Top-ranked Alabama is in the driver seat to make a return trip to the College Football Playoff, and possibly repeat as national champions.

First, the Tide must take care of the rival LSU Tigers at Death Valley on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, CBS).

“They’ve got a very good team, playing very, very well right now,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “New energy and enthusiasm. There have been a lot of really good games between these two teams through the years. It’s kind of developed into a rivalry game of sorts. We’ve both been ranked over the last eight or nine years, most of the time in the Top 10.

“This is a real challenge game for us. We’ll find out who we are, what we’re made of and how we can compete in a very difficult circumstance.”

It is not quite the annual “Game of the Century” that it was in recent years, but it is still LSU and Alabama, and there still is quite a big at stake.

The Tigers (5-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) fired head coach Les Miles after a 2-2 start, but they are 3-0 under Ed Orgeron, and they are No. 13 in the first CFP rankings. They can tighten the race in the SEC West if they can upset the top-ranked Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0).

Saban said he considers LSU unbeaten, because the Tigers have not lost on Oregeron’s watch. He repeated the idea to his team during the two-week buildup to this showdown.

A win would greatly bolster Orgeron’s case to be named the permanent successor to Miles, but with games against Arkansas, Florida and Texas A&M in a 13-day stretch looming, there is still a lot of regular-season work left after Alabama for LSU and Orgeron to get to where they want to be.

Both teams are coming off an open date and should be well rested.

That should be especially good news for Tigers All-America running back Leonard Fournette, who is the healthiest he has been all season. He had two weeks to heal after a record-setting performance against Ole Miss in the Tigers’ most recent game.

“I haven’t really seen a guy dominate a game like he did that game for a long time,” Saban said. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and he looks as good as ever and maybe even better.”

The Crimson Tide stymied Fournette in their 30-16 win last season, holding him to 31 yards on 19 rushes.

“We’re going to do some things with Leonard that he’s able to do,” Orgeron said. “I think that whatever happened last year is the past. We have a great game plan for Leonard.

“But it’s going to be very tough moving the football on this defense. They’re one of the best defenses I’ve ever seen.”

Orgeron said the key to the game will be whether the Tigers can get Fournette the football “in some plays that we think he runs very well” and protect quarterback Danny Etling.

Fournette is coming off the most prolific rushing game in LSU history — a 284-yard performance in a 38-21 win against Ole Miss. However, it is Fournette’s least-productive performance in his three seasons that also is significant entering this game. Alabama smothered Fournette last season and used single coverage outside, blatantly showing the hand of a defensive game plan that invited LSU to throw the ball.

Fournette and the offensive line will be committed to improving significantly on that performance, and he will have to be a bigger factor than he was last season if the Tigers are going to pull off the upset.

“We think we can get some receivers down the field, but we got to be able to protect (Etling) long enough to be able to protect the quarterback to get those plays down the field,” Orgeron said. “It’s going to be protection first. We have to protect our quarterback in order to get the ball down the field. We’re going to have to do some things with Leonard that enables him to be in space and run the football.”

Alabama leads the series 50-25-5 and has won each of the past five meetings. In the past five games at Tiger Stadium, each team scored a total of 103 points, and two of those games went into overtime. The Crimson Tide won three of those five games.

Prediction

The key to this game will be whether Alabama can slow down Fournette like they did last year. The LSU star back is coming off a career game and he is the healthiest he has been all season. Look for Fournette to improve on last year’s performance and make this a close one for the Tigers. At the end though, Bama and Jalen Hurts make enough plays to continue on their College Football Playoff march.

Pick

Alabama 34, LSU 27



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