The LSU Tigers have reached a new stage in their season.
Starting now, what they stand to lose threatens to eclipse what they have accomplished.
LSU is ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff top 25 and the major polls, led by a quarterback whose odds of winning the Heisman Trophy have shrunk enormously from 200-to-1 to 1-to-10 (what are the odds of that happening?).
A berth in the SEC Championship Game is there for the Tigers’ taking, a team tanked up like the Goodyear blimp with more than enough praise and compliments to make any football coach squirm like a first-grader just before recess.
It’s easy to prepare and scheme and motivate for a showdown like last week’s 46-41 LSU win at Alabama. But now it’s on to Ole Miss on Saturday, and how long have the Tigers, their fans, coaches, analysts, nutritional experts and physical therapists been pointing to this one?
Ed Orgeron said he doesn't receive many phone calls from head coaches in pursuit of advice.
The over/under: about six days.
It’s a trip that has “trap game” written all over it. It isn’t too dissimilar to another trip then No. 1 LSU took to Mississippi just after moving up to No. 1 in 1958.
A headline leading up to that game proclaimed: “Tigers occupying precarious pinnacle.” On a muddy field in Jackson, LSU slipped past Mississippi State 7-6 to keep its unbeaten season alive on the strength of a missed Bulldogs extra point.
The point spread makes a heavy favorite out of the Tigers, about three touchdowns' worth. It’s a familiar position for this LSU team to be in. But every week, the target grows, as do the number of serious underdogs who pull major upsets in college football.
And let’s not even dredge up Sunday’s Saints-Falcons debacle.
That said, there is a certain armor-plated quality to this LSU team that sends the slings and arrows of potential upsets caroming in all sorts of directions.
When you climb as high as LSU has, it becomes really difficult to get stoked up with an underdog’s righteous indignation. But listening to Mr. Heisman Uber Favorite Joe Burrow speak this week, perhaps they have found a way.
“I think we have a really mature team that really understands the magnitude of the moment,” Burrow said Monday, “and understands where we can go as a team. We have team guys all over this program. They know what we can do and what’s ahead of us.”
Burrow went on to make top-ranked LSU sound like a reasonable reboot of the Island of Misfit Toys. He brought up coach Ed Orgeron — drummed out of Oxford after 10 wins in three seasons there — as well as last-minute-recruiting-class-filler Lloyd Cushenberry at center; his transfer from Ohio State and tight end Thaddeus Moss’s transfer from N.C. State; the pocket-rocket Clyde Edwards-Helaire at tailback; and wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
They are all players with a tale to tell of how they wound up at LSU and helped forge a winner.
“I think that’s kind of a theme across our team,” Burrow said. “Coach O. Lloyd being the last guy signed in the class. Me transferring. Thad transferring. Clyde being too short. Justin being a two-star (recruit).
“We have guys like that all over the field, overlooked, who weren’t ‘good enough.’ That brings a toughness and mentality to the team that is a big reason why we’re successful.”
Jefferson was actually a three-star recruit, the 2,164th-ranked prospect in the nation, but why cut short a useful motivational thread? LSU also has future NFL stars all over the field, including Burrow himself now being bandied about as next year’s top pick in the draft. But if you believe it and it works, why not use it?
Good luck finding decent odds on the LSU Tigers anymore.
Orgeron is perhaps the biggest such story, considering his ties to Ole Miss. It isn’t his first return to Oxford since he coached at Ole Miss — the Tigers beat the Rebels 40-24 there in 2017 — but this time he comes back cloaked in his greatest glory. The guy who won only 10 games in his three traumatic seasons at Ole Miss is trying to lead LSU to only its fourth 10-0 start ever, joining the 1908, 1958 and 2011 teams.
Though he clearly reveled in last week’s epic win at Alabama, Orgeron has stuck by his standard “it’s not about me” stance when people have asked about his personal satisfaction over this win or that.
And while he’s giving 4-6 Ole Miss its props, Coach O has made it clear there is more about the way LSU handles its business than anything else.
“We want to practice and play to the LSU standard,” he said. “Last week we played for 30 minutes. This time we want to play for 60. We expect to get their best shot.”
Ole Miss should expect the same thing, not something less because its name isn’t Alabama.