As the college football season reaches the midway point and begins the quickening gallop to the finish, we begin to have a better sense of how good teams are and where they may be going.
To this point, the LSU Tigers have been one elusive team to pin down, misfits for every label written for them.
No one expected much from the Tigers this season in terms of winning, so what do they do? They step out with wins over top-10 teams Miami and Auburn and rocket to No. 5 in The Associated Press Top 25 with a 5-0 record. Suddenly the thought is that LSU may be College Football Playoff material, that the Tigers are overcoming the deficiencies that have been glaring like a neon sign since the preseason with some gridiron legerdemain and clean living.
Then comes the Florida game, a 27-19 loss on the road that was really closer than the final score indicated but appears to expose a different LSU team. The one people saw in August, struggling to even make it to a bowl.
“We let our hands down,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Monday, turning to an apt boxing analogy. “We should have won that football game. We had a chance to win that game.”
Michael Divinity had finally gotten to the quarterback — or so he thought.
But the Tigers didn’t, and now the doubters can again have their day. Especially with No. 2 Georgia coming to town, one half of the power couple with No. 1 Alabama that is expected to rule the Southeastern Conference this season, play each other in the SEC championship game and perhaps meet yet again in the College Football Playoff.
Truth is, this LSU team really does not quite belong in that world. Never did. Not this season. The Tigers ascended to a point way up in the national consciousness where the air gets thin, and instead of a victory to set up an epic showdown of 6-0s in Tiger Stadium on Saturday, they slipped and fell into Hamlet’s “sea of troubles.” This LSU team is, like its quarterback Joe Burrow, black and blue right now in terms of its national reputation.
The pass blocking was porous. The pass rush at times threw off the timing of Florida quarterback and one-time LSU commitment Feleipe Franks but never put him on the ground with the ball in his hand. The offense made mistakes, mostly of the turnover and dropped pass variety. The defense had a shocking inability to stop the run, surrendering 215 yards rushing.
Georgia is likely better than Florida in all those areas that led to the Tigers’ demise this past Saturday: better quarterback, better running backs, even better defense. If LSU is to avoid back-to-back defeats for the first time under Orgeron, the Tigers have their work cut out.
Then again, maybe it is as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles said last season during his team’s own improbable season on the way to its Super Bowl title: “Without failure, who would you be?” These Tigers have now tasted failure and come to grips with their own limitations, and perhaps in a way, like the loss to Troy last season, the failure will sharpen their desire and intensity for one of this season’s two toughest tests.
It is that altar at which Coach O is laying his faith in his team this week.
“I think the team is hungry,” he said.
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A hungry, wounded bunch of Tigers could be a dangerous trap for a talented Georgia team that has not faced a test of this magnitude this season. The Bulldogs waxed South Carolina 41-17 in Columbia on Sept. 8, but LSU is better.
How much better remains to be seen. Clearly the Tigers are not a top-five team, and frankly, after Auburn was stuffed 23-9 at Mississippi State and Miami barely scraped by a mediocre Florida State team 28-17, their signature wins are looking a little blurry. But LSU is better than its preseason predictions of doom, a team that can still go 9-3 or 10-2. LSU has shown well enough it is a team that with its best, mistakes-at-a-minimum effort could take down the mighty Bulldogs.
“You grow up wanting to play in games like this,” the bruised Mr. Burrow said. “You don’t want to cakewalk through the whole season. You want to be challenged.”
Challenges for LSU are not hard to find. Not in this middle stretch of the season. They are coming in like a bumper crop from the cornfield. Florida. Georgia. Mississippi State. Alabama.
“For sure, this is kind of a gauntlet we have in the next three weeks,” Burrow said, “and we’re going to have to be ready for it. I have faith that we will be.”
There’s that word again. Faith. When the cold numbers tell you you’re a touchdown-plus underdog at home to the next team on the slate, it’s the best thing to have.
A quick rundown of LSU's opponent Saturday, the Georgia Bulldogs ...