TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Since his first season at Alabama in 2007 when the Crimson Tide just barely made a bowl game, Nick Saban hasn’t lost many games.
He’s a staggering 147-15.
LSU knows that. The Tigers have squared off in some memorable matchups against their former coach. But this year, No. 2 LSU arrives in Tuscaloosa with a little extra swagger behind its new offense led by Heisman candidate Joe Burrow ready to take on the No. 3 Crimson Tide (3:30 ET Saturday, CBS).
The Tigers will need all of their newfound firepower at Bryant-Denny Stadium. To truly put the Crimson Tide’s home dominance under Saban in perspective, consider this: They’ve won one more national championship under Saban since his first season (five) than they’ve lost football games (four) at home.
Take heart, Tigers. It’s a difficult, but not impossible, task. We asked key figures from those four wins why it’s so hard to take down the Tide — and how they did it.
“It’s a unique environment. Everybody in that building is confident they’re about to kick your ass,” said Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who was the Texas A&M offensive coordinator in 2012 when Johnny Manziel and the Aggies raced out to a three-touchdown lead and then held on to beat Alabama 29-24 in Tuscaloosa.
“You just feel the expectation of that fan base, that they’re going to dominate you. You gotta overcome that as a road opponent and just cut it loose. We got out on them 20-0, and even when you’re rolling, you know it’s coming.
“You gotta make sure guys go in there believing they have a chance to win that game.”
That’s a lot easier said than done.
Alabama hasn’t lost a home football game since a 43-37 loss to No. 15 Ole Miss on Sept. 19, 2015, a streak of 31 straight games, the longest home winning streak in the nation. The Crimson Tide’s last 28 wins at home have been by at least 14 points, and nobody has come within three touchdowns of Alabama in Tuscaloosa since a 24-10 win over No. 19 LSU in 2017.
Other than Ole Miss and Texas A&M, the only other two schools to beat Saban at Bryant-Denny Stadium since his first season were LSU in 2011 in a 9-6 triple-overtime slugfest and Auburn in 2010 when the Tigers and Cam Newton rallied from a 24-0 second-quarter deficit to win 28-27.
The four home losses by Saban during that span were by a combined total of 15 points, and all four coaches who beat him are in different locales now.
“For Alabama to be that consistent, it speaks volumes about the depth chart Nick has built, his coaches and the atmosphere and tradition there at Bryant-Denny,” said Hugh Freeze, who steered Ole Miss to back-to-back wins over Alabama in 2014 and 2015 and is now the head coach at Liberty University. “In that league, you can easily slip up and have a bad day and somebody has enough players to beat you on more than one Saturday.
“But that just doesn’t happen to Nick. His record speaks for itself. It takes a special plan and a special belief that you can do it, especially to go into their place and win.”
When LSU won in Tuscaloosa in 2011, the Tigers were ranked No. 1 nationally and the Crimson Tide No. 2. LSU will return as the nation’s top-ranked team on Saturday night, although nobody expects the kind of defensive struggle that gripped that 2011 affair, which featured 28 defensive players — 14 on each side — who would go on to be selected in the NFL draft, including 10 first-rounders.
One of those first-rounders was LSU safety Eric Reid, who’s now in his seventh season in the NFL.
“I remember they called it the ‘Game of the Century.’ Did anybody even score a touchdown?” asked Reid, who wrestled the ball away from Alabama tight end Michael Williams at the goal line for a fourth-quarter interception that saved a touchdown. “We got out of there with a win. It didn’t mean much, though, because they got a chance to play us again in the national championship (and won).
“We were the SEC West champions, the SEC champions, and they were the national champions. That was strange.”
Reid, now with the Carolina Panthers, couldn’t resist throwing a little shade Alabama’s way when asked why the Tide have been so good at home under Saban, only further illustrating that the Alabama-LSU rivalry endures long after players leave the two campuses.
“They pay the refs,” Reid said laughing. “Nah, their system works, and obviously they get great players every year, and they’re a disciplined football team. They don’t make many mistakes.”
One of Reid’s LSU teammates that season, receiver Odell Beckham Jr., said it begins and ends with Saban.
“You know, Nick Saban, he’s the Bill Belichick, in my eyes, of what’s going on. They remind me of each other. He’s just got a system, and Alabama gets players,” said Beckham, now with the Cleveland Browns.
Freeze agrees with Kingsbury that having a genuine belief you can win in Tuscaloosa is as important as anything. The Crimson Tide have won their 31 straight games at home by an average margin of 32.3 points per game, although only six of those opponents during that winning streak have been nationally ranked.
The Rebels had already beaten the Crimson Tide in Oxford the year before they won in Tuscaloosa, and Freeze said that was huge for his team’s confidence.
“I still remember my pregame talk in 2014 when we beat them at our place,” Freeze recounted. “I told them, ‘We’re going to win the game. The goal posts are coming down and don’t let them fall on you.’ Those were my last words to them. Then that next year, I preached to them that we were the better team. I don’t know if we totally were, but they believed that and went out and played that way.”
Ole Miss won the turnover battle 5-0 during its 2015 win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and Freeze acknowledged that was a big key to the win, a game that saw the Rebels play without one of their best players, suspended offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. Freeze said the other key, if you’re going to win in Tuscaloosa, is having a difference-maker at quarterback.
“If you don’t have a guy who can make plays through the air, it’s almost impossible to beat them,” said Freeze, whose quarterback in 2015 (Chad Kelly) threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns. “You’re just not going to go in there, control the ground game and be one-dimensional and beat them. It starts with a quarterback who can make plays in the passing game, and obviously LSU has that this year in Joe Burrow.”
Texas A&M had that in Manziel, who passed for 253 yards and rushed for 92 against Alabama. And in 2010, Auburn had the ultimate difference-maker in Newton, as the eventual national champion Tigers snapped a 20-game home winning streak by the Crimson Tide.
The Tigers, unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in the country, were down 24-7 at the half and didn’t score a touchdown in the first half until there was 5:08 to play when Newton hit Emory Blake for 36 yards to complete a 78-yard scoring drive.
In the locker room at halftime, Auburn coach Gene Chizik had a very pointed message for his team.
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen,” Chizik told his team. “We’re getting the ball coming out. We’re going to take the first possession down and score, and this game is on!”
Even now, Chizik can picture some of those “I’m not really sure about this” looks as he glanced around the locker room, and that’s when he turned it over to Newton — in the locker room and then on the field in the second half.
“He was pissed. We were all pissed, and we got after them in the locker room. We didn’t pull any punches,” Chizik said.
And just as Chizik predicted, Auburn scored a minute into the third quarter on Newton’s 70-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Zachery, one of three touchdowns Newton accounted for in the second half, and a comeback for the ages was on.
“It’s hard to beat Alabama, period. I don’t care where you play them,” said Chizik, who now works as an ESPN/SEC Network analyst. “Nick has done what I think is going to be an unparalleled job anywhere. But when you couple the fact that you’re always going to go against an Alabama football team that’s loaded with talent, coached as well as anybody in the country and then you walk into that environment… that environment is pretty breathtaking on those types of days.
“If you let (the fans) get into the game early, that environment becomes really hard to overcome. You think about those three things. You’ve got all the talent assembled. You’ve got some of the best coaching in the country, and you’ve got an environment right now that is a feeding frenzy on success. Those three things right there make it really, really tough to win there.”
Having veteran players helps, too, especially a senior leader who makes one of those never-give-up plays just before halftime. Alabama’s Mark Ingram broke free for what appeared to be a touchdown on a short pass, a score that would have given the Tide a 28-0 lead. But senior defensive end Antoine Carter came out of nowhere to punch the ball out of Ingram’s hands from behind, and the ball squirted through the end zone for a touchback.
“That play swung the momentum of the football game,” said Ted Roof, who was the Auburn defensive coordinator in 2010 and is now the defensive coordinator at Appalachian State. “It was a great testament to that team’s competitive will. After that, the momentum swung. We played lights out the rest of the game.”
Roof said Carter’s hustle play also helped set the tone for a halftime locker room that was more about correcting mistakes than it was pointing fingers.
“You don’t ever turn on your players. You correct them hard, but you never turn on them,” Roof said. “They knew what was at stake, too. If (Carter) doesn’t run Ingram down, there would probably be no SEC championship and no national championship. We had such strong leadership from our seniors. They got it. They knew it was a 60-minute football game.”
It’s also impossible to over-emphasize the mental part if you’re going to beat Saban in Bryant-Denny Stadium, even if you have to drop Ivan Drago analogies.
Yes, Ivan Drago.
Prior to Texas A&M winning in Tuscaloosa in 2012, Kingsbury said the coaches showed tape to the offensive players all week of Georgia Southern rushing for 302 yards the previous season against an Alabama defense ranked first nationally against the run.
It was a page out of Rocky Balboa’s camp before he fought the monstrous Russian.
“It was the whole ‘Rocky’ thing,” Kingsbury said. “We literally showed three touchdown runs by Georgia Southern to the team just to show, ‘Yeah, they’re not a machine,'” Kingsbury said. “We wanted to prove to them that they can actually believe.”
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