LSU isn’t crazy about the fact that it has lost two games and is on the outside looking in at the Southeastern Conference championship and BCS Championship races.
But the eighth-ranked Tigers (8-2) are feeling pretty good about winning three out of four games against ranked teams in the past month, their new-found offensive balance and their prospects heading into their last two games of the regular season.
First comes the home finale against Ole Miss on Saturday, then the regular-season finale at Arkansas six days later.
“I think our team has been able to overcome some adversity, some injuries,” tackle Josh Dworaczyk said before practice Monday. “We’re starting to play like the team we had all hoped for in the beginning of the season.”
LSU entered the season as the defending SEC champion and finished No. 2 nationally after last season. The coaches voted them No. 1 in their preseason poll, and The Associated Press would have had them in its top spot too if All-America cornerback Tyrann Mathieu hadn’t been kicked off the team before the poll came out in August.
After a sluggish start that belied a 5-1 record, the Tigers won consecutive games against No. 3 South Carolina and No. 20 Texas A&M to end October.
Dworaczyk said the open date that followed was the catalyst for an improved passing game that showed up in a last-minute 21-17 loss to No. 1 Alabama two weeks ago and continued in a 37-17 victory against Mississippi State on Saturday.
“I think that off week was when we were able to pull together and say, ‘OK, this is the offense that we’re going to be, and this is the identity that we want to have,’” Dworaczyk said. “And then be able to go out and execute it for two weeks, it’s been a pivotal moment for our team.
“We’re playing much better at the right time. You want to make sure that you’re gaining speed throughout November, and to be able to do that has been very successful for us.”
The improved passing game led to a more-balanced offense, and the more-balanced offense has led to better-rounded team efforts.
“I think we recognize that we can be a very, very capable if not a dominant team,” coach Les Miles said. “I think that’s the goal. I don’t think anybody’s really happy with the achievement of where we’re at. We really just want to play our best.”
The Tigers are mathematically alive for the SEC title, though Miles called it a “very outside chance,” and even the BCS title, though that’s even less likely.
A BCS bowl, though, is a more realistic possibility, as long as LSU wins its last two games.
“Unfortunately we do have two losses,” safety Eric Reid said. “I wish we could have done a little more to come out on top in those games, but this is our situation. We hope that something happens in our favor for us to get to the big dance, but all we can do is play hard and end the season with two wins and see if something does happen for us.”
The Tigers’ first loss — a 14-6 setback at Florida on Oct. 6 — made it easy to question whether this team was as good as billed. The game against Alabama, despite being a loss, was ironically the best demonstration of this team realizing its potential. The subsequent victory against State showed continued progress.
“I think we’ve got a great team,” defensive tackle Josh Downs said.
“I think we’re fighting really hard, and we hang tough and we’re getting our aggression out and doing the things that we need to do.”
Even if the improbable doesn’t happen and LSU winds up watching the Dec. 1 SEC title game on television and playing its postseason game before the BCS title is determined Jan. 7, a trip to the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl or Sugar Bowl would still be a big deal.
“Having the opportunity to play in one of these games and what it means to the school and what it means to us as a program would be huge,” said Dworaczyk, one of 14 seniors who will play their last game in Tiger Stadium on Saturday. “I think the players, the younger guys and even the seniors, are excited about the opportunity, but we have to worry about the things we can control, and that’s winning.”
After playing their past five games against ranked teams, the Tigers face two unranked teams, one that is much improved since last season and one that is the opposite.
Under first-year coach Hugh Freeze, the Rebels, who were winless in the conference last season, are 2-4 in the SEC and one victory short of being bowl eligible. Arkansas, under interim coach John L. Smith, is 4-6 and has been one of the biggest disappointments in the country.
But the opponents don’t really matter to LSU, which believes it has found itself.
“I think the opportunity to play a dominant style of football is certainly a reward in itself,” Miles said. “But then we understand that that makes us much more attractive to some of major bowls.
“I think we understand that, and I can promise you that this team will want to play a very quality opponent and play in very prestigious postseason bowl game. I think they’ll play to that goal.”
“Anything can happen with these last two weeks,” wide receiver Jarvis Landry said, “as long as we can finish these teams off at end of the season.”