2016 cross-divisional games: Mizzou at LSU
When Missouri joined the SEC in 2012, LSU was coming off a trip to the BCS National Championship Game and, an embarrassing 21-0 loss to Alabama aside, it looked like the Bayou Bengals would be an SEC title contender for the foreseeable future.
Who would have guessed that it would be the Missouri Tigers, not the LSU Tigers, who have played in two SEC championship games in the last four years?
Sure, part of it is because Missouri was put into the weaker East Division (the West has won the last seven SEC championship games), but the former Big 12 team made back-to-back trips to the SEC title game in 2013 and 2014, a period where LSU slipped from making any SEC title game appearances, taking a complete backseat in the SEC West to Alabama (and, for a year, Auburn).
Things got so bad that head coach Les Miles nearly lost his job late in last year’s 9-3 campaign.
But when Missouri heads to Baton Rouge for the first time in school history on Oct. 1 to play LSU for just the second time in school history (the first in an SEC game), it may feel like LSU is still the power and Missouri still the underdog program.
How did that happen? Let’s start with how LSU seems to have gotten its groove back.
Miles regained his footing late last season and the LSU program regained some momentum, beating Texas A&M and Texas Tech (in the Texas Bowl) to finish the season. It followed the late-season surge with two offseason wins: First, a group of six highly touted rising seniors — including key defenders Tre’Davious White, Lewis Neal and Kendell Beckwith — opted to return to school rather than leave for the NFL Draft.
Then, the Tigers landed another banner recruiting class on signing day.
Meanwhile in Columbia, after the back-to-back division titles, Missouri’s roadmap to continued success took some serious bumps. Star quarterback Maty Mauk was twice suspended from the team, and Missouri lacked the same punch it had from Mauk in a 5-7 season which included a last-place finish (1-7) in the SEC. In SEC games, the Tigers averaged just over 9 points per game.
To make matters worse, head coach Gary Pinkel revealed he had cancer and would retire at the end of the season. New coach Barry Odom subsequently dismissed Mauk from the team.
So Missouri headed into this offseason with question marks without the coach that led it to SEC prominence and the quarterback it hoped would lead it to more.
Meanwhile in Baton Rouge, the Tigers have reason to think they can challenge Alabama in the West. With the six underclassmen staying in school, LSU has maturity it has lacked since the 2011 team started a trend of Tigers’ third-year players leaving early for the NFL. Plus, the Tigers have a returning starter at quarterback, junior Brandon Harris, for the first time since Zach Mettenberger threw for over 3,000 yards in his second year as a starter in 2013.
And let’s not forget they also have a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Leonard Fournette.
So while it’s been Missouri that has had more success than LSU in the last four years, when the Tigers from Columbia finally make their first-ever trip to Baton Rouge in October, it will probably feel like LSU has been the power all along. A young Missouri offense with questions at quarterback and on the offensive line (only one returning starter) doesn’t seem like a great match for a talented and, yes, experienced LSU defense.
LSU has some challenges early — road games against Wisconsin (at Green Bay) and Auburn, in particular — but there’s a good chance the senior-laden LSU Tigers will be the heavy favorite that first day in October.
LAST MEETING: 1978
WHAT HAPPENED: Missouri beat LSU, 20-15 in the Liberty Bowl
ALL-TIME SERIES: Missouri leads 1-0