Derrius Guice

LSU running back Derrius Guice (5) runs free during the first half of the LSU-Arkansas football game Saturday.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

When LSU lost to Auburn in late September to fall to 2-2, it was the end of the Les Miles era and appeared to mark the end of the Tigers’ championship aspirations.

Then came a three-game winning streak under interim coach Ed Orgeron, which put the Tigers back in the Southeastern Conference title hunt. But those dreams died with a sobering 10-0 shutout loss to Alabama.

But after Saturday’s impressive 38-10 victory at Arkansas, a 180-degree turnaround from the Tigers’ back-to-back 17-point losses to the Razorbacks the past two seasons, LSU finds itself still squarely in contention for the last of its big preseason goals:

A berth in a New Year’s Six bowl. More specifically, the Sugar Bowl.

If LSU can finish 8-3 by winning out against Florida on Saturday and Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night, the Tigers could wind up ringing in the new year in New Orleans.

The scenario would play out like this:

Alabama, No. 1 again in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, runs the table and goes back to the CFP. The Sugar Bowl, per its contract with the SEC, would get the next highest-ranked SEC team.

If LSU’s 8-3, that could well be the Tigers.

LSU (6-3) climbed from No. 24 to No. 16 in Tuesday night’s CFP rankings, putting the Tigers within overtaking distance of 7-3 Auburn at No. 15. LSU moved ahead of 7-3 Texas A&M, which fell from No. 8 to No. 25 after the Aggies’ third loss in the past four games.

Florida and Tennessee are also in contention for a Sugar Bowl berth, but LSU is ahead of them now and figures to stay that way if the Tigers win out. Florida is No. 23 and Tennessee is No. 19.

An 8-3 LSU team might be vulnerable to staying behind Auburn based on head-to-head results. But if Alabama wins out, that means winning the Iron Bowl over Auburn in Tuscaloosa, sending Auburn to its fourth loss (Auburn hosts Alabama A&M on Saturday).

If LSU beats Florida, the Gators (now 7-2) would have three losses and still have to finish the season at Florida State. A Florida loss would put Tennessee (7-3) in the SEC Championship Game if the Volunteers win out over Missouri and Vanderbilt. But the Vols, routed 49-10 in Knoxville by Alabama, would be a huge underdog to the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game. A loss in Atlanta would leave the Vols no better than 9-4, with wins to close the regular season that wouldn’t compare to LSU’s wins over the Gators and Aggies.

The old complaint of LSU fans that the Sugar Bowl doesn’t want to invite the Tigers because their fans wouldn’t travel and stay in New Orleans in large numbers no longer applies. To be part of the CFP semifinal rotation, the Sugar Bowl traded its rights to pick its teams.

Whom would LSU play? If the Big 12 champion isn’t in the CFP semifinals, that would be either No. 9 Oklahoma, No. 11 Oklahoma State (which lost the last Sugar Bowl to Ole Miss) or No. 14 West Virginia. If the Big 12 champ gets in the playoffs, the Sugar Bowl gets the Big 12 runner-up.

What if LSU loses one or two games down the stretch? The Tigers would be eligible to be picked by the Citrus Bowl, but at 7-4 it’s likely the Citrus (which does choose its teams) would look elsewhere. That would then leave LSU to be assigned by the SEC to one of its next five bowls: the Outback, TaxSlayer, Liberty, Music City and Texas.

Here’s a closer look at LSU’s bowl possibilities in chronological order:

TEXAS BOWL

Dec. 28, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Houston

LSU angle: Unlikely. The Tigers played there last year and LSU opens the 2017 season in Houston against Brigham Young.

BELK BOWL

Dec. 29, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Charlotte, North Carolina

LSU angle: It’s 770 miles from Baton Rouge to Charlotte. Several SEC East options are better geographically for the Belk.

LIBERTY BOWL

Dec. 30, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

Memphis, Tennessee

LSU angle: It’s less than six hours from Baton Rouge to Memphis. Considering Tigers haven’t played here since 1985, it's a strong possibility if LSU loses a game.

MUSIC CITY BOWL

Dec. 30, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Nashville, Tennessee

LSU angle: Also a possibility for 7-4 or 6-5 LSU, but the Tigers were in the Music City two years ago.

CITRUS BOWL

Dec. 31, 10 a.m. (ABC)

Orlando, Florida

LSU angle: Citrus is the only SEC bowl tie-in that makes its own pick. Always leans to Florida, but had Gators last year. Possible if LSU is 8-3 and not in the Sugar.

TAXSLAYER BOWL

Dec. 31, 10 a.m. (ESPN)

Jacksonville, Florida

LSU angle: Another good possibility if Tigers lose a game. LSU hasn’t played in Jacksonville since the 1987 Gator Bowl.

OUTBACK BOWL

Jan. 2, noon (ABC)

Tampa, Florida

LSU angle: Another potential landing spot for 8-3 or 7-4 Tigers, though they didn’t draw well in 2013.

SUGAR BOWL

Jan. 2, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Mercedes-Benz Superdome

LSU angle: It’s automatic if Bama wins out to go to the CFP and the Tigers are the SEC’s next-highest team in the final CFP rankings.

IF THE CFP WERE DETERMINED TODAY …

Based on Tuesday’s rankings, here’s how the CFP semifinals and New Year’s Six bowls would be filled:

Peach Bowl (CFP semifinal)

Dec. 31, Atlanta

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Clemson

Highest-seeded team gets to play in semifinal closest to home

Fiesta Bowl (CFP semifinal)

Dec. 31, Glendale, Arizona

No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan

Semifinal winners meet Jan. 9 in Tampa, Florida

Orange Bowl

Dec. 30, Miami

No. 5 Louisville vs. No. 8 Penn State

Orange gets highest available ACC team vs. SEC or Big Ten

Cotton Bowl

Jan. 2, Arlington Texas

No. 10 Colorado vs. No. 21 Western Michigan

Top “Group of Five” team guaranteed a CFP bowl bid

Rose Bowl

Jan. 2, Pasadena, California

No. 6 Washington vs. No. 7 Wisconsin

When not a CFP semifinal, Rose retains traditional Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup

Sugar Bowl

Jan. 2, Mercedes-Benz Superdome

No. 15 Auburn vs. No. 9 Oklahoma

Top available SEC team vs. top available Big 12 team

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​