Once a year, 160 or so college kids aged 18 to 22 step on the field in Bryant-Denny or Tiger Stadium and turn into something else. Half crimson, half purple and gold, they play a barely-recognizable brand of football for 60 minutes, a dark genre of the sport fueled by talent and physical fury.
You see the helmets on the field — gold with a tiger, crimson with white numbers — and more than anything else in the world, it makes you think of college football.
There’s really only one game you need to watch this weekend. It’s LSU vs. Alabama, Saturday at 8 p.m. on CBS. It might not equal the 2011 game when they faced off in the greatest college football game of all time, but I reckon it’ll be close.
Nov. 5, 2011 was when undefeated No. 1 LSU met undefeated No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and 60,000 fans showed up to watch. Oh wait, you’re telling me that’s how many people showed up outside of the stadium just to tailgate? Along with LeBron James? And Condoleezza Rice showed up?
It was a bitter rock fight of a game, ending 9-6 in favor of the Tigers. I’m usually partial to offensive showcases, but it was far from boring. You felt every pop of the pads in your stomach, and the players flew around the field to the ball like harpies. It wasn’t a dirty game by any stretch of the imagination, every play just felt mean.
Part of that was due to the contest nearly breaking the frame of the college game itself. Sixty players who saw the field that night got snaps in an NFL game - enough to field two and a half teams. Fourteen were drafted in the first round. Seven of them are all-pros.
No LSU/Alabama game since then has topped that excitement, but each has included the helmets on the field, and the same general aura: it feels like a different sport when the Tigers face the Tide.
We likely won’t look back on the 2018 game with the same amount of awe seven years later, but there’s a pretty good chance it’ll hold the highest amount of NFL talent under one roof out of any regular season college game this year.
In the 2018 version, Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the country, annihilating opponent after opponent in a very different fashion than seven years back.
The Tide are scoring at an unprecedented rate, hitting under 40 points only once this season (a 39-10 win against Missouri), out-gaining opponents by fewer than 200 yards just once (a 45-23 win against Texas A&M). In technical football terms, they’ve been untouchable this year.
They score points and gain yards — a lot of them — and do it with a dominant passing game.
We’ve gotten used to a typical statline from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa: over 65 percent of passes completed, a couple of touchdowns, over a first down per pass thrown, and out of the game before the fourth quarter. Only one quarterback in the past 10 years has averaged over 11 yards per pass attempt. Tagovailoa is currently sitting at 13.6.
This week, he’ll be staring down arguably the two best defensive backs in the nation: sophomores Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams. Delpit is second in the nation with five interceptions, and Greedy Williams only has two because quarterbacks just don’t turn his way very often.
What LSU lacks in complete dominance, they make up for in heads nailed to the wall. Four of the Tigers’ seven wins of the year have come over ranked opponents, three of them over top 10 teams. Their lone loss comes against Florida, a team that just dropped out of the top 10 this week after getting drubbed by Georgia, a team who LSU drubbed just a week before.
All that being being said, you can’t overstate how good the Tide are right now. The game this Sunday is in Death Valley, the most vicious home field advantage for any team in American sports, and they’re favored by two touchdowns.
All the available information points to Alabama covering against LSU. They’re been by far the best team in the country this year, maybe the best version of Saban’s squad we’ve ever seen. But what if it’s not? What if the ghost of the 2011 game shows itself a little more than usual this year?
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.