LSU is 6-3 and 3-2 in the SEC.
The Tigers fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 after their seventh consecutive loss to Alabama, a 24-10 setback last Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The program is not where LSU wants or expects to be, but the Tigers are better than they were last year.
On the surface the loss to the Crimson Tide isn’t appreciably better than the 10-0 loss to them last season in Tiger Stadium, but LSU looked like a more complete football team than it did a year ago.
It’s a team that has a good ways to go to get where it expects to be, but it does seem headed in that direction.
The defense went toe-to-toe with Alabama last season, but the offense was practically punchless. On Saturday, the defense again held its own and the offense was clearly more effective.
The Tigers had more yards than the Tide (306-299), more than doubling its yardage total compared to last season (125). It’s not good enough, but it is better.
First-year coordinator Matt Canada was brought in to bring the offense into the 21st Century by abandoning former coach Les Miles’ old-fashioned power rushing attack.
Head coach Ed Orgeron said last week that he hired Canada in part to increase the offense’s ability to succeed against Alabama’s defense. While 10 points and a 14-point deficit are not what he had in mind long term, the performance demonstrated that Canada’s usage of east-west runs to balance north-south runs was more effective than running right at the Tide, as Miles’ teams generally did.
LSU needs to get stronger and better on the offensive line and more skilled at the quarterback position, but this offense is headed in the right direction.
Second-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda already had his unit headed in the right direction in his first season in 2016. Overall this season and against Alabama in particular, the Tigers showed that they’re still headed that way.
The defense has been inconsistent this season, but it has gotten better in recent weeks. A lack of depth was exposed as Arden Key worked his way back from off-season shoulder surgery, Frank Herron served a six-game suspension and Rashard Lawrence was slowed by injured ankles.
Now that the defense is getting what it expected from some key playmakers, and relying less on reinforcements, it’s playing at a higher level.
At this time last year, Orgeron was in the middle of a seven-game audition as interim coach to demonstrate whether he was worthy of becoming full-time head coach.
Ultimately a 5-2 finish in the regular season earned Orgeron the job — with a big assist from then-Houston coach Tom Herman, who dallied on a Tigers offer while awaiting an opportunity to interview at Texas. (Herman is 4-5, by the way, and his Longhorns rank No. 8 out of 10 teams in Big 12 scoring at 28.6 points per game.)
Orgeron’s job is to point the Tigers in the right direction and make them better this year than they were last year, then lather, rinse and repeat. A return to being a national championship contender was going to be a multi-year challenge to whomever the new head coach was.
LSU still has a third of the season to go and Orgeron’s first season could look different in December than it does now. But right now it looks a lot better than it did heading into October.
The Tigers finished 5-3 in the SEC a year ago and would have to win two of their final three games to match that mark.
A sweep would give them a better record than last season and they figure to be favored in each of their remaining games. They host Arkansas on Saturday, then visit Tennessee before finishing at home against Texas A&M.
Anything less than a sweep of the final three games could still raise red flags. But if LSU handles Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M in a similar fashion to how it handled a more challenging stretch against Florida, Auburn and Ole Miss, which yielded a three-game win streak prior to the game against Alabama, the Tigers will be 9-3 heading into their bowl game.
It won’t be the kind of bowl game LSU expects, but it will reinforce the notion that Orgeron’s first full season is an improvement over the one in which he came out of the bullpen to relieve Miles.