New-look LSU has chance to become SEC challenger to Alabama

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow celebrates with a teammate during Oct. 26, 2019, matchup against the Auburn Tigers at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

Credit: Chris Graythen

Credit: Chris Graythen

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow celebrates with a teammate during Oct. 26, 2019, matchup against the Auburn Tigers at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

Georgia hired Kirby Smart so it can beat Alabama. Technically, the Bulldogs hired Smart to win a national championship, but those essentially are the same thing. Clemson did it twice. Smart is 0-2 against his old boss, Nick Saban, both losses coming when he had the necessary talent and two-score leads.

And now LSU has a real chance to leapfrog Georgia as SEC challengers to Alabama. The Tigers are 6-1/2-point underdogs at Alabama on Saturday. That sounds like a lot until you consider LSU has lost eight in a row to the Crimson Tide, including a 29-0 drubbing last year in Baton Rouge.

LSU has earned a reputation as a program that underachieved relative to its talent and would never beat Bama. It started with LSU’s loss to the Tide in the 2012 BCS Championship game. That was one of its six losses by more than one score during the nine consecutive against Alabama.

The perception is changing. Alabama and LSU are ranked Nos. 1 and 2, with the orders reversed in the AP and coaches’ polls. It could be different when the first College Football Playoff  is announced Tuesday  night, but that’s irrelevant because the winner of this game will be among the top teams in the next CFP poll.

“You can tell by the rankings it looks like we made up some ground, but we still got to beat them,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron told reporters in Baton Rouge. “You still got to beat them. You still got to go through them to win the SEC West, to win the SEC championship. ... I do believe we’re well-equipped to compete with these guys.”

I believe it, too. I had LSU No. 5 in my preseason rankings in large part because Orgeron hired former Saints assistant Joe Brady to help bring LSU's offense into the modern age. It seemed that could be the needed jolt for a program that had depended too much on grinding out victories with suffocating defense and cloud-of-dust offense.

I might have underestimated the Tigers. It’s not that their offense is better than it’s been in years because, really, that was a low bar. It’s that the improvement has been immediate and dramatic.

LSU has scored 46.8 points per game, second to Alabama (48.6) in the SEC and more than 12 points better than third-place Georgia. The Tigers have scored touchdowns on 34 of 44 trips inside opponents’ 20-yard line. Quarterback Joe Burrow went from pretty good in his first season after transferring from Ohio State, to breaking LSU’s season passing touchdown record in seven games.

After LSU lost 24-10 at Alabama in 2017, Orgeron famously vowed: "We're coming, and we ain't backing down." At the time, it seemed to be just one of those wacky things the colorful coach likes to say. The statement looked even more preposterous after Alabama shut out LSU at Tiger Stadium last November.

Orgeron’s words look more credible since his new outlook helped LSU become one the best offensive teams in the country.

“I think that our guys are equipped (to beat Alabama), and this is the best football team we have had going into this game,” Orgeron said.

The Tigers have always had the talent. They’ve struggled to beat beat Alabama because, well, every team except Clemson has trouble doing it as more than a one-off. But LSU also lacked the quarterback, the imagination to use him, or some combination of each.

Now LSU also has a good quarterback, good wide receivers and a good plan to use them all. It’s similar to how Saban changed Alabama’s offensive approach to allow QBs Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa do their thing.

“We’ve become more of a spread team, they have become more of a spread team,” Saban said during his media session in Tuscaloosa. “We’ve done it for a few years now. This is their first time to really sort of open it up, and it’s paid tremendous dividends.”

There’s a sense that the Bulldogs are falling behind the trend. They’ll spread out and throw the ball, sure, but running the ball behind physical line play is closer to Smart’s heart. That approach backfired during Georgia’s loss to South Carolina.

The Bulldogs are not producing many explosive plays. This season Georgia ranks 62nd in Football Outsiders’ explosive drive rate. Alabama ranks No. 2, behind Oklahoma. LSU is fourth, one spot ahead of Ohio State. Clemson is 15th.

Of course, it’s possible to produce big plays running the ball. Georgia has done that. The Bulldogs ranked No. 3 in explosive drives in 2018 and No. 9 in 2017. They did it despite explosive pass rankings of No. 32 in 2018 and No. 22 in 2017, according to Bill Connelly’s opponent-adjusted statistics.

Certainly, offensive personnel are a contributing factor in Georgia’s relative lack of big pass plays (not to mention the weather conditions vs. Kentucky). Attrition left the Bulldogs with no proven receiver for 2019. Lawrence Cager’s big day against Florida provided some hope that he can be the guy Jake Fromm goes to for long gains.

Still, Smart has been steadfast in his belief that Georgia’s best identity is feeding tailbacks behind its big offensive line. We’ve seen what can happen when an opponent negates it.

LSU once was the same way. Those days are over.

“It’s much more difficult to make explosive plays just running the ball,” Saban said. “These guys (LSU) make a ton of explosive plays because of what they’ve evolved to.”

That’s main reason why the Tigers have a real chance to topple the Tide this weekend in Tuscaloosa.