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.
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.
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 greatfirst-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 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.
Minnesota will probably ask Morgan and dangerous receivers Tyler Johnson, Rashod Batemanand 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%)
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.
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.
There is, however, a two-step recipe for stopping the Tide or at least holding them to three points per possession.
1. Nothing big on the ground. The Alabama run game is as efficient as ever (first in rushing success rate), but the Tide are 97th in rushing marginal explosiveness. Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. have combined for 184 carries but only four of 20-plus yards. If Tagovailoa is limited or out, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian could lean more heavily on the run.
Healthy Tua or no, you're not going to completely hem in this passing game. The foursome of Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith (who has been battling a shoulder injury), Henry Ruggs IIIand Jaylen Waddle have combined for 2,213 yards and 24 TDs. The Tide are going to get their big plays. But if you can prevent gashes on the ground and make them work methodically into the red zone, you're in decent shape. LSU's defense ranks a solid 13th in rushing SP+; this seems doable.
2. Field goals all day. Bama is 17th in average points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent's 40), but that includes long touchdowns. The Tide rank 31st in success rate between the 11 and 20, 38th inside the 10 and 34th on the goal line. None of this is awful, but it's an area in which this elite offense is less than elite.
Field goal attempts will be major victories for either defense in this game, especially because Bama's is shaky. The Tide rank 93rd in my FG efficiency measure: Sophomore Joseph Bulovas has missed two FGs and a PAT, and freshman Will Reichard (three missed FGs and a PAT) is fighting a hip injury.
Red zone issues were a massive hindrance in Alabama's blowout loss to Clemson in last season's national title game. The Tide had six drives that ended inside the Clemson 30 but managed only 16 points from them. The recipe hasn't changed since then.
Despite facing a tougher set of defenses -- namely, Florida's and Auburn's -- LSU's season-long offensive success rate (58.0%, filtering out garbage time) has actually been slightly better than Alabama's (57.6%). The Tigers have experienced some goal-to-go issues of their own (50th in inside-the-10 success rate, 80th on first-and-goal) and haven't been very impressive in short-yardage situations.
The biggest opportunity for the Tide defense, however, might come far earlier on a given drive. The Tigers aren't running the ball nearly as much as they used to, but 17% of their carries are gaining zero or fewer yards (38th overall). Meanwhile, Joe Burrow has been so calm and comfortable in the pocket on early downs that he has become too comfortable at times, taking sacks on 6% of standard-downs pass attempts (81st).
This was particularly problematic against Auburn. LSU went three-and-out on its first drive after a first-down sack, then saw its second drive stall out after another one. Two short-yardage run-stuffs killed a second-quarter drive, and a series of zero- and 1-yard runs prevented the Tigers from killing more of the fourth-quarter clock during a late Auburn comeback attempt. LSU won 23-20, but the Tigers were behind schedule quite a bit.
Alabama's defense might have a better shot of pushing the Tigers backward than the LSU D can do to the Crimson Tide. But this hasn't exactly been an Alabama strength.
Although the Tide have survived injury and extreme youth in the front seven -- freshman linebackers Shane Lee and Christian Harris are among their top four tacklers, and a host of freshman linemen have been pressed into action --- there has been a price when it comes to disruption. Bama has fallen from 33rd to 95th in stuff rate and from 14th to 76th in standard-downs sack rate.
The Tide are reactive on early downs before teeing off as normal on passing downs. They might have to be more aggressive in this game if they want to ever see passing downs.
Here's a quick tale-of-the-tape look at two of your Heisman front-runners. It's easy to say that these two passing games are both awesome and leave it at that, but let's look at what differentiates one from the other.
The basics: Tagovailoa ranks first in the FBS with a 95.8 Total QBR, and Burrow is fourth at 91.2. Burrow has a 78.8% completion rate at 13.7 yards per completion, and Tagovailoa has a 74.8% completion rate at 14.6. Tagovailoa has taken sacks on 3.8% of dropbacks, versus Burrow's 5.5%.
Rushing: Burrow has carried 37 times (4.6 per game) for 223 yards and a 60% success rate. Tagovailoa has carried 11 times (1.6 per game) for 74 yards and a 73% success rate.
Point guard vs. gunslinger: As lower sack and interception rates would suggest, Tagovailoa gets the ball out of his hands more quickly and takes fewer risks. He has thrown 29% of his passes this season behind the line of scrimmage, but these passes are incredibly effective: 8.5 yards per attempt with a 191.7 passer rating. Burrow has thrown only 13% of his passes behind the line and is averaging 5.6 per pass with a 141.9 rating.
There's plenty of reward with Burrow's risk, though. Burrow has thrown 11% of his passes 20 or more yards downfield, and he has completed 63% of them for 37.8 yards per completion. Tagovailoa is averaging a similar 35 yards per completion on his deeper shots but is completing only 38% of them.
SP+ projection: Alabama 34, LSU 27 (Bama's win probability: 66%)
Here are 10 games -- at least one from each weekend time slot -- that you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from an information and entertainment perspective. (I'm omitting the two games above under the assumption that you don't need me to say anything further about why you should watch them.)
All times Eastern.
UCF at Tulsa (7 p.m., ESPN2):Poor Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane have been competitive in almost every game but have a 2-7 record to show for it, thanks to the AAC West's absurd depth. UCF is again fully weaponized, having averaged 49 points per game since a Week 7 bye.
SP+ projection: UCF 38, Tulsa 16
Washington at Oregon State (10:30 p.m., FS1):You could forgive Oregon State fans for getting a little hopeful here. The Beavers have a legitimately exciting offense and need two wins in their final four games to reach a bowl. UW's still awfully good, but the confidence meter might not be all that high after three losses in four games.
SP+ projection: UW 40, OSU 26
No. 12 Baylor at TCU (noon, FS1):TCU is one of many teams dealing with a stream of QB injury issues, but the Frogs still have the defense and run game to threaten Baylor's unbeaten record. You'll be focusing primarily on PSU-Minnesota at this time, but this is a solid check-in during commercials.
SP+ projection: Baylor 30, TCU 24
The evening doesn't have a ton going for it, but this might be the most loaded afternoon slate of the season.
ESPN CFB150 Showcase Game: Princeton vs. Dartmouth (3:30 p.m., ESPNU):Per SP+, Dartmouth has the second-best defense in FCS, and Princeton has the third-best offense. The Green were the only team that even slightly slowed Princeton down last season, but the Tigers still won the Ivy with a 14-9 victory. Revenge time at Yankee Stadium? Or did Dartmouth use all of its magic with last week'sincredible Hail Mary win?
SP+ projection: Dartmouth 28, Princeton 25
No. 18 Iowa at No. 13 Wisconsin (4 p.m., Fox):If Minnesota loses to PSU as projected, the Big Ten West race basically boils down to two games: Iowa vs. Wisconsin and the Iowa-Wisconsin winner vs. Minnesota. Stylistically, you know what to expect from this one, but the Hawkeyes and Badgers are pretty good at those styles this season.
SP+ projection: Wisconsin 27, Iowa 17
No. 16 Kansas State at Texas (3:30 p.m., ESPN):Texas' defense has allowed 40 points per game in its past three contests, and KSU's offense has averaged 43 in its past two. At 5-3 overall and having lost two of three games (with just a two-point win over Kansas preventing a losing streak), the Horns really, really need this one.
SP+ projection: Horns 33, Cats 31
USC at Arizona State (3:30 p.m., ABC):Watching USC is a fascinating experience this season: You're simultaneously watching a fun but flawed, young team trying to develop and find its way ... and a team trying (and perhaps failing) to save its coach's job. The Trojans could win out, or Clay Helton could get Kiffin'd after a loss in Tempe. Both are on the table.
SP+ projection: USC 29, ASU 27
Iowa State at No. 9 Oklahoma (8 p.m., Fox):At 18th in SP+ but with just a 5-3 record to show for it, ISU is one of the most snakebitten teams in FBS. Does that matter in Norman? Do the Sooners rediscover a fifth gear after a bye week spent stewing over the K-State loss?
SP+ projection: OU 37, ISU 24
No. 15 Notre Dame at Duke (7:30 p.m., ACCN):Consider this a Plan B. Appalachian State-South Carolina was shaping up as the most impactful game of the evening when it had New Year's Six bowl implications, but App State's loss to Georgia Southern ended that. There are worse consolation prizes than this, though.
SP+ projection: Irish 30, Blue Devils 20
Wyoming at No. 22 Boise State (10:15 p.m., ESPN):We're one upset away from a spectacular mess in the MWC Mountain. Boise State is your division favorite at 4-0, but Air Force, Wyoming and USU all have just one conference loss, and the BSU defense has been springing leaks in recent weeks.
SP+ projection: BSU 33, Wyoming 22