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LSU linebacker Jabril Cox (19) runs to the end zone to score after making an interception in the first half of the Tigers' home opener against Mississippi State, Saturday, September 26, 2020, in Tiger Stadium.

Time and time again this crazy, bizarro world of an offseason, Ed Orgeron growled “Next man up!” and “We don’t blink!” as the questions about his 2020 LSU Tigers mounted.

But there can come a time when the next man up isn’t ready or isn’t there.

And, finally, the Tigers blinked.

All the record slew of players who left last season’s national championship team for the NFL. The opt-outs. The coronavirus-starved team chemistry. And, finally, two more key defensive starters who missed Saturday's season opener against Mississippi State. It was all just too much.

Layer a new, pass-happy Mississippi State offense on top and it was an overloaded afternoon before a mostly empty Tiger Stadium. Circuits blown, the No. 6-ranked Tigers saw their long 16-game win streak come to an end with a shocking 44-34 upset.

But was it really that stunning? There are those who think a reigning national champion should begin the next season at No. 1 until they get knocked off their perch.

This is why they do not. Each season brings so much upheaval in college football. Nowhere was that more true than in Baton Rouge.

LSU only ended up bringing back five starters after two of its biggest stars, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin, also opted out. Then Saturday came the news, scary sounding, that All-American cornerback Derek Stingley became “acutely ill” Friday night and would miss the game. LSU went to great lengths to say his illness, though not named, was not coronavirus-related. Then before the game, defensive tackle Glen Logan was a late scratch for unspecified reasons.

That meant LSU had to face Mississippi State’s dangerous Air Raid passing game, installed by new coach Mike Leach, without two of its best fighter planes and only one returning defensive starter: safety JaCoby Stevens, a rare bright light in LSU's gloom with two fumble recoveries and two sacks.

While State quarterback K.J. Costello made a slew of turnovers, including a pick-six returned by graduate transfer linebacker Jabril Cox, he made more than enough good plays to torch the Tigers’ beleaguered secondary for a Southeastern Conference record 623 yards.

Challenging circumstances or not, it was an embarrassing day for a school that even after last season’s offensive bonanza takes pride in its defensive identity, calling itself “DBU.” Yes, LSU was missing all those defensive players and breaking in a new defense under Bo Pelini. But much of the day, the Tigers secondary looked like the cardboard cutouts of fans who couldn’t be here populating the lower rows of Tiger Stadium.

Heck, cardboard cutouts might have played better defense.

LSU has players to fill the holes, of course. Talented ones. This is LSU. Blue chippers are stacked up like a pile in front of a Vegas high roller on an epic heater. But young players make mistakes and they can cost you dearly if lean on too many of them.

Quarterback Myles Brennan was a veteran, but also inexperienced. He waited three years for this chance to start after backing up Danny Etling and Joe Burrow.

Brennan’s numbers weren’t Costello-like but they weren’t dreadful: 27 of 46 for 345 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, the second on a desperation end-zone heave on the final play. The first came when Jordan Davis hit his arm and sent the ball fluttering into the hands of cornerback Esaias Furdge. Brennan was locked on Racey McMath, wide open in the left flat, who could have rumbled for a big touchdown if he made the catch.

Instead, State converted that turnover into a touchdown drive for a 34-24 lead. Brennan had to be reminded not only was he not Burrow, but he was the Bud Abbott-like straight man to the big joke Costello pulled on the Tigers.

Brennan will have to improve his game overall. Like Burrow when he arrived at LSU in 2018, Brennan often had trouble pulling the trigger, contributing to seven sacks. But his offensive line will have to block better, and his receivers, who dropped at least four or five passes, will have to catch better.

The whole day just reeked of potential, soul-sucking disaster for the Tigers, a day that thanks to the world-gripping pandemic felt more like a spring game than a season opener. Driving past Billy Cannon’s statue in front of Tiger Stadium on a campus filled not with tailgaters but stragglers, he looked as lonely as he did when he broke into the clear against Ole Miss in 1959. It was 180 degrees departure from LSU’s home finale against Texas A&M 10 months ago, the night of the Burreaux jersey and a full Tiger Stadium reveling in an Aggie rout to cap a perfect 12-0 regular season.

Then, just before kickoff, they raised a national championship flag over the northwest corner of Tiger Stadium.

Just after, it looked like it might have to be lowered to half-staff.

There will be brighter days for LSU. Players like Stingley and Logan will return, and there is reason to believe in Orgeron’s prediction that the Tigers will get better as the season goes along.

"We're not going to crumble," Brennan said defiantly. "We've got a long road ahead."

Who knows where the next nine games, if played, will take LSU. But at this point, it would be unrealistic to expect another championship flag.


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Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com