You shouldn’t have much trouble remembering the year 2011. It wasn’t that long ago. There was an NBA work stoppage, the NFL threatened a lockout and the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State rocked the college football world. Jack Kevorkian passed away, Aaron Sorkin released the film “Moneyball” and Miley Cyrus was only beginning to embrace her inner crazy.
Oh, and somewhere in there the SEC landed two teams in the BCS title Game.
It was only three years ago, but it feels like a lifetime. The BCS system has since been retired and the perception of both Alabama and LSU have changed significantly since they met in New Orleans. AJ McCarron found a way to break free of the “game manager” label at Alabama, reaching within ear shot of a Heisman Trophy. Meanwhile, Cam Cameron and Zach Mettenberger helped reshape the image of LSU’s offense, incorporating a more vertical, NFL-style passing game.
Now things have changed again. And in so many ways it feels like 2011.
At Alabama, the phrase “game manager” is back to being embraced. If Blake Sims can only manage the game and take care of the football, then the Crimson Tide might be capable of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. Like McCarron’s first season starting, he won’t be asked to do it all. Despite hopes to the contrary, he probably won’t throw the ball deep very much. We’ll all do well to remember that 43 quarterbacks had more passes of 20-plus yards than McCarron in 2011.
With two stellar running backs to lean on, the offense should be fine either way. You think the duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry isn’t comparable to Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy? Like Richardson, Yeldon is a junior with an established resume. Like Lacy, Henry is an emerging sophomore with talent to burn.
Granted, Alabama’s defense isn’t as experienced as it was in 2011, but there’s certainly more than enough talent to draw upon with the current roster. Landon Collins looks an awful lot like a leaner Mark Barron, and Trey DePriest is the same kind of physical inside linebacker Nico Johnson was. The veteran cornerbacks might not be there, but the defensive line has the potential to be better than its ever been during Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.
LSU, on the other hand, is in an eerily similar boat.
In one offseason, Les Miles saw his entire passing game head for the NFL as Mettenberger graduated and both his top receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, declared for the draft. Now it’s a new cast of characters, starting with quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. And judging by their play against Wisconsin, we might be looking at a return to the 2011 days of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. Harris clearly wasn’t ready for the big stage on Saturday, and Jennings had trouble reading the defense and seemed limited with throws outside the standard go-route.
There’s hope at receiver, though, with Travin Dural and John Diarse, coupled with young guns Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre. Sound familiar? It should. In 2011, LSU’s leading receivers were Rueben Randle, Beckham, Deangelo Peterson and Russell Shepard, with Landry coming off the bench.
But the real heart of LSU’s offense is still at running back with a three-headed monster of Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette. In 2011, it was much of the same with Michael Ford, Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue shouldering the load.
Will the Tigers defense be as good now as it was then? Only time will tell, but there are certainly the parts in the secondary to harken back to the days of old. Jalen Mills played lights out at safety against Wisconsin, as did Ronald Martin. Between Jalen Collins, Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White, we might be able to call it DBU once again.
This is all to say that while Alabama and LSU looked quite different this past weekend than we’ve become accustomed to, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Their respective passing games might have taken significant steps back, but it’s not the end of the world.
It might feel like forever ago now, but in 2011 these two programs didn’t rely on quarterbacks to win football games. McCarron wasn’t a star when he took his first trip to New Orleans. Neither were Jefferson or Lee. Strong defenses and solid running games got them there.
Given the tendency toward overreaction and overanalysis this early in the season, it felt like a good time to remind everyone that three years isn’t that long ago. The SEC probably won't land two teams in a national title game again, but there's nothing to say that Alabama and LSU are out of the playoff hunt altogether.