Kelly, Saban center stage in collision between Tigers, Tide

WILY TIGER: Brian Kelly enters his second contest as LSU’s coach against Nick Saban and Alabama. (Photo by GUS STARK, LSU Athletics)

By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Maybe it’s because Alabama’s Nick Saban and LSU’s Brian Kelly are the two oldest and most experienced head football coaches in the SEC.

Maybe it’s because even with the same lofty annual preseason expectations, no two seasons are alike. But they have the maturity of two veterans comfortable in their skin, confident of sticking to their processes of building and preparing winning football teams for decades no matter how seasons transpire.

That feeling has been prevalent this season for Saban and Kelly as the No. 8 Tide (7-1 overall, 5-0 SEC West) host the No. 14 Tigers (6-2 overall, 4-1 SEC West) tonight at 6:45 in Bryant-Denny Stadium in a CBS primetime contest.

While this is a battle in which the victor will grab control of the league’s West Division entering the final few weeks of the regular season, it doesn’t have national title implications.

Both teams, which have their share of flaws, would have to win the rest of their regular season games and then have to beat defending national champion Georgia in the SEC title game.

And even then, it wouldn’t be a lock for Alabama, which folded at home allowing 21 Texas fourth-quarter points in a 34-24 Sept. 9 loss. The Longhorns are ranked No. 7 one spot ahead of the Crimson Tide in the first College Football Playoff committee rankings released earlier this week.

LSU has an even bigger mountain to climb. Its Sept. 3 opening season 45-24 loss to Florida State (now No. 4 in the CFP rankings) left a bad taste in the mouths of media and coaches poll voters. Then, a 55-49 Sept. 30 loss at Ole Miss (now No. 10 in the CFP rankings) with one of the worst LSU defensive performances in decades sealed the notion the Tigers aren’t a national championship team.

So, for both Saban and Kelly, it’s about finding ways to win despite the lingering problems at hand.

Alabama’s offense is improving but still mediocre (eighth in the SEC in scoring at 30.6 ppg, ninth in total offense at 366.6 ypg) compared to its recent past juggernauts. Its defense is good (second in SEC in points allowed at 16.5, third in yards allowed at 305.6 ypg) but far from the dominating units of Saban’s six national title teams.

Yet Saban, in his 28th year as a Division 1 head coach and having turned 72 years old Tuesday, seems to be relishing the challenge of improving a team that has had to rally in the second halves for SEC wins over Texas A&M (26-20) and Tennessee (34-20) and held on for a 24-20 victory over Arkansas which is still winless in league play.

“I enjoy coaching this team,” Saban said after the Tennessee win. “That’s not to say they’re taking years off my life, but I’m OK with that. It’s fun because they’ve got a good spirit about them . . . the players legitimately care about each other. They respond well to their coaches. So, it’s really fun to coach them. I can’t say enough about their competitive spirit when they need to have it.”

LSU has a national championship caliber offense ranked in the top 10 nationally in 7 categories: No. 1 in scoring (47.4), total offense (552.9), passing TDs (26), 3rd-down conversions (57.8), and first downs (217) as well as No.2 in pass efficiency (192.6) and No. 3 in passing (339.9).

The 62-year-old Kelly, in his 20th year as a Division 1 head coach, has worked to stabilize a Tigers’ defense that was torched for 13 TD passes in its first five games and allowed 1,233 yards and 94 points combined in the Ole Miss loss and 49-39 win at Missouri.

Since switching and sticking to a 4-3 alignment, then moving play wrecking Harold Perkins Jr. from middle linebacker to his more natural spot outside, and then hiring defensive line guru and former LSU assistant Pete Jenkins as D-line consultant, LSU has allowed just four TDs and a FG in its last 30 possessions.

Now, Kelly has to face Alabama using three true freshmen and a sophomore in his cornerback rotation since transfer CBs Zy Alexander (injury) and Denver Harris and Duce Chestnut (both apparently being disciplined by Kelly) are all unavailable.

“We’re better defensively than where we were,” Kelly said after Thursday’s practice. “We made steady progress and we’re still progressing. I told our defense after practice today it was night and day compared to where it was against Missouri.

“We have to perform. We have to tackle. We have to play the ball in the air. We’ve got to have 11 guys executing together, but we’re definitely making progress that I wanted to see with my own eyes.” 

Go figure 

1-2: LSU head coach Brian Kelly’s record vs. Alabama (1-0 with LSU, 0-2 with Notre Dame) 

5 Consecutive victories over Alabama from 2003 to 2007 is LSU’s longest winning streak against the Crimson Tide 

7 straight games currently of more than 500 total offense yards by LSU 

12-6: Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s record vs. LSU (12-5 with Alabama, 0-1 with Michigan State)

Contact Ron at ronhigginsmedia@gmail.com