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How college football became 'basketball on grass' since LSU beat Alabama in 2011

The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. — Wilson Alexander The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

Nov. 08-- Nov. 8--JaCoby Stevens measures at 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds. He plays safety for LSU, but sometimes he hears people want to stick him at inside linebacker.

The suggestion partially speaks to Stevens' skill set. He can rush the passer and defend the run, and critics scoff at his coverage ability. Stevens, who's about the same size as LSU's starting linebackers, doesn't feel offended by the comments. He thinks they reflect the nature of college football. The game in 2019 requires speed, and linebackers have gotten smaller as defenses adjust to spread concepts.

Eight years ago, at least in the Southeastern Conference, teams played a different style of football. Offenses ran up the middle with fullbacks and tight ends. Teams huddled, taking their time to approach the line of scrimmage. They focused on time of possession. They tried to break their opponents with power running.

When Alabama and LSU played in 2011, in that "Game of the Century" between the Top 2 teams in the country, neither team scored a touchdown. The starting quarterbacks combined for less than 300 yards passing. The final score was 9-6 as LSU won in overtime -- the last time it has beaten Alabama.

College football had started to change years before that game, but when No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Alabama play this weekend in Bryant-Denny Stadium, the offensive revolution will have reached one of the last outposts of the sports' old style.

Entering the game Saturday, LSU and Alabama rank within the top five nationally in passing offense, scoring offense and yards per play. They both have Heisman candidates at quarterback in Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. Their running games aren't ranked in the top 60 in the country, their presence designed to balance the offense, not direct it.

"It's like basketball on grass now," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. "But you know what, that's the way it is. You have to score points now to win in college football."

College football has morphed throughout its existence, changing with new schemes and formations. Teams eventually adopted spread, up-tempo offenses, and in the late 2000s, scoring spiked. It has risen for a decade. FBS teams have not averaged less than 400 yards per game since 2011.

That year, Alabama and LSU had the top two scoring defenses in the country. LSU allowed 11.3 points per game. Alabama held its opponents to 8.2, making it the last defense in Division I to allow fewer than 10 points per game for a season. They met in a rematch for the national championship, and Alabama won 21-0.

While most of the SEC maintained its power-I formations and methodical pace, college football changed around the country. Offenses abandoned the huddle. Defenses slimmed down. Coaches looked for ways to put their playmakers in one-on-one matchups, creating room for them to maneuver. Passing thrived.

"It's an indication that when you put these skill players in open positions, how much more difficult it is to defend the space, whether it's vertical or horizontal on the field," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "You make it more difficult for the defense because they have to make a lot of plays in space.

"That's the way the game is going now. If you look at the most successful teams offensively, I think they're pretty much all playing that way. It's much more difficult to make explosive plays just running the ball."

Though Alabama had success, winning three national titles between 2009-2012, it joined the trend when Saban hired Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator before the 2014 season.

The Crimson Tide maintained their powerful running game for a few years, but ever since Tagovailoa took over at quarterback in the second half of the 2017 national championship, Alabama has relied on a pass-heavy, run-pass option scheme. Alabama's passing offense jumped last year to No. 6 in the country. It ranked 91st the year before.

This year, knowing LSU needed to change, Orgeron hired passing game coordinator Joe Brady. Along with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, they installed a spread, up-tempo scheme also based on run-pass options. LSU has averaged 46.8 points per game, two touchdowns higher than last season. It ranks 84th in the country in time of possession, but the Tigers have scored at a record-setting pace. Orgeron has joked the team doesn't understand a huddle anymore.

"Right now, we're finessing," right guard Damien Lewis said. "We're airing it out. Then mix in a little run. In 2011, when they straight had the power, it was straight downhill running game, play-action. Now, we spread them out over the field. You don't know if we're running or passing. I like this offense."

Over the past eight years, LSU and Alabama have played football games that resembled wrestling matches. They struggled to score points or gain yards. Alabama won the last eight games by an average score of 24-9. No one expects that this weekend.

LSU and Alabama now stand at the forefront of college football's offensive changes instead of lagging behind. Their running backs catch passes, sometimes lining up as wide receivers. Neither quarterback operates underneath the center. They sometimes empty the backfield with five-receiver sets.

The rivalry looks different than it did that night eight years ago, when the most notable pass was intercepted. The hype surrounding the weekend remains the same, but the teams have adapted to keep pace with the rest of college football. On Saturday, they will display those changes.

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