Is this the best quarterback match-up in Alabama-LSU history? You bet it is.

Coach Ed Orgeron has called quarterback Joe Burrow "one of the greatest recruits in LSU history."Derrick E. Hingle/USA Today

Tony Barnhart

Two moments come quickly to mind as we get ready for this year’s Game of the Century—No. 1 LSU vs. No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa (3:30p.m., CBS):

**--I was in New York working for CBS when LSU beat Alabama 9-6 in overtime in 2011. Tim Brando, Spencer Tillman and I didn’t know if we had seen the best—or the worst—big game that had ever been played. Of course Alabama won the rematch 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl for the BCS national championship.

LSU has not beaten Alabama since, a string of eight straight losses to the Crimson Tide.

**--It was the spring of 2013 when I sat in the office of Nick Saban, the Alabama head coach. Alabama was coming off a national championship season (13-1) but Saban, as is his habit, was always looking for a way to make his great program even greater. He takes pride in being a step—maybe two steps—ahead of everybody else.

So I asked him: “What’s next?”

He didn’t hesitate.

“We have to start scoring more points,” he said. “That’s just the way the game is going to be played.”

Translation: If this is way the game is going to be played, we’re going to do it better than anybody else.

A little less than a year later (Jan. 10th, 2014) Saban would hire Lane Kiffin and give him unprecedented control of the offense. Alabama would recruit a bunch of elite receivers, and the re-invention of the Crimson Tide offense was off and running.

Remember that Saban grudgingly did all this. He was the one who looked at the spread, up-tempo offenses with the run/pass option (RPO) and famously said: “Is this what we want football to be?” He even tried, unsuccessfully, to get the rules changed.

Well, yeah, it is what we wanted football to be. The spread offense with the RPO became the great equalizer, like the three-point shot in basketball. It allowed smaller, faster teams (see Ole Miss under Hugh Freeze) to compete with the bigger, stronger team that had a roster of five-star players. And it was fun to watch.

While Saban was making these changes, Les Miles was squandering all kinds of talent at LSU because he refused to change. He was fired four games into the 2016 season. Ed Orgeron was promoted from defensive line coach to head coach that December.

Orgeron tried to remake the LSU offense to match Alabama by hiring Matt Canada away from Pittsburgh in 2017. It didn’t work for a lot of reasons. He tried to fix it internally in 2018 but after a 29-0 loss at No. 1 Alabama last year in Baton Rouge, Orgeron decided something more radical was in order.

He hired Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints as the passing game coordinator and turned him loose to use quarterback Joe Burrow and a very talented group of wide receivers as he saw fit.

There was reason to be skeptical. LSU had sung from this hymn book before only to go back to what was comfortable and familiar in the big games.

But during SEC Media Days in July I had a chance to spend some one-on-one time with Burrow. We talked about whether or not LSU would actually RUN such an offense once the games actually began.

“Oh yeah. We’re going to run it,” said Burrow with a confident smile. “We’re going to average 40 points a game.”

Well, as it turns out, LSU is NOT averaging 40 points a game as the showdown with Alabama draws near. The Tigers are No. 4 in scoring averaging 46.8 points per game.

But Alabama is No. 2 in scoring at 48.6 points per game.

Passing offense? LSU is No. 2 (377.6 ppg). Alabama is No. 5 (338.6 ppg).

Total offense? LSU is No. 4 (535.9 yards per game). Alabama is No. 9 (506.6 ypg).

Simply put: A lot has changed since the two met in November of 2011.

The main thing that has changed is that LSU and Alabama, which have always had great athletes at every other position, are now being led by elite quarterbacks.

LSU’s Burrow, the transfer from Ohio State, is now among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. He is No. 2 nationally in passing yards (350.60 ypg) and touchdown passes (30).

“They’re very efficient in the passing game,” Saban said during his Monday press conference. “Joe has done a really, really good job at quarterback. I think Joe is capable of making of every throw.”

“I believe he’s the greatest quarterback in the country,” Orgeron said. He has also called Burrow “one of the top recruits in LSU history.”

Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is trying to return from an ankle injury suffered against Tennessee on Oct. 19. He is seventh in passing yards per game (309.50) and fourth in passing touchdowns (27). Saban said Monday that Tagovailoa’s status for Saturday will be a game-time decision.

LSU ain’t buying it.

“Tua is a fantastic player as we all know,” said Orgeron. “(He’s) a great competitor. We totally expect him to play.”

So the winning quarterback in the LSU-Alabama game could ultimately win the Heisman Trophy.

More simply put, there is a case to be made that Saturday will be the best quarterback matchup in the 83-game history of this storied rivalry.

Stay tuned.


Tony Barnhart