By the time it became official Sunday, when LSU’s name flashed up on ESPN across from Central Florida in a Fiesta Bowl matchup on New Year’s Day, it almost seemed anticlimactic. A matter of course.
Saturday night, when no championship-game upsets added an upstart team to the New Year’s Six mix, LSU’s fate was almost assured.
But it must be remembered how remarkable it is that the Tigers are in this position, in a prestigious major bowl matched against a team riding the nation’s longest-active winning streak.
Practically no one thought LSU could do something like this in 2018. You could get better odds in Las Vegas, far better, that Ed Orgeron would be out as LSU’s coach by now than you could that he would have his Tigers in a bowl that's in the rotation for the College Football Playoff semifinals.
And that was before August. Before Tyler Taylor, one of the Tigers' best linebackers, was suspended. Before guard Ed Ingram, one of their best offensive linemen, was suspended. Before September, when K’Lavon Chaisson, their best pass rusher, went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Miami, a game that LSU won but at a steep price.
The Tigers overcame all that and one of the nation’s toughest schedules with a team that hardly wows you from a statistical standpoint.
So how did the Tigers get to 9-3 and into a game like this, beating the opponents, the odds and themselves?
As Orgeron said, it was a lot of little things.
“They play as a team,” Coach O said. “With grit. Everyone plays together. No superstars. A plus-12 turnover ratio. A great field goal kicker. Playing complementary football. When we needed our offense, they showed up, and our coaching staff did a tremendous job. There is tremendous leadership on this team.”
The “no superstars” part of Orgeron’s statement might come back to haunt in a certain respect.
Pretty much as Orgeron was wrapping up his Fiesta Bowl media teleconference, star cornerback Greedy Williams announced that he will enter the 2019 NFL Draft. Later, news came that Williams would not play in the Fiesta Bowl.
Williams’ Fiesta Bowl decision becomes more acute with Orgeron revealing that LSU's other starting cornerback, Kristian Fulton, out since being injured against Arkansas, will miss the UCF game with an ankle injury that already has required surgery. You may see Williams on the field at State Farm Stadium, alright. But it may be as the latest LSU defensive back drafted by the Arizona Cardinals or one of their 2019 opponents.
Up next: a decision by star linebacker Devin White.
If Williams doesn't go with the team to the Fiesta Bowl, he will be missing quite a trip.
A trip to the Peach Bowl, LSU’s other possible New Year’s Six bowl destination when it came down to it, would comparatively been in LSU’s backyard, or at least in the backyard of thousands of expatriate LSU alumni. That would have been against Michigan, which for yet another season remains the biggest-name program LSU has never played on the football field.
But the trip to the Fiesta brings its own special brand of rewards. First, there the destination itself. If you’ve never been to the Valley of the Sun in December, you’re in for a treat. It’s a big-time bowl in a big-time venue, State Farm (formerly University of Phoenix) Stadium, which has hosted BCS and CFP national championship games, Super Bowls and the 2017 Final Four.
Then there is the chance to uphold SEC honor against UCF. Auburn faced that task against the Knights in last year’s Peach Bowl and came up short, 34-27. The whole South, if not the whole country, will be watching to see if LSU can do what Auburn could not, though notably against a UCF team without star quarterback McKenzie Milton.
Some LSU fans may not be unmoved because UCF is from a “lower-level” conference. But as far as a challenge and a first-time destination, the Fiesta will provide LSU all it wants in a non-CFP semifinal postseason affair.
“This is where we wanted to go,” Orgeron said. “The team wanted to go to the Fiesta Bowl. We’re highly motivated. We’re not happy with the way the season ended, and the guys will be ready to play.”
Considering where it once looked where LSU’s season was going, there is plenty for the Tigers and their fans to be happy about.