A lot of the college football world will be watching LSU-Alabama on CBS this Saturday afternoon, Paul Finebaum’s June “does not have the cachet it used to” comments notwithstanding. The Tigers and Crimson Tide are ranked first and second respectively in the latest AP poll and second and third respectively in the College Football Playoff rankings, so there are plenty of potential playoff implications here. Brad Nessler will be calling the game on CBS alongside analyst Gary Danielson and sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl; he took the time to talk to Awful Announcing about it Thursday, and said while he’s preparing the same way he would for most games, he’s already eagerly anticipating this one.
“I’m excited every week, but a game of this magnitude, especially in the regular season, it adds a little bit of juice to it. I’ve done national championships; sometimes those games don’t pan out that well, but you get a little more fired up about it. But I sort of approach it not that differently than any game; it’s going to sound weird, but I prepare every week like it’s number one against number two, number two against number three. I think it’s just the nature of how you prepare, and Gary’s the same way. Sometimes we think we over prepare. So from that standpoint, I don’t think it’s that much different. But I’m really excited; you can’t help but be, when you’ve got pretty much the whole country that’s been waiting for this one and hoping that it would maybe be two undefeated teams and maybe hoping that it would be a top-five matchup. And it’s come to fruition.”
Nessler has seen a lot of LSU and Alabama games over the years, both as the play-by-play voice of the SEC on CBS broadcasts since 2017 and as in his work for ESPN before that. But he thinks this one will bring something new, especially with how these offenses now look.
“I do think it’s totally different this time. Eight years ago, both teams at that time were, you know, run the ball on first and second time and throw on third if you have to. Those days are gone. Alabama started changing their offense four or five years ago, and going to more of the spread and the RPO game and then throwing it around and not relying so much on two or three tailbacks. When they switched, I think that kind of gave notice to the whole country; ‘Well, if Alabama’s going to switch, maybe we all have to jump on board.'”
“And I think that really started with Coach Saban being a defensive guru, and he couldn’t stop the RPO and the spread very well, or at least had trouble with it, and thought ‘Well, if I can’t beat ’em, let’s join them,’ as simple as that. And when Tua [Tagovailoa] came in especially, that changed the dynamics of their offense.”
“But LSU’s the one that shocks me, because what they’ve done to turn their offense around in one year is nothing short of remarkable. I’ve racked my brain trying to think ‘Is there ever been a team that has turned their offense from stodgy to explosive in one year?’ And they’ve done it. So I don’t think this one’s going to look anything like that one eight years ago. It’s not going to be nine to six. It might be nine to six at the end of the first quarter, but it’s not going to end that way; I think we’re going to have a different outcome.”
Nessler said while this year’s LSU transformation has been dramatic, some of the signs of improvement were already there late last year.
“The second half of last year, though they hadn’t changed their offense, what changed was that they had a quarterback they believed in Joe Burrow. And he kept getting better and better at the end of last year. And you could see the confidence of the whole team grow with him; ‘Hey, we’ve got a leader now.'”
Nessler said LSU’s past history with quarterbacks meant he was a bit skeptical at first that the change would last, though.
“They had trouble at that position for a long time, sporadically they’d have a guy that looked like he could be a star and then that kind of faded. They had one year where Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry both had a thousand yards receiving, but it wasn’t that kind of offense; it was still kind of like ‘Run the ball, run the ball, and then you got these two great receivers, let’s throw it up and see if they can catch it.’ And I wasn’t buying in; I saw Joe Burrow at the Manning Passing Academy this summer and he was telling me ‘Hey, you’re going to like us this year, it’s going to look different. And I said ‘How different?’ He goes ‘We’re going to the spread,’ and I’m like “Okay, I don’t know about that.'”
“And I didn’t get to see their spring game, I saw a little bit of that, but they didn’t show much. But I knew through spring practice he said ‘We’re going to be throwing it around,’ and I said ‘Okay.’ And we got to the first week of the season, and my jaw dropped; I went ‘Wow, they weren’t kidding.'”
Nessler said he was then impressed by the consistency LSU was able to bring to the passing game week after week.
“And then the Texas game, and I went ‘Okay, they’re going to keep doing this.’ And then we got a game and they did it. And six 300-yard games later for Joe Burrow, and if not the best group of receivers, the second-best group of receivers in the SEC that he’s throwing to, and it’s mind-boggling. It’s a lot of fun, because having seen both Alabama and LSU much as we have…for me, I like scoring. It’s fun to call a game when there’s points and there’s strategy and it’s not just every yard is such a grind and every third down is ‘God, is anybody ever going to convert a third down?’ You’ve got these two offenses that can score literally in 11 seconds.”
He said the high-scoring games often more enjoyable to call, too.
“LSU’s got so many drives, I think they have 35 offensive touchdowns this year on three-minute drives or less. And Alabama’s got the same thing. So every time either offense gets the ball, you have to be ready for a big play on just about every snap. And that, to me, as a broadcaster, as a play-by-play guy, is a lot of fun . I correlate it to when I do basketball, I love teams that can shoot. And I know that sounds simplistic, but I love three-point shooters. When you’ve got somebody who can really fill it up, that makes a game more fun. I don’t like necessarily 60 to 57 games, I’d rather have a 88 to 86 game doing a college basketball game. So that’s what these two offenses are capable of doing, and it makes it more fun.”
But high-scoring games come with one challenge; preserving your voice. Nessler said he figured that out going back to his days of announcing work on EA Sports’ NCAA Football series.
“I think the only thing you might do is conserve yourself a little bit on like medium-sized plays. Because in a normal game, sometimes an 18-yard gain, you might get so excited. You know in this game you’re capable of having eight plays that are 75 yards. So it’s kind of like when I used to do the EA Sports video games; I would tell the guys ‘Okay, if we’re going to record a whole bunch of big plays, we can’t do them together, because I’ll lose my voice.’ They’d go ‘Okay, let’s do some short-yardage plays and some medium plays and some long plays.’ I won’t really think about that going in, but I guess you could think going in ‘Don’t make every ten-yard play seem like the end of the world, because it’ll seem minuscule compared to what might happen down the line.'”
Even with explosive offenses, though, Nessler said he still expects a physical defensive game, and one that the crowd will be into.
“This one is always kind of a rock fight, always the most physical game we probably do. I don’t think that’s going to change; while everybody thinks there’s
gonna be more points, I think the hitting aspect is going to be just as devastating as it always is. The crowd will be fired up for this one no matter what. And whether the president comes or not, whether that makes a difference, I don’t know; I know it makes a difference on how many people have called me this week asking for tickets.”
As for how to handle a President Trump appearance, Nessler said the broadcast team will discuss that in the days ahead.
“I really don’t know. We’ll talk about that with our producers. We’re not even a hundred percent sure he’s coming.”
But he does expect there to be an impact for fans; Alabama’s already announced they’ll open the stadium gates at 11:30 a.m. Central, three hours ahead of kickoff, because of the enhanced security. Nessler said fans planning to attend should definitely go early.
“Like when he comes to Army-Navy, I’m sure there’ll be a million cameras taking pictures, or trying to. And it usually makes getting in and out of the stadium a lot more difficult because of the Secret Service and all of that, so from the fan standpoint, I hope they know that they should show up early. We get to the game so early it’s not going to affect us, but if I was just going as a fan I would really go early, because it’s so much harder to get into the stadium if the president shows.”
Nessler said that does speak to a larger change in the preparations for this game; while the actual broadcast preparations are similar to a normal week, there’s much more going on around the game given the anticipation of this one.
“It’s sort of the stuff that surrounds the game. Coaches talk about the outside noise. I don’t prepare for the game any differently, but the atmosphere of who’s at the game, the amount of talking to guys like you, there’s a lot of stuff that we do kind of turn outside. So that all just gets magnified too. So that’s where you kind of feel the difference of a big game; it’s not necessarily preparation. Once the ball’s in the air on the kickoff, Gary and I and Jamie are just calling ball, that’s the way I look at it. I don’t ever think about who’s ranked and who’s favored; I don’t know who’s favored, to be honest with you. Probably Alabama. [He’s correct; the line is Alabama -6.5.] But it’s the surrounding things, the atmosphere around there that kind of gives it an SEC championship, Super Bowl-type of feel. And I know when we get to Tuscaloosa it’ll be like that as soon as we arrive.”
But this is far from the first big game for Nessler and CBS this year; in fact, it will be their third-straight Top 10 matchup, following Auburn-LSU (then #9 and #2 in the AP poll) and Florida-Georgia (then No. 8 and No. 6). Nessler said he loves how that’s worked out.
“It’s great. Sometimes at the beginning of the year, the way the schedule is, you look into a game and you might have one really good team and you might have one that you’re kind of thinking that this might not hold up. And we kind of look at like ‘Just give us a game till halftime,’ or ‘Just give us a game through two and a half quarters’ or whatever. That’s what you have as your mindset, because you know at some point somebody’s going to beat somebody by 30. So when you go into these games, you don’t have that feeling; you have the feeling of ‘This might go down to the last series, might go down to the last snap, might go to overtime. So I guess in the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘This game is going to be better because I just know it’s going to be better.’ It’s just that simple.”
And he’s excited for what they have after this, too.
“We’ve got Georgia and Auburn next week and, we know we’ve got great games from here on out. So when you kind of hit that stretch where the games get better, you know that they’re not going to end. You know that every week is going to mean more every week because of who plays who. So that’s neat to look forward to.”
[Photo via Fanbuzz]