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Against Bama, LSU is probably the biggest top-4 underdog ever

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There’s good reason to think the Tigers can make this a game in Death Valley, though.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 Alabama is a 14.5-point favorite at No. 3 LSU for Saturday’s blockbuster in Baton Rouge. While that’s a hilariously large spread for a 7-1 home underdog, it’s 8 points tighter than any spread the Tide have faced in 2018.

The spread is historic, as we kept realizing over the course of the week.

We asked OddsShark to search their database for a game in which a team ranked fourth or better was a home underdog of two touchdowns or more against a conference opponent after Halloween.

It turns out we didn’t even need the modifiers.

In the last 20 years, no team ranked fourth or better has been an underdog this large, regardless of where and when the game was played, according to OddsShark. The database has AP Poll rankings and spreads going back to 1998, and as far as the site can determine, “this has never happened before.”

In the last 40 years, only one team ranked fourth or better has been even a 10-point underdog at home ...

It goes even further:

So this is pretty wild. But Bama’s blown past way bigger spreads without really trying.

2018 Alabama is 5-3 against the spread despite playing backups throughout almost every second half. The Tide have covered:

  • -23.5 against Louisville, before everyone knew Louisville was terrible
  • -36.5 against Arkansas State
  • -22.5 against Ole Miss
  • -28 against Mizzou
  • -29.5 against Tennessee

Bama’s three near misses: -24 against A&M, -49 against UL Lafayette, -35 against Arkansas. In that 49-point game, Bama was up exactly 49 at halftime, only to lose the second half by 7 points with the scout team on the field.

Still, given the huge spread, there are reasons to like LSU to cover.

The Tide could take the lead in the first 30 seconds, as they do, and never give it up. LSU’s defense might collapse without star linebacker Devin White, who’s suspended for the first half. Joe Burrow’s LSU offense might get squashed.

The Tide should win, and then they’ll probably go on and win the national championship again. But LSU’s got a chance to make it a game.

1. For starters, a proven computer system likes LSU against the spread.

That’s Bill Connelly’s S&P+, which has LSU losing just 34-23. S&P+ doesn’t account for injuries or White’s 30-minute suspension, and it doesn’t purport to be perfect. But S&P+ enters Week 10 having hit on an excellent 55 percent of its picks against the spread in 2018, including marks of 63 and 57 percent the last two weeks.

That S&P+ likes the Tigers to cover is doubly interesting because computer systems generally aren’t a big fan of 2018 LSU. These Tigers are 13th in S&P+ overall, 10 spots lower than the Playoff rankings. The Sagarin ratings have them eighth. ESPN’s Football Power Index has them 10th.

That tracks with the view that LSU could easily be 6-2 instead of 7-1, but benefited from some luck in beating Auburn by a point. The Tigers’ postgame win expectancy, based on play-by-play data, was 16 percent that day. They also beat Mississippi State despite playing horribly on offense. Computers, like the ones that help set Vegas power ratings, would just like to see more.

2. Beating a good team on its home field by that much is simply hard to do.

See Fowler’s stat.

3. LSU probably can’t score much on the Tide. But the Tigers have a better chance than anyone else to slow down Bama’s passing game.

Tua Tagovailoa is absurd. So are his teammates, notably his four elite receivers.

But it’s worth talking about LSU’s secondary, which might be the best in the sport. LSU’s No. 3 in Defensive Passing S&P+. The Tigers’ DBs are 16th among secondaries in Havoc Rate, and they’re particularly good at limiting explosive plays. (They’re No. 7 in Passing Marginal Explosiveness allowed, compared to 25th in Marginal Efficiency Allowed).

Cornerbacks Greedy Williams, Kary Vincent Jr., Kristian Fulton, and Kelvin Joseph are a who’s-who of recent superstar recruits. Safety Grant Delpit (five picks, four pass breakups) is another. This might be the only secondary in the country that can hang with Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III, and Jaylen Waddle.

LSU’s seen nothing quite like Bama’s passing offense, true. But the Tigers did go up against No. 12 Passing S&P+ team Ole Miss, and they gave Jordan Ta’amu a miserable time, holding him to 50 percent completions and 4.7 yards per throw.

4. If you believe in LSU’s pass defense, you believe Bama will have to run to win. That would shorten the game, a good thing for anyone picking LSU to cover a big spread.

Previous, more run-oriented versions of the Tide have put up these scores against LSU:

  • 2017: 24-10
  • 2016: 10-0
  • 2015: 30-16
  • 2014: 20-13
  • 2013: 38-17
  • 2011: 21-0
  • 2011: 6-9
  • 2010: 21-24

The style of these games has trended toward lower scores and often tight finishes. Alabama now having a Death Star passing game has made the Tide a more reliable blowout, but Alabama hasn’t had to deal with a secondary like the one in Death Valley.

So at least one of us is picking LSU +14.5, realizing how reckless that is.

That’s me (Alex), though I don’t exactly feel good about it.