As a native of Kansas City who spent the last three years winning three FCS national championships at North Dakota State, Jabril Cox qualifies as your prototypical outsider when it comes to the LSU-Alabama rivalry.
Now that Cox is wearing the Tigers’ colors in his first season in Baton Rouge, the graduate transfer linebacker has gotten a different perspective on the renewal of the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division series scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
“It’s ‘Bama week,” Cox said. “Everybody knows what this means, even if you’re not a part of LSU. Even outside, everyone knows that this game is a rivalry. We have to stay focused. Nobody outside of LSU believes in us except for us.”
LSU stopped an eight-year losing streak against Alabama with a 46-41 victory in Tuscaloosa. It was the defining moment in the Tigers’ pursuit of a 15-0 season and national championship.
Fast-forward to 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. The game is a shell of itself in comparison to many years featuring two Top 5 teams with the winner gaining in the inside track to the SEC Championship game and a coveted spot in the College Football Playoffs.
LSU lost a school-record 14 players to the NFL Draft. Coupled with opt outs by four players that started during their careers – including this year’s leading receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. – and a key injury to starting quarterback Myles Brennan, the Tigers have taken a huge tumble from their 2019 pedestal atop the college football world.
LSU’s 3-4 overall record is the result of a defense that stumbled throughout much of the first six games and an offense that’s relying on a pair of true freshmen at quarterback in T.J. Finley and Max Johnson for answers in the wake of losing Marshall – its biggest weapon – following last week’s 20-7 loss at Texas A&M.
“It’s another game on the schedule that we’ve got to face,” LSU wide out Jaray Jenkins, the team’s third-leading receiver with 18 catches for 321 yards and TD. “Whoever gets in the way we’ve got to attack the opponent, no matter who it is and try and get the victory. We know what Alabama’s going to do. We’ve got to do what we do best to get the win.”
LSU split its first six games against the lighter portion of its schedule, avoiding consecutive defeats which has been a hallmark under head coach Ed Orgeron.
To maintain that trend LSU will have to do so against the most difficult stretch of its schedule that began with last week’s loss at No. Texas A&M and continues with No. 1 Alabama (8-0) and a road game with No. 6 Florida (7-1) next week.
“Every year we get hyped up for this game because we’ve always been the underdog when we play Alabama,” LSU junior offensive lineman Ed Ingram said. “This is always a task. It’s no problem getting too excited for it.”
LSU may be used to being an underdog in its series with Alabama but never quite like this.
The Crimson Tide have been installed as near five-touchdown favorites to come into Tiger Stadium where they haven’t surrendered a touchdown in their last 11 quarters (including overtime in 2014).
“Being from Alabama everyone’s going to be rooting for Alabama where I’m from,” LSU sophomore cornerback Cordale Flott of Saraland, Ala. “Just going against the critics, doing the best that I can. Getting together and trying to get this win.”
LSU has been outscored 59-6 – a stretch of 165 minutes, 7 seconds – since it last scored a touchdown against Alabama in Tiger Stadium during the first quarter of ’14 game which the Tigers lost, 20-13 in overtime.
Moreover, LSU’s been shutout only four times at home over the last 28 years – all the hands of Alabama – and the Crimson Tide are riding a 96-game win streak under head coach Nick Saban – the longest in FBS history – against unranked opponents.
“This is what we want to accomplish as a whole is beating them to mess up their record,” Cox said, “and try to prove to everybody that we’re going in the right direction and building a championship program just like Coach O (Ed Orgeron) said.
Alabama has some of the nation’s premier players in Heisman Trophy candidate Mac Jones at quarterback, running back Najee Harris and wide receiver DeVonta Smith of Amite.
Jones ranks third nationally in passing with 2,728 yards and 23 touchdowns and Smith is among the nation’s top receivers with 72 catches for 1,074 yards and 12 TDs.
Baton Rouge natives Christian Harris and Dylan Moses are 1-2 in tackles for the Tide with 57 and 56, respectively.
Alabama is sixth nationally in total offense (555.2) and third in scoring (47.2) and faces a LSU defense that despite its best effort of the season last week, still ranks 112th nationally in total defense (478.6) and 84th in scoring defense (33.6).
“When you have a chance to shock the world, we’ve just got to play to the best of our ability on offense, defense and special teams,” Jenkins said. “Once all phases come together to win a game, I feel nobody can beat us. We’ve just got to play the best that we can. I feel like we’re ready for it. This game will be the time that we do it. We’re going to let our game speak for itself.”