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Can LSU's record-breaking offense finally outscore Alabama?; 'I want to believe it's the time'

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Can LSU's record-breaking offense finally outscore Alabama?; 'I want to believe it's the time'
Florida LSU Football

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) warms up before Saturday's game against Florida in Tiger Stadium on Oct. 12, 2019.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Peer through the gates of Bryant-Denny Stadium and there's a glimpse of where LSU last scored against Alabama.

There, in the north end zone, former Tigers running back Darrel Williams barreled into the crimson-dyed turf on second-and-goal.

Two seasons, six quarters, 735 days ago.

Remember that touchdown on Nov. 4, 2017?


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The play originated out of the I-formation — a scheme that seems so archaic in today's scope, so myopic in comparison to the record-breaking LSU offense that will enter these gates in a matter of hours.

LSU's 24-10 loss that night is sandwiched in history between two shutouts to the Crimson Tide at Tiger Stadium in 2016 and 2018, and that, plain and simply, presents the root question beneath all the flair and fanfare surrounding this No. 2-vs.-No. 3 showdown between teams chasing a national title: Can this LSU offense finally outscore Alabama?

Release the grip on the gates. Tour the streets of the place locals call "Title Town." There's both confidence in Alabama's eight-game win streak over LSU and fear that these particular Tigers will be the ones who snap it.

Neon beer signs dimly light the memorabilia-filled walls of the original Dreamland BBQ, where waitress Brittany Brown, 27, has a running $500 bet with her father that the Tide will drown LSU's offense just like the ones previously run by Steve Ensminger, Matt Canada, Cam Cameron and the coordinators before them.

"He told me, 'Alabama not gonna do nothin'," Brown said, placing styrofoam platefulls of ribs, white bread and barbecue sauce on the table. "He loves LSU."

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Her father likely bought into the chatter of Baton Rouge's rising stock: No. 2 LSU will outscore No. 3 Alabama because its offense is the best it's ever been.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said himself, "Oh yeah, they're a completely different offense," this spread-you-out, no-huddle system that uses West Coast and Run-Pass Option schemes.

Constructed by Esnminger and first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady, LSU has torn through three top 10 opponents, averaging 46.8 points per game — two touchdowns more than the team's average last season (32.4).

"How different is that?" ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "That's like going from standard television to high-def. They left 1975, offensively, to now being in 2019 — and cutting edge of 2019. They're the offense right now that the whole country's talking about."

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But LSU has been on the cutting edge before, remember?

The Tigers won't outscore Alabama, because that 2017 season wasn't all just ground-and-pound, lead with the fullback between the tackles. Canada confused the Crimson Tide secondary with pre-snap movement. Those infamous jet sweeps produced five deep pass opportunities that, if completed, may have turned the tide in the rivalry.

Each one dropped cold.

Death Valley may be where dreams come to die; but offenses die in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

No team has beaten Alabama here since 2015, when Ole Miss won 43-37. No opponent has since come close to that score. The Crimson Tide has surrendered just 10.3 points per game in its 31-game win streak at home.

Yes, hope is a dangerous thing for those who challenge Bama.

Sitting in Dreamland's corner booth, Bryan and Ashley Johnson's three children learned that the hard way.

Bryan, a Georgia fan, raised them to cheer for the Bulldogs, and when Tua Tagovailoa threw the touchdown pass to beat Georgia 26-23 in overtime in the 2017 national championship game, the kids buried their heads in their pillows and cried.

"I dragged them into this," said Bryan, 39, grinning regretfully.

Belief dies hard. Ashley, 39, a former Baton Rouge resident, has let hope refill their home. Her youngest daughter dressed as an LSU cheerleader for Halloween. 

"I want to believe it's the time," Ashley said. "I've talked about it for weeks. Oh, it would just make my life. Not really. But I just don't want to be disappointed."

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But how could the Johnson's be disappointed?

LSU will outscore Alabama because Heisman candidate Joe Burrow delivered the dagger on a third-and-17 touchdown pass to beat Texas, broke the single-game school record with six more touchdown passes against Vanderbilt, overcame a massive hit in a comeback win over Auburn.

The 6-foot-4, 216-pound senior is leading a team that's "primed to compete for an SEC title," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "It'll be a challenge for any team facing this group to slow that offense down."

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LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady walks the perimeter of the field during pregame warmups before kickoff as the Bulldogs host the Tigers, Saturday, October 19, 2019, at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss.

No one has yet outsmarted the catalyst for LSU's radical offensive improvement, the 30-year-old assistant coach some people still call Joey Brady, who walks the border of the football field before every game, dressed in a suit, twirling a football.

It's a throwback ritual to his days with the New Orleans Saints — one of the many things Brady adopted in 2017 and 2018 while on head coach Sean Payton's staff.

Brady's official title in New Orleans was "offensive assistant." He worked closely with wide receiver coach Curtis Johnson, a 35-year coaching veteran, who said he's been doing the ritual since "before (Brady) was born."

Johnson, Tulane's head coach from 2012 to 2015, said he used to run the field's full perimeter with the ball before games; but the run seemed to grow longer with age. Now, like Brady, he steps off the team bus, finds a football and walks.

The walk helps center the mind, and at the center of Payton's offense, it's really mostly about critical thinking.

"I hear the expression a lot that LSU's now running New Orleans' offense," said former Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief, who retired after a 12-year career with the franchise in 2018. "And I think that's a little bit of a misnomer. I don't think that's a real thing."

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Brady learned no magic plays, said Strief, now the Saints' play-by-play radio broadcaster. There were no secret schemes. At its core, New Orleans ran a West Coast offense, and all anyone had to do was turn on the film, write down every route combination the Saints ran, and they'd have Payton's playbook.

Study three three games, Strief said, and you'll learn the Saints usually send four receivers straight down the field (Four Verticals) on critical third downs.

Understanding why the Saints run Four Verticals in that situation is much more important: it's the throw that quarterback Drew Brees excels at more than anything else.

Payton's philosophy is asking What's your vision of the player? How do we utilize his strengths? And how do we hide his weaknesses?

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LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) passes for a first down against Mississippi State during the first half of their NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. In addition to LSU winning 36-13, Burrow threw four touchdowns to break the LSU season record with 29. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) ORG XMIT: MSRS125

And Burrow is now a Heisman frontrunner, Strief said, because he's "doing the things he's best at, using the plays that he sees the best, the throws that he's best at."

Put another way, Burrow is excelling in an offense built for Burrow.

LSU was limited to more traditional, under-center schemes in 2018, a year in which the Tigers relied mostly on establishing the run game and using play-action passes to push the ball downfield. Burrow was widely thought little more than a game-manager, a quarterback who wouldn't lose the game and could sometimes rise to the occasion with big plays.

LSU's offense was pigeonholed and predictable in last year's 29-0 loss to Alabama, when the Crimson Tide defense pulverized the line of scrimmage, held the Tigers to 12 total yards rushing and sacked Burrow five times.

Brady helped build a multi-weapon offense that allows Burrow to make the deep vertical throws, the short rhythm tosses he's mastered since he was named Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year at Athens High.

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And it's not just Burrow.

LSU's talented wide receiver trio — Justin Jefferson, Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall — has the freedom to adjust routes based on coverage reads; tight ends like Thaddeus Moss are more than just extra offensive tackles; running backs like Clyde Edwards-Helaire are being sent out in routes instead of staying in the pocket to pass protect.

And as the opponent's defense morphs to take away one threat, the LSU offense shifts to utilize another.

That's where the real magic of the Saints offense comes in, Strief said, when the system can use different personnel packages and pre-snap motions to manipulate the defense into a disadvantage. When the opposing defense presents a completely new look during a game and there's enough flexibility to come up with an answer. "When the bullets are flying," Orgeron said, "and you got to make decisions on the flow of the game."

It's how LSU scored its final touchdown in a 42-28 win over Florida. Burrow said Ensminger noticed Florida's defensive backs had been pressing Chase tightly all night in man coverage when he was lined up in the slot, and he drew up a pick route that freed Chase for a wide-open 54-yard touchdown.

It's how LSU shifted to the run game when Auburn held them to 10 first-half points with a 3-1-7 defense (three linemen, one linebacker, seven defensive backs) that Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele built specifically for LSU. Edwards-Helaire rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown in the 23-20 victory.

But that's also why LSU won't outscore Alabama this year: the Crimson Tide has mastered such offensive chess matches in a four-year stretch of national championship game appearances that includes two titles.

CFP Alabama Tagovailoa Football

FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2018, file photo, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) scrambles for yardage during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Tagovailoa is optimistic that he will be fully recovered from ankle surgery and ready to play in the Orange Bowl. The Alabama quarterback and Heisman Trophy runner-up said his left ankle will be just fine for the College Football Playoff semifinal game with Oklahoma on Dec. 29. “I'll probably be at 100 percent by the time the game comes,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. “That's my prediction. Definitely.” (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File) ORG XMIT: NY173

Orgeron fully expects Tagovailoa to play through his ankle injury Saturday, and the Hawaiian Heisman contender will be throwing to three wide receivers — Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith — who could all be first-round NFL draft picks.

LSU's offensive numbers are indeed historic; but Alabama still ranks ahead of the Tigers nationally in scoring offense (48.6 points per game).

"When we comparing them to our roster, you know, I really just can't compare them to our roster," Alabama running back Brian Robinson said. "I have to watch those guys play up against our defense in order to compare them to a high-caliber offense like ours."

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Plus, LSU's unanimous All-American safety Grant Delpit has missed every media viewing of practice since leaving the Auburn game because of an apparent ankle injury Orgeron has called a "sprain."

Although Orgeron said he still expects Delpit to play, it raises questions about just how healthy LSU's top defensive back will be.

But aren't there plenty of questions about Alabama's defense? Isn't their long list of injuries why LSU will outscore Alabama?

Pre-season All-American inside linebacker Dylan Moses and senior linebacker Joshua McMillon were lost for the season with major knee injuries suffered in preseason camp, and their freshmen replacements have struggled at times.

In a 59-31 win over Ole Miss on Sept. 28, the Rebels rushed for 280 yards — the most since Texas A&M recorded 287 against the Tide in 2016.

And overall, although Alabama ranks ninth nationally with 15.3 points allowed per game this season, the only ranked opponent the Crimson Tide has played this season, Texas A&M, has since dropped out of the polls.

"We just don't know who Alabama is defensively, to be candid," Herbstreit said. "We know about Nick Saban. ... Who can we definitely say tested them to make us know?"

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This is certainly the toughest LSU offense to test Alabama since the Tigers last won in 2011, and considering the records that are falling in the team's wake, it's perhaps the toughest LSU offense that's ever played in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Yes, hope is a dangerous thing for those who challenge Bama.

Belief dies hard.

And when Gov. John Bel Edwards visited LSU's practice Tuesday, he told the players "the state of Louisiana is more excited than I can ever remember them being."

"When you're an old man one day and you're going to be thinking back to everything you did in your life," Edwards said, "this might be the game you think about first and most often. So I just want to encourage you and tell you we believe in you."

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.