Everything you need to know about LSU-Alabama and Penn State-Minnesota

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The most recent regular-season battle between the top two teams in the AP poll took place nearly eight years ago to the day. It pitted No. 1 LSU against No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and it was a classic, the 137th-greatest game of all time, in fact. Although the point totals will likely be a lot different, we can only hope for something as stirring on Saturday as AP No. 1 LSU again visits T-Town to play No. 2 Bama.

That 2011 game featured an amazing undercard — primarily, a game between No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 14 Kansas State that defined the Big 12 race and kept Oklahoma State’s national title hopes thriving. It’s the same story this time around. Before LSU-Bama (No. 2 vs. No. 3, per the College Football Playoff rankings) kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS, No. 4 Penn State takes on No. 17 Minnesota at noon ET on ABC.

Let’s walk through the keys to each game.

Can Minnesota hang with the big boys?

The biggest game in the 10-year existence of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium will in many ways pit a known against an unknown.

Minnesota will be the fourth consecutive SP+ top-30 opponent that 8-0 Penn State has faced, following Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State. The Nittany Lions aren’t new to big games; they’ve ranked in the CFP top 10 at some point in four straight seasons.

Minnesota, on the other hand, hadn’t been ranked in the AP top 15 in 15 years until last week, and the Gophers’ back-loaded schedule means they haven’t faced a team better than Nebraska (50th in SP+) to date. Plus, in a hell of a quirk, they haven’t played a full game against a team’s first-string quarterback since Week 2. Some QBs were knocked out of action during the games, and others weren’t playing to begin with.

The Gophers have established a strong identity, but we don’t know everything we need to know about their pass defense because they haven’t had a chance to show us.

How much of a difference does the “backup QBs” thing make?

Clearly a lot, at least in the CFP committee’s eyes. With a series of shaky nonconference wins and perhaps artificially inflated blowouts of mediocre Big Ten teams, the Gophers got the lowest CFP ranking ever for an unbeaten power conference team.

Minnesota’s success, however, cannot be ascribed merely to playing against the wrong QBs. For starters, the Gophers rank eighth in offensive SP+. Plus, their pass defense was solid last season, too, and the pursuit ability of Minnesota’s linebackers and edge players is outstanding enough to grade them 11th in rushing SP+. The defense has quite a bit to offer, even if the degree of difficulty hasn’t been incredibly high.

The “backup QBs!” debate will end soon enough: PSU’s Sean Clifford is a great first-string QB, and the Nittany Lions have one of the best 1-2 receiving punches in the country.

Clifford’s first season as starter has seen some predictable fits and starts, but against Michigan (third in defensive SP+) and Michigan State (11th) the past two games, he completed 56% of his passes, with seven TDs and one INT and a 147.8 passer rating. No one has fared better against Michigan’s defense than Clifford.

Speedy KJ Hamler and tight end Pat Freiermuth are PSU’s anchors. They have 62 catches, 901 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, including seven scores against UM and MSU. If the Minnesota secondary, led by star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and corners Benjamin St-Juste and Coney Durr, can rein these two in and prevent any secondary weapons (namely, sophomores Jahan Dotson or Justin Shorter) from doing too much damage, they’ll have earned all the cred they need.

The Gophers do what they do (but will it work?)

The Minnesota offense is straightforward and effective. The Gophers will run inside zone as much as you’ll let them, mix in some outside zone or split zone as a change of pace, and maybe throw occasionally — probably either go routes or slants against wrong-footed defenders.

It’s predictable, but it works because the Gophers have exactly the pieces they need. The offensive line is hilariously big — anchored by mountainous right tackle Daniel Faalele, the two-deep up front averages 6-foot-6, 326 pounds — and the running back corps is deep and talented. Plus, Tanner Morgan throws a pretty deep ball, and he has a lot of WRs capable of running underneath them.

That’s all well and good, but the Gophers haven’t faced a defense anywhere near the caliber of Penn State’s. They’ve averaged 41 points per game since Big Ten action began, but Illinois’ defense (51st in SP+) has been the best on the docket so far. Penn State’s D ranks sixth.

Even more worrisome: Penn State is first in rushing SP+. The tackles occupy blockers, and the ends and LBs (Yetur Gross-Matos, Shaka Toney, Micah Parsons, Ellis Brooks) swarm.

Minnesota will probably ask Morgan and dangerous receivers Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell to carry more weight in this game. So far, they’ve passed their exams with flying colors, but this is a huge test.

SP+ projection: Penn State 28, Minnesota 26 (PSU’s win probability: 55%)


play

2:20

Joe Burrow sits down with Marty Smith to discuss LSU’s showdown against Alabama and how magnified this matchup is for title implications.

A (much more high-scoring) sequel, eight years in the making

Back in 2011, Alabama and LSU finished the season first and second, respectively, in defensive SP+. The game, as classic as it was, featured 15 total points in four quarters and two overtime possessions.

It would be a surprise if these teams don’t combine for 15 points per quarter this time around. The defenses are still decent enough — Alabama is eighth in defensive SP+ and LSU 18th — but the offenses are otherworldly. Bama is second in offensive SP+ and averaging 49 points per game, and LSU’s revamped attack is third and averaging 47. Caesars has set the over/under at 63 total points.

These offenses are so astounding that we’re probably best served by focusing this preview primarily on the things at which they aren’t perfect.

An important note: I’m writing this piece under the assumption that this game’s primary injured parties — Bama QB Tua Tagovailoa, LSU safety Grant Delpit, etc. — all play and are at least reasonable approximations of themselves. Obviously, an absence (especially that of Tagovailoa) would change the matchups significantly, but in the name of knowns vs. unknowns, let’s assume the key players will play.

Bend, don’t break — all day

Despite having played the past game and a half without Tagovailoa, Bama’s offensive numbers are virtually unassailable: third in overall success rate, fourth in rushing SP+, second in passing SP+, fourth in standard downs SP+ and first in passing downs SP+. While LSU’s offensive overhaul has gotten the headlines, Bama has figured out ways to match or improve on last season’s work.

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