If you subjected LSU coach Ed Orgeron to some sort of truth serum before Saturday night’s exhibition game with Rice, you probably could have gotten him to reveal a checklist that looked something like this:
• Win the game. Check. Tigers prevailed 42-10.
• Put it out of reach early. Check. LSU jumped out on its first two possessions for touchdowns and never gave Rice even a whiff of hope it could spring an upset.
• Improve on offense. Check … ish. LSU did come out throwing with Joe Burrow, who went to the bench with a 307-yard night in the bag after playing only one series in the third quarter. Oh, the Tua Tagovailoa of it all.
Everything went according to plan for the LSU Tigers in their final night in 2018 at Tiger Stadium.
• Play lots of backups. Check. Actually, Orgeron made this a plain objective on LSU’s pregame radio show. Myles Brennan got to see his first action of the season at quarterback (under new NCAA rules, he still gets to redshirt), and Lanard Fournette scored a touchdown. Nostalgic LSU fans heard "Fournette ... touchdown!" over the PA and shed a sentimental tear.
• Win the turnover battle. No check, surprisingly, in this season where LSU has been one of the nation’s best in turnover ratio. The Tigers lost the turnover category 1-0 thanks to an early fumble by wide receiver Jontre Kirklin out of the wildcat formation, an indication the Tigers were trying to jazz things up.
Perhaps such a gimmick on the game’s second possession was overreaching by LSU, but at least Orgeron flatly stated that he knew his team had been in an offensive funk the past three games (Mississippi State, Alabama, Arkansas) and was determined to try to do something about it by rediscovering his team's offensive self.
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"Run the ball. Deep passes. I think we did a good job of that," Orgeron said. Oh, one more. "Protect the quarterback."
Again, mission accomplished. It was the second-most points and total yards (552) for LSU this season, second only to its 45-16 victory over Ole Miss on Sept. 29 (573 yards). And the Tigers could probably have had more if they were not so intent on going deep into the bench, which had the byproduct of protecting key starters from injury or ejection (no targeting suspensions on this night).
Still, how much of it was merely because of an overwhelming talent gap?
The Owls (now 1-11) were woefully overmatched, making this a game the Tigers practically could not lose. According to ESPN’s FPI (Football Power Index), LSU had a virtually unheard-of 99.5 percent chance of winning. In other words, as the stat nerds figured it, the only way LSU would not devour Rice was if a meteor struck the team hotel, or if the Tigers were felled by food poisoning from a bad batch of sauce piquante at their pregame meal.
No tragedies, injustices or even razor cuts on this night for LSU. Just a pretty much by-the-numbers victory on a chilly night before an intimate crowd of probably about 65,000 pre-Thanksgiving curiosity seekers.
The Tigers came, saw, conquered, and pushed their record to 9-2, outstripping even the sunniest of predictions before the season began that mostly had LSU winning seven or fewer games. For that, everyone should move on from this game feeling impressed. For the Tigers to have nine wins — with a great chance at 10 — is a marvel, one of the more remarkable stories of this college football season.
"We got our mojo back," senior tailback Nick Brossette said, a feeling about themselves the Tigers had a right to claim.
LSU wowed more against Miami (which won again, finally, over Virginia Tech to avoid slipping below .500) and Georgia. Nothing LSU did Saturday could have eclipsed that. But where this win took the Tigers, well, when you stand back and look at the entire sweep of LSU's season, it is a wonder.
Yes, LSU's hopes of snagging a College Football Playoff semifinal berth continue to melt like ice in an oven. They are not "Rice has a 0.5-percent chance of winning" small, but the vanishing point is in sight. The rest of the other CFP contenders are stubbornly refusing to lose.
A New Year's Six bowl berth, however, in the Sugar, Peach or Fiesta? That is well within the Tigers grasp if they can pin that to a 10-win season with a victory at Texas A&M. Even maybe if they lose and finish 9-3.
Compared to Saturday’s win over Rice, it will be anything but easy. And the Aggies — 41-20 winners over UAB Saturday to go to 7-4, but losers of seven straight to LSU dating to the 2011 Cotton Bowl — are probably as sick of coming up short against the Tigers as the Tigers are of losing to Alabama.
"We know who we are," senior left guard Garrett Brumfield said. "We play with a ferocity you rarely see. We play hard and together and for each other."
They will have to play harder still at Texas A&M. If nothing else, this win shows the Tigers they can.
Throughout their careers at LSU, Foster Moreau and Nick Brossette haven’t exactly been focal points of the Tigers’ offense.