ATLANTA — LSU didn’t play like a team that was disappointed to be in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Monday night.
Though the Tigers lost 25-24 they showed they were ready to play the way they had played in finishing the regular season 10-2, building a résumé worthy of a BCS bowl team and narrowly missing a chance to play for a berth in the BCS Championship Game.
In fact, LSU’s loss to Clemson was a microcosm of a season in which the Tigers flirted with greatness but never quite achieved it.
The 2011 Tigers had the most impressive regular season in school history, tackling one of the most challenging schedules for any team and going 13-for-13 with only one game being competitive.
That team overwhelmed the opposition, never playing to the scoreboard or the clock. It was relentless and, with the exception of Alabama, opponents cracked.
The 2012 team didn’t have that rare trait. Too often it seemed to play to the scoreboard and the clock, sometimes seeming content to have a seemingly adequate lead rather than never being content while any time remained on the clock.
Sometimes it didn’t matter that LSU allowed more points in the fourth quarter than any of the first three. No outcomes were affected when North Texas drove to a fourth-quarter touchdown, or Towson drove to two fourth-quarter touchdowns, or South Carolina drove to a late one or, Texas A&M drove to one in the final two minutes or Arkansas drove to a fourth-quarter field goal.
Similarly, no outcomes were changed when the Tigers offense figuratively took a premature knee, scoring three points in the final 49-plus minutes at Auburn and scoring three in the final 24-plus against Arkansas.
But it mattered a lot when LSU had the lead and possession of the football with an opportunity to finish off Alabama and Clemson without either ever getting the football back and didn’t.
One time-consuming drive, whether it yielded points or not, or one defensive stop at the end would have finished off victories in two games that turned into defeats.
In both cases, the Tigers offense couldn’t run out the clock, and the defense subsequently gave up a touchdown drive to Alabama and a field-goal drive to Clemson. As a result a team that could have been 11-1 and playing Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game for a berth in the BCS title game instead returned to Baton Rouge a disappointing and disappointed 10-3 team on New Year’s Day.
It’s hard to understand why LSU chose not to try to pass for a first down against the Tide when the passing game was what put it in position to win in the first place.
It’s equally as hard to understand why LSU didn’t run the ball and force Clemson to use one or two timeouts after a pass completion set the Tigers up with a very makeable second-and-2 situation.
This season was defined by questionable coaching calls and inadequate execution by the players that combined to produce a last-minute loss and a last-second loss, which turned what could have been a special year into a run-of-the-mill one.