TUSCALOOSA – Tua Tagovailoa thought Neyland Stadium was a loud environment, but several of his elder teammates have made sure to educate Alabama’s sophomore quarterback on exactly what he’ll be walking into Saturday night in Baton Rouge.
“I think this is what college football is all about,” Tagovailoa said Monday. “This is what the fans want to see, this is what everyone wants to see, and getting the opportunity to perform at a place like (Tiger Stadium) is going to be really exciting.”
In its last visit to Death Valley, the top-ranked Crimson Tide required a late touchdown run from then-freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts before escaping with a 10-0 victory after both teams entered the fourth quarter locked in a scoreless game.
For senior outside linebacker Christian Miller, it was a quintessential Alabama-LSU matchup in what has become a hotly-contested divisional series despite the Tide’s current seven-game win streak.
“I remember it was very loud, crazy atmosphere, which I like. I liked the excitement of that,” Miller said Monday. “This is what you come to a school like Alabama for. I remember it was just back and forth, very physical, and overall just a matchup of two heavyweights going at it. I expect nothing less this game.”
As No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) readies for a return trip to Tiger Stadium on Saturday, players from both sides are preparing for what will inevitably be their toughest test of the season, which is quite the statement for a fourth-ranked Tigers squad (7-1, 4-1 SEC) that already has three Top-10 victories over then eighth-ranked Miami (33-17), seventh-ranked Auburn (22-21) and second-ranked Georgia (36-16).
“We know this is going to be our toughest test as a team – offensively, defensively, special teams,” senior running back Damien Harris said Monday. “We know they’re going to present the biggest challenge and throw the most adversity at us. But, like I said, it’s what we train for. I think that as long as we go out there and play our best football, we’ll be fine.”
Meanwhile, the lone knock against the dominant Crimson Tide this season is the perception they’ve yet to play a competitive game, outscoring opponents by an average of more than 38 points per game this season with its starting quarterback yet to take a snap in the fourth quarter in any game so far.
“You definitely find out about yourself in big games like this,” Miller said of LSU. “We just haven’t had to go toe-to-toe with anyone yet.”
That could very well change Saturday, not that Alabama is going to change what it does this week.
“I mean, every week when we play a different team they’re going to say this is going to be the first test for Alabama,” Harris said. “And then we go out and we play well, we execute well and we end up winning the games, (but) then after the game, they’re like, ‘Oh, they still haven’t played anybody.’ So that’s not something we worry about.
“We’re not worried about who the outside world thinks is a challenge for us. We know we’ve faced a lot of different challenges and a lot of teams that have given us some form of adversity in the game. This will be no different.”
What could be different is how Tagovailoa handles true adversity, including a deafening and extremely hostile environment under the lights at Tiger Stadium, where LSU fans will be particularly juiced ahead of the rivalry’s 11 th Top 15 matchup since 2008.
“Noise is obviously a factor anytime you play on the road. But in a game like this, in an atmosphere like this, it’s probably going to be something that the quarterback and the whole offensive team will have to manage well and stay focused on,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said Monday. “I think Tua has demonstrated that he is able to stay in the moment in terms of being able to execute. I think that it’s going to be really, really important in the atmosphere and against the good team that we’re going to play, especially the way they play defense.
“There are a lot of challenges here and we’ll find out a lot about who we are in terms of how we meet these challenges.”
Among those challenges is LSU’s traditionally-stout defense, which is ranked third in the SEC and seventh nationally in scoring, allowing an average of 15.1 points per game. That includes surrendering an average of just 9 ½ points in its last two wins over No. 6 Georgia (36-16) and No. 21 Mississippi State (19-3).
The Tigers’ defensive pass efficiency ranks fifth nationally and first in the SEC limiting opposing offenses to a passer rating of 98.27, which is nearly 43 points better than any team Alabama has played previously this season. Tennessee has the next closest efficiency rating at 141.02 to rank 90 th nationally, followed by Missouri (95 th , 142.98), Arkansas State (102, 145.03), Arkansas (103, 145.28), Ole Miss (104, 145.45), Texas A&M (110, 149.29), Louisiana-Lafayette (116, 153.59) and Louisville (117, 153.96).
For Tagovailoa, who said he feels “100 percent” on his injured right knee, the key to passing LSU’s test will be maintaining the same consistency in preparation that’s carried the Tide to its eighth 8-0 start to the season since 2008.
“Every team that we’ve faced, we’ve (had to) take them head on,” Tagovailoa said. “You’ve got to prepare for them as if it’s a championship game, so there’s no difference in how they’re going to prepare for these guys.”
Hurts returns to practice: After sitting out the bye week while recovering from a “minor procedure” on his ankle last week, Hurts was back at practice Monday but remains “day-to-day,” Saban said earlier in the day.
“It’s going to be day-to-day. Today he’s going to start throwing, (and) we’ll see how he moves around in the pocket,” Saban said. “But he’s making good progress. These things typically take a week to 10 days before players start feeling really comfortable. So we’ll have to see how he responds each day with the workload as we increase it through the course of the week.”
During the brief, one-period open media viewing Monday, Hurts was seen throwing from his knees to Tagovailoa, but not doing much in the way of running or jogging.
Also returning to action Monday was sophomore receiver Devonta Smith (hamstring), who hasn’t participated much the last two weeks after injuring his right leg in the first half of the Missouri game Oct. 13. Smith was seen running with the rest of the first-team receivers during individual drills, sporting the familiar strap to relieve stress on his right hamstring.