ENGSTER: Stage set for another showdown with Saban

By JIM ENGSTER | President, Tiger Rag Magazine

It may sound absurd, but only Alabama stands in the way of LSU winning the SEC West and playing Georgia in the SEC Championship Game for the right to be in the Final Four of college football on New Year’s Day.

After a convincing 40-24 win at Ole Miss, LSU is destined to be a heavy favorite in remaining dates with Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M. But November starts with the Tigers traveling to Tuscaloosa as the biggest underdogs since the Curley Hallman days. If lighting strikes at Bryant-Denny, LSU is six consecutive wins from capturing its first national football title in a decade.

The Tigers on paper are no match to Nick Saban’s monolithic power in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 4, but all three of LSU’s national titles in 1958, 2003 and 2007 included victories on the road at Alabama. Paul Dietzel beat Paul Bryant 13-3 in the Bear’s first game as head coach at Alabama in a victory at Mobile’s Ladd Stadium in 1958.

LSU’s Saban beat the Tide’s Michael Shula 27-3 in Tuscaloosa in 2003, and Les Miles outlasted Saban’s troops 41-34 in 2007 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

It sounds ludicrous to say just three weeks removed from a treacherous outcome against Troy State, but wins over Florida, Auburn and Ole Miss have LSU in contention for national honors until the points are counted a week from Saturday.

LSU has as much chance of beating Alabama a week from Saturday as Charlie McClendon’s 7-3 Tigers of 1965 had of defeating Frank Broyles’ No. 1 Arkansas team in the 1966 Cotton Bowl. LSU won the showdown in Dallas 14-7 as Arkansas lost its 22-game winning streak and what would have been a second consecutive national title. LSU entered that clash with lopsided losses to Florida, Ole Miss and Alabama and whipped the best team in America.

Sometimes weird things happen in sporting encounters, which is why fans remain ever hopeful that their team will prevail. Saban has been all but invincible the last ten seasons with a 120-13 record and four national titles, and he enjoys a six-game winning streak against his former employer.

Counting the 1995 Independence Bowl match which saw Saban’s Michigan State team fall to Gerry DiNardo’s Tigers 45-26, Saban is 8-4 against LSU with a 278-218 point differential. Six of the games have been decided by less than a touchdown and three have gone to overtime.

The six-game streak for Alabama over LSU has been impressive, but the point difference is 140-63 for Alabama since the Game of the Century was played six Novembers ago. LSU won that one 9-6 in overtime.

It would be shocking for LSU to post a win on Nov. 4, but not impossible. If it happens, look for LSU and Alabama to meet again in the Final Four playoff series. Alabama can afford one loss and still receive an invitation to the playoffs. Once again the Tide could take the national crown while losing its division and conference race.

This has a familiar sound to it.

Saban not the same coach he was in 1998

As foreboding as any test against Saban is today, he has not always enjoyed the mystique that goes with five national championships. Saban, who was a journeyman at 47, is now approaching legendary status and is lauded as the greatest coach of his generation and perhaps of all time.

At Michigan State between the ages of 43 and 48, Saban directed his Spartans to three bowl games and went 0-3 by a combined score of 134-49, a difference of 85 points.

In year four at East Lansing, Saban opened at home with a 23-16 loss to Colorado State and appeared on his way out at MSU. A week later in his 27th game at MSU, his team was throttled 48-14 at Oregon to drop his record to 0-2 in 1998 and 18-18-1 overall.

His fourth team at Michigan State went 6-6 with his job preserved by upsets of Ohio State and Notre Dame. At the close of his fourth season, Saban stood at 24-22-1 with the Spartans, a ledger similar to Jerry Stovall’s 22-21-2 record at LSU after four years.

Stovall was fired at Tigertown after four years in 1983 while Saban was given a reprieve and a fifth year at Michigan State. He responded with a 9-2 record that elicited a $6-million contract at LSU at the then unheard of sum of $1.2 million per season.

Amazingly, Saban, the defensive genius, saw his Spartans surrender 45 or more points eight times in his five seasons as a head coach in the Big Ten. Since then, Saban defenses have allowed opponents to reach 45 points just twice in 16 college seasons. He lost to Georgia 45-16 in his final year at LSU in 2004, and Oklahoma beat Alabama 45-31 to close the 2013 season.

The current Alabama outfit is 8-0 and is outpointing its foes by a margin of 43.0 to 9.8 (34.8 points). LSU is 6-2 and is outscoring its opponents by a margin of 27.4 to 20.0 (7.4 points).

Six years ago, Saban’s best team entered the LSU clash 8-0 and was outscoring opponents 38.1 to 6.9 (31.2 points). The best LSU team coached by Les Miles rolled into Tuscaloosa in 2011 at 8-0 and was outscoring foes by a margin of 39.3 to 11.5 (27.8 points). Thus, Alabama was installed as slight favorite.

Based on comparative scoring, this Alabama team is 27 points better than LSU. It is doubtful that LSU will score a monumental upset, but it is probable the game will be settled by significantly fewer than 27 points.

Ed Orgeron has the luxury of facing Saban with the expectation of losing. Every time Miles tangled with Saban, he was compared to his predecessor, usually unfavorably.

A win over Alabama would make Orgeron the toast of TigerTown just 35 days after hitting rock bottom against Troy. Don’t count on a miracle, but O has defied expectations this season for good and bad.

Most observers predicted LSU would pummel Mississippi State, Syracuse and Troy. When those teams outpointed LSU 87-63 and handed the Bengals two defeats in three weeks, not many would have predicted LSU would beat Florida, Auburn and Ole Miss in a span of 15 days by a margin of 84-63.

Orgeron has to hope his team at Tuscaloosa resembles the Tigers of October rather than the Bengals of September. Otherwise, November will start with an embarrassment to the coach LSU fans will never forgive. And Orgeron is fully aware that his future is dependent on his record vs. the Great Saban.

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