Tennessee was as ready as it could be.
The Volunteers were coming off a 30-24 ray-of-hope upset victory at Auburn and had Alabama right where it wanted the Crimson Tide: Neyland Stadium, with thousands of Tennessee fans praying for a miracle upset.
Then, the Vols kicked off.
“It’s all fun and games,” said UL-Lafayette coach Billy Napier, whose team fell 56-14 to Alabama in September, “until you’re looking them in the eye.”
The siege of Knoxville ended quickly:
Alabama touchdown. Twenty-eight to 0 after the first quarter.
The second quarter was a 14-14 “draw.” As his team headed to the halftime locker room down 42-14, a sideline reporter asked Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt how his Vols could slow down the Tide.
“We’re not going to slow them down until we get another recruiting cycle,” said Pruitt, Bama’s former defensive coordinator.
Alabama has been good before in Nick Saban’s tenure, but this Crimson Tide unit (8-0) looks like the Death Star, cruising through space and pulverizing planets as it goes.
Now it is No. 4 LSU’s turn to try to go all Luke Skywalker and exploit the one tiny weakness No. 1 Alabama may have.
Use the force, Tigers. You may need it.
“I didn’t have any answers at the end of the game. A couple of weeks later I still don’t,” said Missouri coach Barry Odom, whose Tigers held Bama to its lowest point total of the season and still lost 39-10. “You have to eliminate the explosive plays when your defense is on the field. The turnover margin has to be in your favor and you have to be really good on third down to extend drives. If you can do that, their offense won’t be on the field. But they’re really good in every area. The explosive plays set them apart.”
One big play spelled the difference for Texas A&M between really pushing Alabama into the second half and a being the victim of another blowout defeat.
The Aggies were countering Alabama, hanging in against the champ’s hammer blows. It was 7-7, then 14-10 Bama, then 21-10 and finally 21-13 with just over three minutes before halftime when Seth Small booted a 32-yard A&M field goal.
Alabama got the ball back and faced a third-and-7 at its 28. Momentum was there for the Aggies to grasp, and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher could sense it.
“If we get that stop,” said Fisher, Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU, “maybe we tie it or its at least 21-16.”
Instead, Bama went off.
On third down, Tua Tagovailoa victimized the Aggies on a busted coverage, throwing 52 yards to wide receiver DeVonta Smith of Amite, the same man who caught his winning touchdown pass in overtime against Clemson in January’s national championship game.
The pass moved the ball all the way to the A&M 20. Two plays later, Tua hit Hale Hentges on a 6-yard touchdown pass for a 28-16 halftime lead. By the end of the third quarter Tua was on the bench – the Heisman frontrunner’s next fourth-quarter snap will be his first this season — and Bama led 45-16 as it coasted to the 45-23 victory.
“They’re so dynamic and have so many playmakers,” Fisher said. “They make you play consistently. We had a one-score game and a chance to have the ball, and instead they made it a three-score game to start the second half.”
So is defeating Alabama a hopeless crusade? No, coaches say, but it does require a precise mix of factors.
“You need to be physical up front,” said Pruitt, Alabama’s defensive coordinator the previous two seasons. “If you play split safeties to take the wide receivers away, you are going to be even in the box, so you can’t give up 1-on-1s. If you outnumber them in the box, you have to play them man-to-man and not let them create explosive plays. You have to affect the quarterback. You may have to fool him with disguises, though we didn’t do that very well.”
Napier, who coached at Alabama in two stints under Saban, said you have to strike an offensive balance and eat into the Tide’s defensive depth. LSU’s offense has not been potent but it has been exceptionally balanced, averaging 193.0 yards passing and 190.6 rushing.
“Athletic quarterbacks have had success in the past, quarterbacks that can take off running and scramble,” said Napier, referring to something LSU quarterback Joe Burrow can do. “I don’t know if they’ve sewed up their kicking situation. That was an issue when we played. I think there’s a drop off in their defensive personnel in the twos, so if you can get the play count up, hold the ball, have some cumulative effect and keep the game tight. That’s the problem, the game gets out of hand in a hurry, you become one-dimensional and that’s kind of playing into their hands when they can play split safety.”
And, as with most teams, finding a way to pressure Tagovailoa is critical.
“Right now, I’m watching their tape against Arkansas State, and he’s got a clean pocket all day,” Napier said. “Nobody hardly even touches the guy. If you blitz, they’ve got three speed demons out there on the perimeter, so you have to have the ability to cover those guys. That’s going to be a key, who can cover their skill and affect the quarterback, take some chances.”
LSU has the skilled defensive backs to cover Alabama’s skilled receivers. Whether that will be enough to help turn the Tide is hard to say, since no one has pushed Bama all the way to the fourth quarter.
Knowing what to do against the Crimson Tide is one thing. Making it happen is something else entirely.