The prospects for the LSU football season are looking up — after initially looking up, then down, then way down.
The Tigers (5-2, 2-1) have returned to the Top 25 at No. 24 after a two-week absence as they prepare to visit Ole Miss (3-3, 1-2) on Saturday.
It’s still way too early to determine whether this saga will have an all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion, but at least it’s slowly trending in a direction that makes that possible.
Generally, Tigers followers were cautiously optimistic going into the season, and LSU had a modest ranking at No. 13 in the AP preseason poll.
The Tigers were talented but inexperienced on defense. They were hopeful that the arrival of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada would be a boost to an offense ready to run with Derrius Guice but shaky in the passing game with a remade offensive line, a limited quarterback and inexperienced receivers.
Then there was Ed Orgeron. Though Orgeron is well liked and his work last season was appreciated as the Tigers went 6-2 with him as interim coach after Les Miles was fired in the wake of a 2-2 start, there were concerns.
Was Orgeron was the right man for the job after he failed in his only previous stint as a full-time head coach at Ole Miss?
Things started fine with an easier-than-expected victory against BYU and an as-easy-as-expected victory against Chattanooga. Suddenly the optimism was coming with a little less caution.
Then came the trip to Starkville.
The Tigers’ SEC opener was a disaster. Mississippi State won decisively on both lines of scrimmage, and Canada’s offense seemed in over its head in a 37-7 loss. Dreams of a showdown against Alabama for the SEC West title gave way to a realization that competing for the division was unrealistic.
A victory a week later against Syracuse prevented a second consecutive 2-2 start, but did nothing to alleviate the concerns that popped up against State.
Then came rock bottom.
It came in a 24-21 loss to Troy in Tiger Stadium that intensified the concerns first raised two weeks earlier. But this was worse.
Whereas the loss to State could have been rationalized as a young team with a few significant injuries getting overwhelmed by the surroundings in its first foray into hostile territory, the Troy loss couldn’t be rationalized.
The simplest and handiest explanation for LSU’s first non-conference home loss in 18 years was that Orgeron couldn’t handle the job. That theory wasn’t just discouraging for the short term, it was devastating for the long term.
With the Tigers at 3-2 and facing seven straight games against SEC teams, bowl eligibility was starting to look like the ceiling for this team.
Many critics were less concerned about whether LSU could get to a bowl than they were about whether it was time to look into cutting ties with Orgeron.
But two weeks ago, the Tigers bounced back, going into The Swamp and gutting out a 17-16 upset against Florida when the Gators were ranked No. 20.
The victory was encouraging, but fell short of demonstrating the season was back on track, given that Florida was hamstrung by injuries and suspensions.
When LSU fell behind then-No. 10 Auburn 20-0 last Saturday in Tiger Stadium, visions of the Mississippi State debacle and doubts about Orgeron’s fitness for the job understandably resurfaced.
Then came the most unexpected happening of this roller-coaster ride as LSU roared back to prevail 27-23 and the outlook for the rest of the season turned nearly 180 degrees.
Now a victory at Ole Miss would make the Tigers bowl eligible with four games left to play in a relatively weak SEC.
So the concern of not reaching bowl eligibility has all but vanished and a respectable finish with a berth in a respectable bowl game is attainable. Theoretically an SEC West title is still in the mix, but that would likely require running the table and definitely would require a win at No. 1 Alabama (7-0, 4-0) on Nov. 4.
But a far more reasonable goal for the rest of the reason would be to run the table aside from the Alabama game. After that showdown, the Tigers likely will be favored at home against Arkansas (2-4, 0-3) and at Tennessee (3-3, 0-3).
On paper, the most challenging game left besides the Alabama game is the regular-season finale against Texas A&M (5-2, 3-1) on Nov. 25 in Tiger Stadium.
So, Tigers fans, it seems reasonable to be cautiously optimistic again.