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LSU wide receiver Brian Thomas Jr. (11), running back Armoni Goodwin (22) and guard Ed Ingram (70) leave the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday Nov. 6, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama won 20-14.

The way the LSU Tigers fought and almost won against overwhelming odds at Alabama already has begun to pass into legend.

Songs will be written about the way the Tigers nearly pulled off what would have gone down as the greatest point-spread upset in school history. I hear Elon Musk is planning to name his next child “20-14,” and he was so moved that he agreed to fund the first $10 million of the next LSU coach’s salary for the next 10 years.

None of that is true, of course, but LSU’s noble defeat in Tuscaloosa has had a layer of mythos applied to it, with two words painted on top:

“Moral victory.”

LSU is long past being satisfied with moral victories against superior opposition. It should not even be acceptable for LSU people to think superior opposition exists. But through injuries, departures, coaching missteps and a sprinkle of bad luck, the 4-5 Tigers find themselves in a place where they haven’t been often since the 1990s: an outmanned underdog.

How much have the times changed? Two years ago, LSU was a 42-point favorite over Arkansas and romped to a 56-20 victory. Saturday, the Tigers are a 2½-point underdog to the 6-3 Razorbacks, who have steadily rebuilt themselves under second-year coach Sam Pittman.

Ultimately, LSU’s performance in Tuscaloosa will only have true worth if the Tigers can build on it. If they can bounce back off the bottom of the SEC West standings to reclaim a winning (or at least .500) record and a bowl trip from this sad, strange, pivotal season.

That reclamation project starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Arkansas in Tiger Stadium.

Three regular-season games remain for LSU: Arkansas, ULM and Texas A&M. This first one looks winnable, the second looks virtually un-losable and the third looks like a likely defeat. Of course, LSU fans are mostly looking at Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, wondering whether he will be the multi-millionaire to replace outgoing multi-millionaire Ed Orgeron.

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Why does it even matter whether LSU can get to 6-6 and qualify for something like the Birmingham Bowl? For one, there’s the extra practice leading up to the bowl, and this bunch needs it. Plus, there’s the stain of missing out on a bowl two years in a row. LSU’s 2020 bowl absence, its first since 1999, was because LSU self-imposed a bowl ban to try to lessen its NCAA problems. The Tigers, even at 5-5, would have gone somewhere.

One year is a COVID-19 blip. Two years is a trend that won’t play well with recruits. It would be another hurdle for this burdened program to climb.

Orgeron, brimming with justifiable pride in his Tigers coming off the Alabama game, said he expects his team to give a good effort this week and the rest of the season. He said he thinks they will reach and deserve a bowl trip. But historically for LSU, it’s one thing to gear up for Alabama and another thing to grind through Arkansas week to a winning conclusion. And the Tigers probably need to win this one to avoid yet another negative note: their first losing season since 1999.

Since 2014, when Texas A&M moved into Arkansas’ slot as LSU’s season-ending opponent, the Tigers have played the Razorbacks five times the week after taking on the Crimson Tide. In those five games, LSU lost by 17 twice, won by 28, won by 23 and won by 7.

In other words, it often hasn’t been easy for LSU against Arkansas.

An ugly season just keeps getting worse personnel wise. At Alabama, LSU was throwing into the end zone for the win at game’s end despite playing backups' backups and a cardboard cutout or two from the empty seats in Tiger Stadium last season. This week the offensive line, which has repaired some of its tattered reputation, will be without starting guards Chasen Hines (out for the season) and Ed Ingram.

Then add in the fact that Orgeron has given the green light to a highly unusual late-season quarterback battle, with starter Max Johnson and gunslinging backup Garrett Nussmeier trading turns to try to be the one to lead the offense going forward. Clearly a battered Johnson has regressed in some respects, but I’m skeptical that Nussmeier and his 42% completion rate is the answer.

It will be a tough task for LSU to keep pace offensively with either quarterback against an Arkansas team that leads the SEC with 243.8 yards rushing per game. Especially if the Tigers, who are running on empty personnel wise, don’t find something in the tank emotionally.

At times LSU’s effort has wavered this season, but on balance the Tigers have played hard. They will have to do so again, against tough odds, or all the goodwill they built up against Alabama will blow away like a puff of smoke in a breeze.

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com

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