LSU's critical November starts with visit to rival Alabama

BATON ROUGE, La. – LSU's time of reckoning has arrived.

Getting to this point -- ranked fourth in the Associated Press Top 25 and the SEC's only unbeaten team -- was great, but it's a grueling November slate that will determine how we remember the 2015 Tigers.

Starting with Saturday's visit to Alabama, LSU will close the season with a four-game slate that ESPN's Football Power Index rates as the nation's most difficult remaining schedule. That same metric has LSU as an underdog in each of its remaining road games: at Alabama (40.4 percent chance of victory) and Nov. 21 at Ole Miss (41.6). And while it favors LSU to beat Arkansas and Texas A&M at home, those games aren't gimmes, either.

Enough about stats and projections, though. We all thought LSU could be in this position once it escaped Mississippi State with a win and then pasted Auburn the next week. Now here are Les Miles and the Tigers, speeding toward the spike strip that has blown out LSU's tires in so many recent seasons.

The difference between this year and previous meetings with Alabama, though, is that Leonard Fournette is driving the bus.

This is the point where some Alabama fans point toward the Crimson Tide's success defending Nick Chubb and Georgia's running game a few weeks back. Yes, aside from Chubb's 83-yard touchdown run late in a blowout loss, he didn't account for much against Alabama.

He also wasn't running behind an offensive line that is the caliber of LSU's, nor did he have LSU-quality receivers or quarterback. Fournette, has all of those advantages, which will make stopping LSU's offense a greater challenge for Alabama.

That said, Alabama obviously deserves the benefit of the doubt here -- if for no other reason than its performance in this series since its last loss to LSU, 9-6 in overtime in 2011. The Tide bounced back by humiliating the Tigers later that season with the BCS title at stake, launching the four-game series winning streak that it will carry into Saturday's meeting in Tuscaloosa.

That BCS championship game, when Alabama held LSU to 92 total yards in one of the worst offensive performances in school history, is the point when the dynamics of this rivalry changed. LSU receiver Travin Dural was a high school senior at the time, and he has yet to experience a win against Alabama in three-plus seasons as a Tiger.

"I kind of felt it then," Dural said of watching the BCS game as a committed recruit. "I used to come around then and the guys would talk about it, but I really saw it when I was here. Guys were practicing over the summer and that was a big thing: Everyone was talking about the Alabama game in June. So I kind of felt it when I got here more.

"I would say [that's when the rivalry changed]. It made it more meaningful, being that they lost the national championship, couldn't pass the 50-yard line."

Until LSU finally shakes the Alabama monkey off its back, we have no reason to fully buy into the notion that this year will be different. There is potential for LSU to enjoy a special season -- there's a good chance the Tigers will be in the top four when the College Football Playoff selection committee announces its initial rankings on Tuesday -- but LSU's prospects seemed similar in other recent seasons when Alabama week arrived.

Since Nick Saban became Alabama's coach in 2007, LSU entered the Alabama game with one or no losses five times. LSU won three of those games, two of which came against one- or no-loss Tide teams (2010 and 2011).

Most FBS programs would gladly accept that success rate against Saban's Alabama juggernaut, but as Dural mentioned, this series changed when the Tide manhandled LSU to claim the second of its three BCS titles under Saban.

LSU won't get back to being what it was before that fateful day in January 2012 without a win over Alabama. Only after that win should we bother giving serious thought to the Tigers' playoff resume, even if it admittedly looks good right now, with the FPI rating LSU third in its Strength of Record metric and second in Game Control. Only then should we contemplate how LSU's remaining games against Arkansas -- a team that beat the Tigers 17-0 last year, let's remember -- Ole Miss and A&M might affect LSU's playoff hopes.

Perhaps LSU can still slip into the playoffs even with a loss this Saturday, although the Tigers can't afford to think that way. The only way they can guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs is to keep winning -- and no win would be bigger than the psychological one they could achieve by beating Alabama.