True Grit....

"Looking back is a bad habit...."

One of the nation's most intense, yet painfully one sided in recent history, rivalries will kickoff once again on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

As has become expected, both teams sit near the top of the college football rankings, and both will feature a star studded group of athletes that will continue shining on Sundays in the coming years.

But what is different in this year's so called Game of the Century is the style and identity of the teams compared to what they have been in the past. Long gone are the physical, ground and pound rushing attacks which both teams used to wear down and overwhelm for most of the decade. Instead, the nation will be treated to an aerial assault orchestrated by not only two of the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy, but potentially the top two players that will be selected in next year's NFL Draft, with the result going a long way to determining the order in which they go off the board.



Alabama's transformation has been a gradual one, starting with the hiring of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator back in 2014. But it was the emergence of Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback in the final game of the 2017 season, when he was just a true freshman, that was the final piece of the offensive puzzle that truly turned The Tide. Tua's arrival turned Alabama from the steam engine powered by the legs of Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, TJ Yeldon, and Derrick Henry to the high flying aerial assault that is propelled by the jet fuel of his left arm.

With 27 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions despite rarely playing in the second half and missing an entire game with an ankle injury, Tua has done all he can to justify his preseason status as the favorite for the Heisman Trophy as well as the future #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.

LSU's shift has been more sudden. Desperate to catch up after the Tide's head start, the Tigers brought in a graduate transfer at quarterback trained by Urban Meyer, one of the best offensive minds that college football has ever seen. While his pedigree was impressive, Joe Burrow had never started a game at the college level. In fact, he had only thrown 39 passes in three years at Ohio State, all in mop up duty.

Despite that lack of game experience and his late arrival to Baton Rouge in the summer, the Tigers jumped from 23 pass attempts per game in 2017 to 30 in 2018, the first time since 2007 that LSU threw the ball that much, and only the second time in that span with over 25 per game.

This season, the Tigers are averaging 36 passes a game. And no quarterback in the country has been more effective or efficient. Burrow is set to shatter the NCAA's all time record by completing 78.8% of those throws, at an SEC record pace of 30 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions.

Without question, both of these quarterbacks have turned in historic performances this season. In much the same way that the Heisman Trophy could have been awarded on this same field in 2015 after two great running backs faced off, there is a very good chance that either Tua or Burrow can secure that coveted award with their performance this weekend as well.



While it remains to be seen how much Tua's ankle injury, which required surgery just three weeks ago, will impact this showdown, there is no question that Joe Burrow is poised to introduce himself to whatever small part of the college football world that isn't yet familiar with him in just a few hours.

It is a moment that he has more than earned with patience, perseverance, and a strength of will that has been instilled in him since his earliest days. As the son of a college coach who played at Nebraska in the early days of legendary coach Tom Osborne's tenure, Joe Burrow was bred to play football. His position of choice, however, may have come as a bit of a surprise.

His father was drafted by the Green Bay Packers and went on to become an all star defensive back in the CFL for years that made a living disrupting opposing passing games. He then spent the next three decades as a decorated defensive coordinator whose mission was finding ways to confuse and attack quarterbacks, while his three sons watched on. The two oldest went on to play defense for the Cornhuskers as well, but it was the little brother that was drawn to the other side of the ball to use his knowledge of the way defenses operated to his advantage.

That background helps to explain his unmatched ability to read and diagnose what a defense is trying to do even before the snap, which makes everything he does once the ball is in his hands seem so effortless. The effort it took to get to this point, however, was substantial.

Burrow had a stellar high school career in Athens, Ohio, where his father was coaching at Ohio University. He was named Mr. Football of Ohio after a senior season where he threw an unimaginable 63 touchdowns with only 2 interceptions. Despite all of that success, many of the big time college programs strangely did not extend scholarship offers, including the alma mater of his father and brothers, Nebraska.

Just an hour up the road, however, the Ohio State Buckeyes had just won the national championship under Urban Meyer, who took down his old rival Nick Saban in the College Football Playoff. To the astonishment of the college football world, Meyer featured three different quarterbacks to great success during that run. The promise of the hometown Burrow caught the eye of Meyer's quarterback guru Tom Herman, then the offensive coordinator at OSU, and he brought in Burrow despite having some of the most talented quarterbacks in the country already on the roster.

Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, and later Dwayne Haskins and Tate Martell would all be in the fray at the quarterback position during Burrow's time in Columbus, and all came with significantly more hype and higher expectations than he did.

After an ill timed hand injury during his redshirt sophomore year prevented him from being able to play when Barrett went down with an injury against rival Michigan, Haskins made the most of the opportunity and led a comeback win that gave him the upper hand to take over when Barrett went pro that offseason.

A close competition ensued that following spring before his junior year, with Haskins ultimately being named the starter. Meyer publicly said he owed it to Burrow, who graduated in May and would be eligible to play immediately if he transferred, to give him the opportunity to move on rather than continue to sit behind another talented player. Fortunately for LSU, there were only a few schools at that point with an available scholarship to give that didn't have an established starter at quarterback.

Ultimately, his decision came down to the traveling south to play for the Tigers and staying in Ohio to play at Cincinnati. While there were three quarterbacks to compete with in Baton Rouge, the competitor in Burrow couldn't resist the big game atmosphere that LSU had to offer after spending three years suiting up with his OSU teammates to play in some of the biggest and most historic venues in the country.



The biggest competition Burrow faced once he arrived on campus was not from the other quarterbacks, but in winning over the rest of his new teammates who already knew, trusted, respected, and just plain liked the players that Burrow was competing against.

Justin McMillan in particular was a leader in the locker room that, like Burrow in Columbus, had waited three years for his turn to lead his team out of the huddle. But in the end, Burrow wouldn't be denied. After an offseason competition that was more formality that anything, he was officially named the starter just a week before the season kicked off. In in what is becoming an all too familiar part of college football, both McMillan and Lowell Narcisse then announced their decision to transfer before the season started, something that many of his new teammates weren't happy about.

Still, there was no denying that Burrow gave the players and LSU the best chance to win games, which they most impressively did. Burrow led LSU from a preseason ranking of #25 all the way to #3 in the polls with a 7-1 record and three wins over top 10 teams before the showdown with #1 Alabama.

Just as it was in the previous seven matchups, Alabama slammed the door on any championship aspirations Tiger Nation dared to imagine. In the biggest embarrassment of that streak, Tua and the Tide coasted to a 29-0 shutout in LSU's worst defeat upon the hallowed grounds of Tiger Stadium since Alabama shut out Nick Saban's Tigers 31-0 in 2002.

Despite another loss to close the season at Texas A&M, LSU was invited to play in their first New Year's Six Bowl game against the undefeated but outmatched mid major #7 UCF. After healing up and having the extra weeks of bowl practice, Burrow began his assault on the college football world with a 397 yard 4 touchdown performance despite getting scarily blindsided on the opening drive by a defender who was ejected for the hit.

That play, and Burrow's ability to get up from it and dominate the way he did, was the final turning point both for him and this team. Burrow finally had the opportunity to go into an offseason as the unquestioned leader of his team with the full respect and support of the entire program, and the rest is history that we are seeing unfold every week.

The story of the 2019 LSU Tigers has become so much about Joe Burrow and his march into college football lore that the Alabama game no longer seems like the moment that will define the season.

The story now has become Burrow being on a collision course with his former program, the Ohio State Buckeyes, who chose another player and pushed him away from his home state. In the first college football rankings released this week, Ohio State is ranked #1, with LSU sitting next in line at #2. It is a position Burrow is familiar with, and one that he is also accustomed to climbing his way out of.

There is a new quarterback leading the Buckeyes that was not on the roster when Burrow was in Columbus, himself a transfer from the University of Georgia. That same Bulldog team, currently ranked #6, will be waiting in Atlanta for the SEC Championship against the the team that leaves victorious from Bryant Denny Stadium tomorrow night.

The winner of that game will earn their way to the College Football Playoff, where another transfer quarterback will likely be waiting as well, former Alabama starter Jalen Hurts, the star leader who was benched in favor of Tagovialoa in the National Championship Game against Georgia and Jake Fromm, the player that beat out Justin Fields, who then transferred to Ohio State, where he is now in the thick of the Heisman race along side Burrow, Hurts, and Tua.

Got all that? Good. Now sit back and enjoy watching perhaps the greatest season by an LSU player continue to unfold in the most of hostile environments.

This stage is why he chose to join Tiger Nation, and this game is the key to earning the right to face his former team on the biggest stage of all.

And as if that wasn't enough, the Cincinnati Bengals, the team likely to be picking first overall in the NFL Draft, will surely be watching to see if the former Buckeye and Mr. Football of Ohio has what it takes to lead the Bengal Tigers to victory and raise his team to the championship heights that they themselves seek to achieve in the NFL.

"I was born game, and I intend to go out that way...."