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LSU-Alabama has become the rivalry most likely to define a college football season

The No. 2 Tigers. The No. 4 Tide. Leonard Fournette and Bama's defense. Les Miles and Nick Saban. Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. You know 90 percent of how it's going to go. Let's try and figure out the deciding 10.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Nov. 7, 2009. No. 3 Alabama 24, No. 9 LSU 15. The Tide outgain the Tigers by 199 yards but stall repeatedly, punting three times in LSU territory and throwing an interception inside the LSU 10. LSU takes a 15-10 lead into the fourth quarter, but Greg McElroy hits Julio Jones for 73 yards and the winning points with 10 minutes left. Alabama goes on to win the national title.


The intensity of a rivalry depends on four things: Proximity, frequency, importance and evenness.

They create moments, and moments ferment rivalry.

Alabama and LSU have played nearly 80 times over the last century and change, and they are separated by only a five-hour drive, reasonably lengthy by SEC standards, but not really. They are conference rivals, but few would have considered this a true rivalry rivalry until recently. It checked the first two rivalry boxes but rarely checked the last two.

Alabama and LSU didn't play between 1930 and 1944, and in the years following World War II, the Crimson Tide and Tigers didn't make a habit of being good at the same time. Between 1945 and 1970, they played as ranked foes only once, when No. 3 Alabama took a 17-9 victory over the No. 8 Tigers in Birmingham.

The intensity picked up in the 1970s, but the results were one-sided. They played as ranked opponents each year between 1970 and '73, then again in 1977-78, but Alabama went 5-1 in those and won every other meeting until 1981. Bear Bryant's retirement sparked a flip -- LSU went 4-2-1 between 1982 and 1988, upsetting the No. 6 Tide in Birmingham in 1986. But even in this period, the rivalry had a crimson hue. Alabama managed to go undefeated in Death Valley from 1971 to 1998 even while losing some in Birmingham.

When LSU's fortunes faded in the dying light of the Mike Archer era and under Curley Hallman and Gerry DiNardo, so did this rivalry. The two met as ranked foes once between 1989 and 2001 (1996: No. 10 Alabama 26, No. 11 LSU 0 in Baton Rouge).

Things change. Between World War II and 2005, these two met five times as top-10 opponents. Since former LSU coach Nick Saban came to Tuscaloosa in 2007, however, they've done it five more times.

On Saturday, they will do so for a sixth time. LSU ranks second in the opening Playoff rankings, while Alabama ranks fourth.

Granted, the Tide have won four of the five (and eight of the 10 overall), but in a few short years, Alabama-LSU has become appointment viewing, a Manball Christmas celebration in November. The hits are big and loud, the underdog confounds the favorite (which was even the case in 2007, when national champion LSU barely survived Tuscaloosa) ... and Saban's team usually finds a way. That Saban has lost three times to Miles makes Miles one of his greatest tormentors, but Saban has still won six.

The average score of a Saban-Miles matchup is Bama 24, LSU 17. It was 20-13 last year in Baton Rouge, when a rebuilding Tiger squad threw a major scare into the Playoff-bound Tide. It will probably be similar this year.

So which team is scoring the 24?


Nov. 5, 2011. No. 1 LSU 9, No. 2 Alabama 6. In a battle between Miles' best squad and either Saban's best or second-best in T-Town, LSU wins the most notorious game of the series. Alabama misses three field goals in regulation and a fourth in overtime. Miles' insertion of quarterback Jordan Jefferson provides a glimmer of offensive life, and Eric Reid picks off an AJ McCarron pass at the goal line. Nobody clamors for a rematch, but we get one two months later.


Bama's defense wants you to run. LSU wants to run.

Alabama's defense ranks third in Rushing S&P+.

Wisconsin's Corey Clement rushed eight times for 16 yards against the Tide. Arkansas' Alex Collins rushed 12 times for 26. Texas A&M's Tra Carson: 13 for 46. Georgia's Nick Chubb rushed 20 times for 146 yards, but 83 came in one garbage-time carry; he otherwise averaged 3.3 yards per try.

That Tennessee's Jalen Hurd managed 92 yards in 18 carries was a sign that a power approach can work, though. Granted, 29 yards came on a third-and-16 draw play, but quarterback Josh Dobbs managed to gain 57 yards on 11 non-sack carries. If it can succeed somewhat for Tennessee, it might succeed for LSU. The Tigers have a running back named Leonard Fournette.

LSU's offense ranks ninth in Rushing S&P+, powered not only by the nation's best overall running back and Heisman favorite but also quarterback Brandon Harris, who averages about five keepers per game at 5.6 yards per.

Alabama's offense has adapted itself, playing at a top-40 tempo and attempting run-pass balance on standard downs. But when LSU has the ball, it will be old-school manball.

LSU runs 77 percent of the time on standard downs (eighth in the country) and 48 percent on passing downs (10th). Opponents long ago gave up on running against Alabama, which faces pass attempts more frequently than almost anybody in the country.

Fournette rushed 21 times for only 79 yards against Alabama last year. It was one of his final iffy games. He had five carries for nine yards the next week against Arkansas, then achieved lift-off. He has rushed for at least 140 yards in each of his last nine and at least 150 in every game this year. After a transcendent stretch earlier in the year (three games, 71 carries, 705 yards, seven touchdowns), he has averaged merely 163 yards per game since.

And now his biggest test awaits. Light up Alabama, and you might as well start preparing your Heisman speech.


Jan. 9, 2012. No. 2 Alabama 21, No. 1 LSU 0. Given a second chance at the title when Oklahoma State is upset by Iowa State, the Tide take advantage, allowing 92 total yards and not letting LSU cross the 50 until the fourth quarter. Trent Richardson's 34-yard touchdown run secures Bama's 14th national title and Saban's second in three years.


How good is Alabama's offense?

Alabama has ranked either first or second in the F/+ rankings in each of the last six seasons and is currently No. 2, far behind Clemson but well ahead of LSU.

Part of this is because the Tide are very good again. Obviously. But they are benefiting a bit in 2015 from the fact that almost nobody is elite on both sides of the ball. Only two teams rank in the top 15 in both Off. S&P+ and Def. S&P+ (Clemson and Ohio State), and most of the top teams rank in the top 30 in only one or the other. There are elite defenses mixed with good offenses (Alabama, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, Washington), and there are polar opposites (Baylor, TCU, Notre Dame, USC, LSU).

Alabama ranks second overall, therefore, despite an offense that ranks only 36th.

The Crimson Tide aren't producing a ton of big run plays, aren't finishing drives in the end zone as frequently as one would assume (considering the presence of big back Derrick Henry), and aren't throwing with incredible efficiency. Sure, Jake Coker's completion rate is on the rise (75 percent over the last three games), but his passes aren't going anywhere (just 10.1 yards per completion). Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's quick, horizontal passing game has opened up some running lanes for Henry, who had 60 carries for 379 yards against Texas A&M and Tennessee and who got a week off to rest before LSU. Still, the Tide aren't pulling off easy drives. They have to dink and dunk to score.

LSU's defense has been confusing. The Tigers held Dak Prescott and Mississippi State to 19 points and 4.7 yards per play and slowed WKU's nuclear passing game to a crawl, allowing just 20 points and 5.1 yards per play against the high-octane Hilltoppers. But they allowed 24 and 5.7 to South Carolina and suffered just enough breakdowns against Syracuse and EMU (46 combined points) to keep those games closer than they should have been. As a result, they rank 34th in Def. S&P+ despite having shut down the two best offenses on the schedule. And their second-half numbers are far inferior to their first-half numbers (second in Q1 S&P+, fourth in Q2, 114th in Q3, 47th in Q4).

Opponents are confused, too. LSU's D ranks fifth in Passing S&P+, having allowed a passer rating above 130 just once (and to Florida's Treon Harris, not Prescott or WKU's Brendan Doughty). But opponents have determined they'd rather take their chances through the air. LSU is facing an even higher pass frequency than Alabama.

Will Henry find enough room to run between the tackles? Will Bama's young receivers (redshirt freshman Calvin Ridley and sophomore ArDarius Stewart, combined for 117 targets, 76 catches, 856 yards and five touchdowns) be asked to take short passes upfield against LSU's salty-as-always secondary? It will be interesting to see both how Alabama attempts to attack the Tigers. And assuming Alabama doesn't fall far behind, it will also be interesting to see if LSU can keep up without a drop-off in the second half against Bama's "turn into a boa constrictor with the game on the line" tactics.


Nov. 3, 2012. No. 1 Alabama 21, No. 5 LSU 17. The one that got away. Trailing 14-3 at halftime, the Tigers surge ahead, 17-14, when Zach Mettenberger connects with Jarvis Landry for a 14-yard score with 13 minutes left. But LSU's Spencer Ware is stuffed on fourth-and-1 with nine minutes remaining, and Drew Alleman misses a field goal with 1:39 left. Given life, the Tide respond. McCarron, just 10-for-22, completes four of five passes on Alabama's final drive, and TJ Yeldon slips into the open field for a 28-yard score with 51 seconds left. Alabama will win another national title two months later.


The matchups

When LSU has the ball

Standard downs

LSU offense Bama defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 113.5 29 156.8 1 Bama
Standard Downs Success Rate 52.8% 17 32.6% 3 Bama
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.19 25 1.09 68 LSU
SD Line Yards per Carry 3.37 10 2.15 6
SD Sack Rate 6.2% 86 6.4% 28 Bama big

Passing downs

LSU offense Bama defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 139.7 8 137.6 10
Passing Downs Success Rate 33.9% 37 27.3% 40
Passing Downs IsoPPP 2.34 3 1.38 6
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.78 25 3.49 91 LSU big
PD Sack Rate 6.2% 45 11.0% 20 Bama

When Alabama has the ball

Standard downs

Bama offense LSU defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 118.1 19 119.9 19
Standard Downs Success Rate 50.5% 33 47.6% 72 Bama
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.05 88 0.96 14 LSU big
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.81 87 2.74 58 LSU
SD Sack Rate 3.8% 46 5.2% 61 Bama

Passing downs

Bama offense LSU defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 109.5 48 176.5 1 LSU
Passing Downs Success Rate 29.5% 77 20.5% 4 LSU big
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.95 30 1.83 79 Bama
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.94 16 2.18 11
PD Sack Rate 6.1% 44 6.4% 74 Bama


Nov. 9, 2013. No. 1 Alabama 38, No. 10 LSU 17. In the hunt for a third straight ring, Alabama jumps out to a 17-7 lead. But the Tigers reel the Tide in, tying the game early in the third. Saban turns the tables on the trickeration-minded Miles. Jarrick Williams converts a fake punt, which leads to a Yeldon touchdown and a lead Bama will never relinquish. The Tide score twice in the fourth and will remain undefeated until a trip to Auburn.


This should be exactly the battle we think it's going to be; it usually is.

LSU's got maybe the best player in the country on its side, and if the Tigers' defense plays well near the line of scrimmage, they can leverage Alabama into passing downs, very much an LSU strength.

Alabama has the meat to drag Fournette down. At least, if anybody does, it's the Tide. And they have an efficiency offense steady enough to avoid passing downs.

This is a rather even battle on paper, but Bama gets the S&P+ edge: 7.4 points with a 67 percent chance of victory, which fits the parameters of the Saban-Miles rivalry.