New Year’s Day, 1966. As the LSU Tigers are leaving their team hotel in Dallas to head to the Cotton Bowl to face unbeaten Arkansas as prohibitive nine-point underdog, a Razorbacks fan spots some of the players crossing the lobby to the team buses.
“Look,” the woman says loudly enough to be heard over the crowd, “they’re going to show up for the game.”
The 7-3 Tigers more than showed up for the game. They showed up the Razorbacks, snapping their 22-game winning streak with a shocking 14-7 upset that likely denied Arkansas a wire service national title.
There are no national championships to be won or spoiled Saturday morning when LSU squares off against Arkansas in Fayetteville (11 a.m., SEC Network). The Tigers are 2-3, having stumbled through their first five games loss-win-loss-win-loss like some woeful marching band. The Razorbacks are the talk of the Southeastern Conference for how they’ve improved under first-year coach Sam Pittman, like LSU’s Ed Orgeron a grizzled veteran pulled from coaching linemen in the trenches. But Arkansas is still just 3-4. Not exactly ready to challenge for SEC supremacy just quite yet.
Still, there is momentum at stake with a chance to even the record at .500 heading tentatively forward into however much of the regular season can be completed (the LSU-Alabama game is still not canceled but not rescheduled, either). There is a giant, heavy, garish, boot-looking trophy to battle over.
And there is pride. Especially for LSU, which this time last year was brushing opponents aside as it revved up for the home stretch of a perfect 15-0 season.
The Tigers desperately want to climb the mountain again and get out from under the clouds that have brooded over this season. However, pride has been an elusive target. Tackling the lack of character and leadership the Tigers have displayed is well within bounds. The examples of “me” over “we” shown by some of LSU’s early draft departers and late preseason opt outs has not set a strong example for the many inexperienced Tigers to follow.
Critical injuries like that suffered six weeks ago by junior quarterback Myles Brennan, reduced in status from star player to mentor/spectator by a serious injury at Missouri, haven’t helped the Tiger cause either. There was relief, even joy, in some corners of Tigertown when the Alabama game was called off. There is more than a little desire in bruised Tiger hearts the world over to crumple up this season, throw it away and start fresh in 2021 with an armful of coronavirus vaccine and a new outlook.
But perhaps this season can be recycled. Perhaps the future starts with Saturday’s game at Arkansas. It hardly seems the place for an epic reversal of fortune, or even the setting for a legendary victory like the one LSU pulled off nearly 55 years ago in the Cotton Bowl. But it could be the place where a young team, routed from the field like rag-tag revolutionaries when last we saw it, losing 48-11 at Auburn, makes a turn for the better.
You don’t have to build much of a case to say Arkansas is the better team this year. It even has a win over Mississippi State, 21-14, the week after the Bulldogs passed LSU silly in a 44-34 upset. While you’ve been reading this, State has completed two more wide-open passes and swept from its side of the field into the Tigers’ red zone. And they were a controversial call away from probably upsetting the Auburn team that crushed LSU (Auburn quarterback Bo Nix was allowed to make a backward spike that someone wasn’t recovered in time by the Razorbacks … whatever).
Arkansas surely has the edge at quarterback with LSU’s Brennan out. Feleipe Franks, the former Florida quarterback and one-time LSU commitment, has brought productivity and stability to the Razorbacks’ offense. Nonetheless, it is the Tigers that gain more yards and score more points on the season. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons ESPN’s Football Power Index matchup predictor gives LSU a better than two-thirds chance (68.7%) of winning the game.
Franks aside, LSU still has the talent advantage across the board on the Razorbacks. Especially when you throw in the fact that Arkansas’ roster and starting lineup has been impacted by coronavirus holdouts this week (thought I could get all the way through a column without mentioning the blasted virus, but there it is) and you have the reasons that point to why LSU started as a slight underdog but goes into Saturday as a slight favorite.
To live up to that expectation, though, the Tigers will likely have to limit the mistakes and win the turnover battle. Arkansas leads the SEC and ranks 11th in the FBS with a plus-1.14 turnover margin. LSU is third in the SEC and 23rd nationally at plus-0.8.
They will also have to play with more fire, heart and grit than they did at Auburn. Loads more. It was to that end that wide receiver Terrace Marshall stood up in a team meeting earlier this week and spelled out what the Tigers must do.
“I wanted to get in front of the team and motivate the young guys,” Marshall said, “and remind them we’ve still got a mission ahead of us. We’ve still got to keep playing and keep growing.”
Marshall is a man more of action than words, so when he speaks it likely has a greater impact.
Sometimes it takes just a few words, or the right words, to spark the right motivational fire. Just like that taunt in that Dallas hotel lobby so many years ago.
Are the Tigers going to show up for the game? Certainly. It’s up to them whether they stick around for the full 60 minutes and give the kind of determined effort that can turn LSU’s season around.