By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports
This Saturday pits two teams in the College Football Playoff committee’s initial top four against each other: #2 LSU at #4 Alabama. The Tigers and Tide renew a rivalry that has only gotten more spirited under coaches Les Miles and Nick Saban. CBS Sports broadcaster Verne Lundquist offers his thoughts on Saturday’s prime time match-up.
The rivalry adds a new chapter on Saturday. What makes LSU-Bama seemingly always an unforgettable game?
Verne Lundquist: “You need to have sustained excellence. You can have a long-time rivalry, but if both teams don’t bring something to the event, it loses its luster. There are so many subplots with LSU and Alabama, but quite simply, LSU has been a dominant program since Nick Saban was there in the early part of the century. They’ve sustained that excellence since Les Miles replaced Nick Saban. After Nick spent a couple of years in the NFL, he came back to Alabama and the level of excellence in Alabama was restored. You’ve got two great programs, two excellent coaches and the most accomplished football teams in all of college football.”
Both teams are in the top four of the initial CFP rankings. Will one drop out if they lose?
Verne Lundquist: “Definitely. On the air last week, we were discussing this year’s first rankings being released. Adam Zucker said to Gary, ‘Here’s what we think is going on for the first release. What do you think?’ Gary, rather abruptly said, ‘Who cares?’ It’s because it’s all going to sort itself out. I expected Clemson, Ohio State and LSU to be three of the four, and possibly Baylor or TCU as the fourth team. So, when I looked up last night and saw Alabama (in the top four) with one loss, I was surprised. But it will sort itself out after Alabama and LSU play each other. This game has relevance in this context. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than what we’ve had in the past.”
The Tigers have arguably the best team in the country with Leonard Fournette. Your broadcast partner, Gary Danielson has compared him to Herschel Walker multiple times. What do you see when you look at the sophomore?
Verne Lundquist: “I know the exact moment when Gary said that. It was during our telecast of Auburn-LSU when Fournette bowled over Auburn’s safety. Gary said, ‘This is sacred ground here, but he reminds me of Herschel Walker.’ I thought, ‘My gosh, that’s a heck of a context.’ We all remember when Herschel and Georgia played Tennessee, and he ran roughshod right over Bill Bates, the Tennessee safety. That play by Fournette was so reminiscent of Herschel coming on the national stage and announcing himself in the Tennessee game. I think Fournette did roughly the same thing. I’m not ready to anoint him—it’s not a holy trinity, but a holy ten players. If you say Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson and Earl Campbell, you’re stupid if you don’t say Barry Sanders. I would go back to Gale Sayers and Doak Walker. In this era, to have him included in that conversation is a tribute to his accomplishments and I think he deserves to be in that conversation.”
Alabama has the best run defense in the SEC, 3rd best in the country, but they face a different animal in Fournette. Who do you see winning that match-up and is it a key for the game?
Verne Lundquist: “I don’t know that it’s key to the game. I have this sneaking suspicion that we’re going to headline the fact that LSU has Fournette and on Alabama’s side is Derrick Henry. They’re the best two (now that Nick Chubb is out for the year) running backs in the SEC. Thus, they’re two of the best in the country. Don’t forget that LSU has a good run defense as well. One of the stats I read whenever we do an Alabama game is no running back has run for 100 yards this year. They list just 15 guys who have done that since Saban has been at Alabama. I don’t know if Fournette’s streak of 100-yard games will hold up through this week, because Alabama’s defense is one of the outstanding components of this football team. They both have good defenses. I think it’s going to come down to Jacob Coker and Brandon Harris and which one of these quarterbacks are going to prevail. The running backs may negate each other. I don’t think that will happen but it could.”
You mention Brandon Harris. The Tigers are much less one dimensional than they were at the beginning of the year. How key has his development been for this team?
Verne Lundquist: “I think he’s very significant. Harris has thrown in excess of 200 yards for three games in a row. Coaches will refer to their quarterbacks as ’game managers.’ That means he doesn’t screw up. Right now, I think Harris is growing every week. He’s growing into a significant contributor for this team.”
For the Tide, QB Jake Coker has come on recently, I think mostly due to the emergence of Calvin Ridley outside at WR – following in the footsteps of Julio Jones and Amari Cooper. Is that what you see?
Verne Lundquist: “I agree with you. What company that is! Julio Jones is now one of the great receivers in the NFL. I wouldn’t put Ridley at that spot yet, but he’s got 45 catches and he’s just smooth as silk. Boy, they just replace people at that spot. For four years, Amari Cooper was one of the best receivers in college football and this young man Ridley shows promise of stepping right into that role.”
What’s going to be the key as these two teams go at it on Saturday in prime-time?
Verne Lundquist: “In the last seven regular season games, five of them have been decided by a touchdown or less. Four have gone to overtime since 2005. That’s the nature of this rivalry. I can’t tell you what’s going to be the key. I’ll let my partner prognosticate that, but I can tell you it’s going to be a fantastic atmosphere.”
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.