Crimson Tide hosts Fighting Tigers Saturday in critical SEC football game

Although Alabama vs. LSU may be the biggest game in the nation this week, and one of the biggest of the season, there is a game within a game that will be watched as the Crimson Tide features tailback Derrick Henry, the Fighting Tigers tailback Leonard Fournette.

Alabama hosts LSU Saturday night in a game that has attracted national attention because of its national importance. The Crimson Tide is 7-1 overall and 4-1 in Southeastern Conference games and cannot afford another loss and still be relevant in the SEC, much less national championship conversation.

Alabama is ranked seventh in the nation and has won four straight against LSU. But the Tigers are undefeated at 7-0 (4-0 in SEC games) and ranked fourth in the nation.

Games like this spawn speculation, hyperbole, comparisons, and all manner of sidebars in attempt to make a big game even bigger. While it could be that the game will be decided by the play of the first-year starting quarterbacks, Jacob Coker for Alabama and Brandon Harris for LSU; or by special teams; or by turnovers; or by a blocked field goal that’s returned for a touchdown with the help of eight laterals; or…

Well, you get the idea.

The most natural story within the story is the appearance of the top two rushers in the SEC in the same game. LSU features Leonard Fournette, who has honestly earned the mantle of leading contender for the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best player. He leads the SEC in rushing with 176 carries for 1,352 yards (7.7 yards per carry) with 15 touchdowns and 193.1 yards per game.

Second in the conference in rushing is Alabama’s Derrick Henry, but as well as Henry has done, he is a very distant second to Fournette statistically. Henry has 180 carries for 1,044 yards (5.8 per carry) with 14 touchdowns and 130.5 yards per game.

Fournette seems to have no ill effects from the crushing tackle at the hands of Tide linebacker Reuben Foster at the end of last year’s game, a tackle that seemed to lift Alabama emotionally to its overtime victory in Baton Rouge.

That was Bama’s fourth consecutive win over the Tigers. In 2011, though, LSU came to Tuscaloosa and took a 9-6 overtime win. Fortunately, Alabama had the opportunity to play LSU again that year, in the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans, and the Tide started its current winning streak with a 21-0 victory. Alabama has a surprisingly dominant record in this series, Bama having the advantage by 49-25-5.

Kickoff Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium will be at 7 p.m. CST with television coverage by CBS.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban, who has had his share of successes in recruiting Louisiana, made a big play for New Orleans native Fournette. The Tide coach called Fournette “as dominant as any player in the country.” Saban also said the number one runner in the nation as a prospect came from an excellent family. “It’s no surprise to me that the guy has developed into one of the premier players in the country and arguably the best running back in the country. His competitive character certainly shows on the field in terms of the way he plays and the way he competes. I have nothing but admiration and respect for the guy in terms of what he's accomplished, what he's done, and the kind of player he is.”

Henry also got goo reviews from Saban. "Derrick has done an outstanding job for us,” Saban said. “He's had a fantastic year. I don't think you can say enough about the way he's played and how he's shown great competitive character and been very productive not only in the way he's carried the ball, but in pass protection, the things he's done without the ball. So we couldn't be any more pleased with the way Derrick Henry has played. We want to try and eliminate some negative plays that we've had offensively, but that doesn't come because of Derrick Henry; that comes because of focus and execution on a consistent basis that we've had as a group. Hopefully we can eliminate some of those things."

Bama center Ryan Kelly chimed in on the Henry performance. “I don’t know how much people are talking about him,” Kelly said. “I know how much we love him. We cherish how hard he runs and how good of a player he is. I don’t think he cares about the outsiders or what everybody is saying about him. It’s just about this team and how we can get better and keep winning throughout the rest of the season. I think he’s one of the best running backs in the country. We’re just lucky to have him.

Quarterback Jake Coker said it might be true that Henry is playing in the shadow of Fournette. But, said Coker, Henry “is a beast. And when you see him run on the field, it’s a lot different than seeing him on TV, I can tell you that.  Because some of those plays when I see him just punish people, I’ll just sit back there and (be like), ‘God, I feel bad for that guy.’”

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