Tigers' Title Defense Down to One Game
By David Steinle
Special to LSUsports.net
When the experts of college football were making their predictions during the heat of June and July, many thought that the Southeastern Conference Western division title would come down to the final weekend of the season and the traditional day after Thanksgiving game between LSU and Arkansas.
Almost all of the experts thought LSU would be playing for the title, as the Tigers were picked first or second by every major publication. Whether or not the Razorbacks would be was open to conjecture, as coach Houston Nutt’s crew was picked anywhere between first and fifth in the division.
But as Saturday night’s game between LSU and Ole Miss began to tick away second by painful second, it appeared the reverse might be true. Arkansas had already guaranteed itself a chance to face Georgia on December 7 in Atlanta by beating Mississippi State earlier in the day; LSU was on the verge of being knocked out of the race and having to play spoiler for Auburn in Little Rock.
Thanks in large part to two fourth-quarter interceptions deep in LSU territory and a fourth-quarter drive engineered by substitute quarterback Marcus Randall, the Tigers prevailed over the Rebels in a 14-13 nail-biter, setting up the winner-take-all match at War Memorial Stadium between the Tigers and the Razorbacks. This time, more than just “The Boot,” the large, 24-karat gold trophy that LSU and Arkansas play for every year, will be at stake.
Arkansas will be out for revenge after a tough 41-38 loss the previous year in Death Valley, a game in which Nutt thought his Razorbacks outplayed the Tigers despite LaBrandon Toefield’s 173 yards rushing and LSU’s 518 yards of total offense. Of course, had the Razorbacks won, they would have been facing Tennessee in the Georgia Dome instead of LSU, and the Tigers would have been pondering their fate on a frigid New Year’s Morning in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl.
Not only is the opponent different for LSU to win the SEC West than it was last year when the Tigers beat Auburn 27-14 on the final Saturday of the year, but the scene will be much, much different. It will not be Saturday night in Death Valley under comfortable conditions, but instead it will likely be a cold, unforgiving afternoon in Little Rock.
War Memorial Stadium is at best an aging facility that has seen its better days, but most of the times that LSU has visited the Arkansas capital in recent years, it has been cold, raining and downright miserable.
The weather is something that can’t be controlled, but Nutt has brought his team to play every time in Little Rock, as the Hogs are 14-for-14 in their home-away-from-home.
That’s odds you can’t get in Las Vegas, and certainly the always-positive Nutt has to like his odds.
Yes, Arkansas has looked sluggish in victories over Louisiana-Lafayette and Mississippi State the last two weeks, but there’s something about Nutt and his charges that help the Razorbacks raise their level of play with a better opponent. It happened this year at Auburn, when a down-and-out Arkansas team ran all over the Tigers of the Plains for more than 400 yards rushing. It happened last year at Ole Miss when the Hogs won in seven overtimes. It would have happened in 1998 at Tennessee had Clint Stoerner not fumbled in the final minutes, a fumble that very well cost the Razorbacks a possible date in the Fiesta Bowl.
And LSU qualifies as a big opponent for two reasons. One, it’s a rivalry game, whether LSU fans want to acknowledge it or not. Nutt has made tremendous in-roads in recruiting in north Louisiana, and every time those players at Evangel, West Monroe and other powers on the I-20 corridor see the Hogs win, the more and more they’ll want to spurn the purple and gold for the cardinal and white.
Second, Arkansas hasn’t been to the title game in seven years, and Nutt is eager to show his team is a force to be consistently reckoned with in the SEC, not a flash-in-the-pan that can’t beat the big boys.
But LSU has something going for it, and that’s the heart of a champion. Remember, to be a champion, you have to knock off the reigning king unless someone does it for you, and in Arkansas’ case, that hasn’t happened yet. The Tigers came awfully close to losing their crown on Saturday night against an average Ole Miss team, and that should be motivation enough for coach Nick Saban’s crew to come out swinging on Friday with everything they have.
To defend their championship, the Tigers will need to do something they haven’t done for most of the season, and that’s play a complete 60 minutes. Remember, the South Carolina and Florida routs were largely second-half creations, and if it had not been for a certain twice-tipped Hail Mary in Lexington, LSU already be dead.
Saban, though, like Nutt, has a way of extracting the most out of his team when his team exactly needs it the most. It should all make for great theater next Friday in a rivalry that sorely needs a shot in the arm.
In addition to a berth in the SEC title game, the bowl picture will become clearer after 60 minutes (or more, possibly) in Little Rock. The winner of the game clinches no worse than a spot in the Cotton Bowl (sorry if you don’t like the 10 a.m. game in Dallas, but it beats the alternative), while the loser may find itself in Shreveport on the Friday after Christmas with an Independence Bowl date against Nebraska (be honest, if you ever envisioned the Cornhuskers in Shreveport come December, put down that $10,000 on the craps table at Harrah’s in Shreveport).
Have the urge to go shopping on Friday, Tiger fans? Hold your horses. The Internet is a wonderful way to shop, and if the Tigers put their best foot (or paw, to be politically correct) forward in Arkansas next Friday, you may get your chance to spend your money in Atlanta next week.
Until then, it’s time to enjoy some turkey, time with family and friends, and give thanks for the opportunity to enjoy the game of football we love so much.