The LSU Tigers have been the Tennessee Volunteers.
Well, not entirely. Tennessee is, in a word, awful. Actually, the Volunteers aspire to awful. Statistically, Tennessee is one of the worst Southeastern Conference teams I’ve ever seen, ranked not just near the bottom of the conference but the entire FBS on offense and defense. Were this the English Premier League, the Volunteers (4-6, 0-6 SEC) would be relegated right out of the SEC.
But LSU was Tennessee, in that a little more than a year ago the Tigers were hitting the restart button on their season with an interim coach.
That was Ed Orgeron, taking over from Les Miles when The Hat was sent packing after a 2-2 start to the 2016 campaign. For them the change was a cleansing in some ways. The Tigers responded with 634 yards total offense in a 42-7 rout of Missouri, going on to finish 8-4 with a trip to the Citrus Bowl. By recent LSU standards, it was a respectable season considering it started with so much September scrambling — not at all unlike 2017.
Tennessee is coming off a listless 50-17 loss at Mizzou in which it played not so much like Volunteers but unwilling draftees. The Vols surrendered 433 yards rushing, and this to a team that doesn’t have someone as talented as Derrius Guice in its backfield.
Still, it would be foolish not to expect the Volunteers to play with a renewed attitude after the firing of Butch Jones. If they can upset LSU and then beat Vandy next week — a game that's shaping up as a pillow fight in the SEC basement to avoid going 0-8 in conference play — they can go to a bowl at 6-6. It’s not much of a goal for the program of Peyton Manning and General Robert Neyland, but it’s still a carrot for interim coach Brady Hoke to dangle in front of his ramshackle team.
Former LSU quarterback Rohan Davey (what might the Tigers' record be this year if Davey were throwing the ball around?) remembered what it was like in 1999 when his 2-8 Tigers hosted Arkansas the week after Gerry DiNardo was fired. They deep fried the Cotton Bowl-bound Razorbacks 35-10, leaving interim coach Hal Hunter with a winning percentage (1.000) that even Nick Saban would envy when not busy counting his money.
“When coach Hal came in, there was no doghouse,” Davey said on “After Further Review” this week on 104.5 FM. “There was a new feel. You wanted to get him a victory.
“I think Tennessee can turn it on. It kind of depends how they felt about Butch. Do they want him (Hoke) as the coach and do they want to play for him? Some of them may be bummed out, and that may show, too.”
Danny Etling, LSU’s back-bothered but tough-son-of-a-gun quarterback, has been pouring over game tape this week, as is his habit. Jones may have failed as Tennessee’s coach on the field, but he didn’t fail to recruit well, according to Etling.
“You look at Tennessee on film and you see they have a lot of talent,” he said. “They’ve had some good recruiting classes. You have to respect them as an opponent.”
“They’re still Tennessee,” left guard Garrett Brumfield chimed in. “I’m sure they still have the same mindset we did.”
There’s one word that makes you believe LSU won’t succumb to a Tennessee upset: Troy. The Tigers have bagged their limit when it comes to being ambushed, thank you. They’re dieting the rest of the season. That 24-21 defeat is tattooed in their collective memory. It was a bitter lesson to learn, but it prepared the Tigers well for moments like this, when they’ve transitioned from the disarray of the first few weeks of the season to heavy favorite as it draws to a close.
The threat of embarrassment is a powerful stimulant.
“You’re playing a team that hasn’t won an SEC game,” wide receiver DJ Chark said. “You don’t want to be the team that they win against.”
There’s something else, especially for LSU’s seniors like Chark, Etling, Greg Gilmore and Christian LaCoutre. It may not mean much to you which way the season winds up once the Tigers are out of championship contention, but it still means something to these guys. The chance to go out 6-2 in SEC play for the first time since 2012, a shot at a nine-win regular season and the chance to play for 10 wins in a warm-weather Florida bowl are all motivations.
And there’s just being together. No team is ever the same from one season to the next. That’s a reality that has hit home for Chark.
“I want to cherish these last few moments with my team,” he said. “These are the moments you don’t get back.”
A moment too good for the Tigers to let Tennessee spoil it.