tigers (7-2, 3-2) are also technically still alive in the SEC West, though they’ll need to not only win out, but also need both Mississippi State and Auburn to stumble enough to at least create a favorable tiebreaker scenario for LSU when the regular season ends.
“Every inch, every foot, every yard is going to be tough,” LSU senior center Elliot Porter said. “It’s going to be a grind-it-out game. And that’s what I expect. We recruit the same type of players. It’s going to be a rough one for both sides.”
As tough a place as Tiger Stadium is to play for most visiting squads, the environment seems to have brought out the best in the Crimson Tide. Alabama is 26-8-2 all-time in Death Valley, including a memorable 21-17 victory in 2012 — a game decided by T.J. Yeldon’s last-minute touchdown on a screen pass.
“You can’t beat Baton Rouge on a Saturday night,” Alabama center Ryan Kelly said. “We’ve been trying to emphasize to the young guys that if they have to go in, it’s unlike anything they’ve ever heard before.”
Here are some things to know about the Crimson Tide’s 79th clash with LSU:
Strength on strength
Offensively, LSU has relied heavily on a ground game featuring four powerful running backs: Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Darrell Williams. The Tigers have been at their best recently, gaining 567 yards in LSU’s past two victories over Kentucky and Ole Miss. Alabama’s defense, meanwhile, has arguably the best run defense in the nation, allowing 78 yards rushing per game despite playing in a conference renowned for its running backs.
Both teams have first-year starting quarterbacks who, in Saban’s view, have steadily become more comfortable. LSU’s Anthony Jennings averages only 132 yards passing, but is 8-1 in his career as a starter (including one start last season) and has thrown eight TD passes this season. Alabama’s Blake Sims has passed for 254 yards per game with 15 TDs. “Both guys have had more time in the system, in the program, have a better understanding of what’s expected from them and go out and play with a lot more poise,” Saban said.
Saban’s view of the Alabama-LSU game is unique in that the coach’s rise to prominence came as he led the Tigers’ 2003 squad to a national championship. Two years later, he was in the NFL before returning to the college ranks at Alabama in 2007. “It was a great experience being (at LSU) and certainly appreciated the support of all of the fans there and still have a tremendous amount of respect for that when we go there,” Saban said. “Also really have a tremendous amount of respect for the way our fans have supported us here and have always been there for us on the road. I think this is what college football is all about.”
LSU’s defense yielded more than 565 yards in each of its losses to Mississippi State and Auburn, but has gotten markedly better since. The Tigers have allowed an average of 278.7 yards during their current three-game winning streak and have allowed only three defensive touchdowns in that span. “Everybody’s just doing what they’re supposed to do ... not trying to be a hero,” linebacker Kwon Alexander said. “We understood that everybody can’t make that big play. Everybody’s got to be where they’re supposed to be.”
Alabama’s visit also comes on senior day at LSU. One of the Tigers being honored in pre-game ceremonies will be fullback Connor Neighbors, whose late grandfather, Billy, was a captain on Alabama’s 1961 national title team. Connor Neighbors’ father, Wes, and brother, Wesley also played at Alabama. Wesley Neighbors is now an assistant under Saban and is expected to stand briefly with his brother during the ceremony. “My whole family’s going to be there,” Neighbors said. “Obviously, we grew up Alabama fans, but they wanted me to make my own path, and I did. And they gave me their full support.”