LSU was hoping for its 2016 season to be a riveting run at championship glory.
Instead, so far at least, the season has been a soap opera.
A series of events has now, just three weeks into the campaign, pushed the once-No. 5 Tigers into a place where they have no margin for error if they hope to remain relevant in the national championship picture.
It’s hard to comprehend how much the picture has changed for the Tigers since they flew to Green Bay two weeks ago for their season opener against Wisconsin. Since then, they lost that opener to the Badgers, a double-digit underdog, and lost Heisman Trophy-contending tailback Leonard Fournette for last week’s Jacksonville State game to an ankle injury that had lingered since preseason camp.
Worst of all, starting quarterback Brandon Harris suffered a crisis of confidence that mushroomed with a rally-killing interception at the end of the Wisconsin game. With Harris and the offense still stuck in an ineffective funk last week against the FCS-level Gamecocks, LSU coach Les Miles didn’t hesitate, turning to backup Danny Etling to stave off the prospect of an unthinkable 0-2 start.
Etling responded with a promising, if not overwhelming, performance that led the Tigers to a relatively comfortable 34-13 victory, good enough to spark speculation as to whether he might have helped rescue LSU in the Wisconsin game had he played. But one week later, with improving Mississippi State coming to town for a 6 p.m. Southeastern Conference showdown Saturday at Tiger Stadium, the butterflies in the stomachs of the Tigers and their fans have yet to find a place to roost.
“I spend part of my time as a Hollywood producer,” said ESPN college football analyst Ed Cunningham, who will help call Saturday night’s game on ESPN2. “If you wanted to write a story that would make LSU fans squirm, you’d lose to Wisconsin, lose Fournette (for a game) and make a quarterback change against an inferior opponent.”
Miles said Fournette would be back as good as ever for this game, refreshed and re-energized, although there’s always the worry with ankles that the injury will linger or flare up again. But as great a force as a full-strength Fournette is, there is first-hand evidence from last season’s November swoon from No. 2 in the first CFP rankings that not even his considerable powers are enough to ensure the crucial victories the Tigers will need to get in that all-important CFP “final four” come December. Fournette got pretty bottled up in consecutive losses to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss, in large part because those opponents stuffed the run and had little to fear from LSU’s passing game.
That losing streak, which nearly got Miles fired, is a fire that has never completely been extinguished. This week, ESPN ranked Miles’ seat as the hottest in all of college football.
“Everyone has to be concerned about this football program,” the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum said this week. “You don’t know where Leonard Fournette is (although) you expect him to be OK. Mississippi State’s manageable, but LSU goes on the road the next week to (Auburn's) Jordan-Hare Stadium, and I really think their season hangs in the balance.”
Though tensions run high in Tigertown, LSU still has its fate in its hands. Last season’s national champion is proof of that. Before 2015 began, Alabama had to sift through a host of quarterbacks before settling on Jake Coker. Then the Crimson Tide dropped a sloppy 43-37 decision to Ole Miss in Week 3.
The loss pushed Alabama onto the high wire without a net, but the preseason galvanized the Tide instead of breaking it apart. Bama ran off 12 straight wins after that lone defeat to claim the championship.
A similar path seems a tall order for the Tigers, but it’s not the impossible. No one questions LSU’s talent. The question is its ability to get the offense squared away — quickly — for its defense to fully grasp Dave Aranda’s new scheme and for special teams to go from a drag on the Tigers’ winning hopes to an asset. Even though it was in a game with an FCS-level opponent, LSU showed improvement in all three phases. Enough to bolster optimism for what is to come.
“I still think LSU has a chance to change the narrative,” Finebaum said. “But they don’t have much time.”
He’s right, of course. What’s the running time on a soap opera these days, anyway?