Nick Saban’s personal reinvention began with a simple question on Oct. 3, 2012. In the years since, it has been interpreted as rhetorical or as a warning shot, depending on perspective.
“…is this what we want football to be?”
Saban’s question was answered and he adjusted. His offenses got faster and more spread out; since then, an offense that generally did not see quarterbacks attempt 25 passes per game has dipped below that number only once. Three of the four teams after that statement did something only one Saban UA team had done before: averaged 70 or more plays per game.
But for one game each year, that end result of that change was not apparent. Even with a new offensive scheme, Alabama was forced to beat LSU with final scores reminiscent of the rivalry’s history: 21-17 in 2012, 20-13 in 2014, 10-0 in 2016 and 24-10 in 2017.
That era is expected to end in dramatic fashion Saturday night.
Eight years ago, LSU and Alabama needed 60 minutes and then some to score a grand total of 15 points. Those eight years will feel like a millennium when UA’s No. 2 offense, in national ranking by yards per play, goes up against LSU’s No. 18 defense while the Tigers’ No. 4 offense meets Alabama’s No. 14 defense.
That matchup is quite the departure from 2011, when the nation’s two top defenses successfully bottled UA’s No. 12 offense and LSU’s No. 50 offense.
“I think that’s a very accurate observation in terms of we’ve become more of a spread team, they’ve become more of a spread team,” Saban said. “We’ve done it for a few years now. This is their first time of really sort of opening up and it’s paid tremendous dividends, and I think it certainly features the skill players that they have in a very positive way, and the quarterback.
“It’s an indication that when you put these skill players in open positions, how much more difficult it is to defend the space whether it’s vertical or horizontal on the field. You make it more difficult for the defense because they have to make a lot of plays in space. I think that’s the way the game is going now, and if you look at some of the most successful teams offensively they’re pretty much all playing that way.”
Saban’s path to offensive change was fueled by that exact concept, that of better utilizing the players available. UA has more or less exclusively recruited four-stars of late, including wide receivers that are nothing short of electric, thus a spread offense suits their talents best. As high school offenses trended toward spreads, as well, quarterbacks and offensive linemen became more prepared to meet those tasks than those of downhill, power-running schemes.
LSU’s path to the modern era was one littered with self sabotage.
LSU’s access to explosive offensive playmakers have never been in question, given the Tigers consistently pull talent from within state borders. The current roster has 61 Bayou State natives out of 107 total players. The state also has a track record of producing offensive threats: in the 2015-2019 recruiting classes, just among the elite ranks of four-star prospects or better, the state of Louisiana produced four quarterbacks, 17 wide receivers and one tight.
For years, those offensive weapons left LSU with statistically underwhelming careers, or in some cases left the state: Amite native DeVonta Smith, for instance, currently leading UA in receiving yards.
Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, two established NFL wide receivers that were teammates at LSU, left Baton Rouge with 143 and 135 career receptions, respectively. In the context of Jerry Jeudy’s 101 receptions in his last 18 games alone, they are two weapons — among many others — that went underutilized.
Then came Joe Brady, one of many minds behind the explosive Penn State passing attack from 2015 and 2016 and the New Orleans Saints passing attack in the previous two seasons. His impact in just eight games as LSU’s passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach is obvious.
– Quarterback Joe Burrow took LSU’s single-season touchdown passes record in seven games; Matt Mauck needed 14 games and JaMarcus Russell needed 13 to set the record Burrow broke.
– Burrow is just 89 yards short of the 2,894 yards he threw for last season — which was good enough to rank fourth in school history. By yards per game, Burrow is on pace to break the school record for single-season passing yards with two games left in the regular season.
– Burrow has six 300-yard passing games this season; Rohan Davey had seven in four seasons, and before Burrow, Davey was the only Tiger with more than three in his career.
– LSU has seen eight 10 touchdown catch seasons in school history; Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase enter the Alabama game with nine each.
“I mean, we’re both two good programs, so I feel like we both had to evolve off to how the game is going,” UA outside linebacker Terrell Lewis said. “It’s definitely becoming a passing game now, explosive offense. At some point big schools like this are going to get the best players, so they evolved and just built off of what they’ve been recruiting.”
For years, the Alabama-LSU game was a showcase of elite defensive talent. The two schools generated a combined 10 first-round draft pick defenders in the last three NFL Drafts, to make no mention of the nine defensive starters from the 2011 game that remain in the NFL eight years later.
There is still talent on the defensive side of the ball this year. But, for possibly the first time in the rivalry’s history, all eyes are on the offenses.
“I think they’re definitely doing what features the players that they have in a very positive way ,” Saban said, “and I think it shows in how they’ve played offensively, being one of the best offensive teams in the country.”