Rabalais: LSU has worked hard to change its fate, and not break, against Alabama. Will it work?

1 month ago The Advocate 0

There is a saying: It is the fate of glass to break.

There is history: It is the fate of LSU to lose to Alabama.

The trail of shards runs all the way back to that night in January 2012 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Two months after LSU was king of the mountain with that heavyweight bout of a 9-6 overtime victory in Tuscaloosa, the Tigers were cast down into the abyss with a 21-0 shutout defeat.

They haven’t found their way out yet.

Loss.

Loss.

Loss.

Loss.

Loss.

Loss.

Loss and loss.

Each year as the streak grows, its weight mounts.

“It’s one of those things when you start losing the pressure builds so much it’s hard to overcome it,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said during the “Rivalries” episode of ESPN’s epic documentary series “College Football 150 — The American Game.”

Brown was talking about former Ohio State coach John Cooper’s failure to beat Michigan. But he could have been talking about LSU’s failure to beat Alabama.

“It’s burdensome and then some for the players,” said former coach Rick Neuheisel, a CBS Sports college football analyst. “It’s bigger for the coaches if they’re lucky to have been there for all of it.”

No LSU coach has been here for all eight losses. Maybe they were the lucky ones.

“Sometimes it’s why you’re shown the door,” Neuheisel said. “No question Les Miles was shown the door because of his inability to crack the code of Nick Saban since 2011.”

Ed Orgeron, Miles’ successor, may have refused to call Alabama by name during LSU’s open date week, (“Our opponent,” he growled), but he has never shied away from the fact that to be considered a successful coach at LSU you have to beat Alabama. At least once in awhile.

It has often been this way for LSU when it comes to Alabama. Charles McClendon was Bear Bryant’s first former pupil to beat the master 50 years ago Friday. But his own nine-game losing streak to Bama and the Bear from 1971-79 helped hasten his forced retirement despite being LSU’s winningest coach ever. Back in 1946 the rallying cry for LSU was “Beat Bama for Bernie!” a reference to then coach Bernie Moore and LSU’s quest for its first win over Alabama since … 1909.

LSU beat Alabama 31-21. Maybe LSU’s anthem this year should be “Beat Bama for … anyone.”

The old cliché, older than “Beat Bama for Bernie!” even, says to be the best you have to beat the best. Clearly, LSU has channeled its considerable resources, financial and physical, into trying to topple the king:

• Alabama has long had a squad of non-coaching analysts. LSU now has a squad of non-coaching analysts, many of whom have been working for months on Alabama (sorry, “The Opponent.”)

• Alabama, and a lot of other schools, surged past LSU in terms of facilities, facilities Saban insisted be built as condition of him taking the LSU job 20 years ago. LSU now has a locker room filled with purple pods that turn into first class airliner-like beds, a gourmet nutrition center and a room inspired by the U.S. Army that projects enemy (sorry, opposing team) formations onto a wall so players can learn to react to them.

• And, perhaps most importantly, Saban chucked his power running game proclivities for an up-tempo, pass-first offense. Saban went kicking and screaming, perhaps, but he went. Orgeron did this year what Miles never could at LSU (though he has at Kansas), which is convert to the spread offense. Ever the recruiter, he got Joe Burrow to bet on the come and transfer from Ohio State last year. The dividends have been practically priceless.

LSU throwing money and personnel at its Alabama gap didn’t surprise anyone. LSU throwing the ball first then deciding to run it sometime later has shocked the shoulder pads off everyone, and been a background buzz heard throughout this college football season.

“I don’t think in my lifetime,” ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said, “I can remember talking about LSU’s offense in that fashion.”

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LSU’s transformational construction project just happens to intersect with a moment when Fortress Alabama is vulnerable.

The defense, missing key players like injured former University High star Dylan Moses, isn’t forged from classic, old-fashioned Birmingham steel. It has soft spots. And I’m waiting for the TLC reality series on Tua “Tightrope” Tagovailoa and his high ankle sprain to debut any day now.

So, the question boils down this for LSU: If not now, when?

If AP No. 1 LSU can’t beat No. 2 Alabama (it’s a No. 2 versus No. 3 battle according to the College Football Playoff rankings) when its quarterback is limping and LSU’s quarterback is the Heisman Trophy front runner, when the defenses are on par and Orgeron has countered Saban’s coaching chops with bright young strategists like Dave Aranda and Joe Brady, when will LSU beat the Crimson Tide? When will LSU be able to turn this one-sided series into an honest to goodness rivalry again, because right now, it ain’t.

“I think anytime you talk about a rivalry, if one’s beating the other one all the time, that’s not a rivalry,” said Jimmy Johnson, Coach O’s old boss with the Miami Hurricanes, in that ESPN documentary. “If you’ve got two teams and they’re going back and forth, that’s a rivalry.”

Saturday, in what is expected to be one helluva entertaining back-and-forth sequel to 2011’s “Game of the Century,” LSU has a chance to win.

A chance to change its fate.

A chance not to break, but to break through.