Thank goodness that’s over.
If you listen close you can hear it, the collective sigh from 92,000-plus in Baton Rouge after what’s transpired since an underwhelming two-touchdown win over Towson the final Saturday in September. At that point, LSU was 5-0 and ranked fourth in the country despite looking rather pedestrian on offense under Zach Mettenberger. The defense was still as good as advertised without the Honey Badger and a crash course was set for a battle of unbeatens a few weeks later against Alabama.
That’s when the strength of schedule set in, indicative of every SEC team’s difficult journey to Atlanta and beyond. Win and survive is the mantra, but not even Les Miles could navigate the Tigers’ way through the upcoming games unscathed.
Finally, no offense to Ole Miss fans, LSU gets a break in the schedule this week with its first game in more than a month against an unranked team. The Tigers’ treacherous path since the first of October has taken them to Gainesville and College Station and included home dates with then unbeaten South Carolina, top-ranked Alabama and Mississippi State. LSU (8-2) got through the gauntlet at 3-2, not great, but good enough to keep the Tigers in contention for a BCS at-large berth. Saturday’s affair with the Rebels is the vital next step toward reaching 10 wins. LSU shook off an emotional loss to the Crimson Tide with a convincing win over the Bulldogs last week, further pushing Dan Mullen’s program — whose lost three straight since starting 7-0 — into the pretender realm.
Mettenberger has improved with more reps in his first season as starter, the Tigers’ defensive front four continues to feast on opposing quarterbacks and the run game is healthy and productive heading into the final stretch. Now that the Tigers get a foreseeable two-week breather, bowl committees will look at LSU’s commendable body of work and should come away impressed. Even with an offense lacking a homerun threat, LSU went on the road and made enough plays in the second half to beat Texas A&M, limiting Johnny Manziel to a season-low 27 yards rushing. Johnny Football threw three costly interceptions in the game and completed just 51.8 percent of his passes. Preceding that win was LSU’s ground-and-pound effort against the third-ranked Gamecocks during which the Tigers rushed for 258 yards and dominated the line of scrimmage. That was “vintage LSU” as one pundit promptly labeled the win.
A likely destination — if Alabama wins the SEC Championship Game — is Dallas for the Cotton Bowl or the BCS’ Fiesta in Glendale, Ariz. Most projections suggest the Cotton Bowl’s infatuation with nearby A&M for a possible Texas-A&M matchup, but it’s unlikely the Aggies are picked over the Tigers based on what transpired head-to-head between the two. A maximum of two SEC teams are allowed to play in BCS games (the automatic qualifier rule is ridiculous) and must be ranked in the top 14 according to the computers.
Several highly-ranked SEC teams — Florida, Georgia and South Carolina — will probably head to New Year’s non BCS bowls if all finish the season with two losses. LSU’s goal the remainder of the season is to win out and hope the bowl invite pecking order falls in its favor.
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