BATON ROUGE, La. -- After another frustrating LSU loss to nemesis Alabama, it would be understandable if the Tigers struggled to focus on the here and now.
In one fell swoop, their College Football Playoff hopes were probably shot, playing for the SEC title seems unlikely, and Leonard Fournette’s Heisman Trophy motorcade drove into a ditch.
It was the exact opposite of what the Tigers spent last week dreaming about, and that will certainly make LSU coach Les Miles’ job difficult this week. The last thing Miles’ Tigers can afford to do is allow the disappointment to damage their psyches. Not with multiple losable games left on the schedule -- most notably one at Tiger Stadium this Saturday against a sky-high Arkansas team that just upset Ole Miss in overtime.
The three remaining games still carry huge implications for LSU. For starters, there is no guarantee that Alabama will win out, even if that seems a likely outcome after what we saw at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday. If the Crimson Tide stumbles against Mississippi State or Auburn, LSU must make sure it remains in position to claim the SEC West title.
The Tigers can still reach Atlanta if Alabama loses once and LSU sweeps Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M – a remaining schedule that ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks as the nation’s ninth-most-difficult. The FPI gives LSU a 19.4 percent chance of winning all three games.
Those are all winnable games for the Tigers, and yet the streaky LSU team that we’ve seen for much of the season could easily drop at least one of them. That is why setting their jaws, making corrections and getting over the Alabama hangover will be so important this week.
Truly successful seasons are those that end with championships. Great seasons end with wins in prominent bowl games. Decent seasons end with appearances in mid-level bowl games where the outcome is fairly irrelevant. All of those scenarios remain as possibilities for LSU based upon what happens down the stretch.
Let’s operate under the assumption that Alabama ends up winning the West. A one-loss LSU team would almost certainly play in either the playoff semifinals as an at-large team (unlikely) or the Allstate Sugar Bowl (highly likely). At minimum, a spot in one of the other New Year’s Six bowls (this year, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual) would seem to be a likely outcome.
It wouldn’t be a championship season, but playing in any of those bowls would be an outstanding result for an LSU team whose offense is loaded with underclassman starters like Fournette, quarterback Brandon Harris, receiver Malachi Dupre and offensive linemen Will Clapp and Maea Teuhema.
Last year, the SEC put three teams in either the playoff (one-loss Alabama was the No. 1 seed) or access bowls (10-2 Mississippi State played Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl and 9-3 Ole Miss played TCU in the Peach Bowl). There are a more unbeaten teams this season -- five Power 5 teams plus Houston are unbeaten, while only Mississippi State and Florida State remained undefeated at this point of the season last year -- so LSU can’t be certain that it would play in one of the top bowls if it loses twice, even if any bowl committee would drool over the possibility of hosting Fournette in its game.
Maybe his presence would help a two-loss LSU still play in one of the big bowls, but two or more losses would also bring the second tier of SEC bowls into play.
The Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl will have first choice from the conference’s non-CFP participants, and perhaps the Tigers could fall there. But with two losses -- and especially with more than two losses -- the Tigers could also drop into the collection of six SEC bowls (Franklin American Mortgage Music City, Outback, TaxSlayer, Belk, AutoZone Liberty, AdvoCare V100 Texas) where the conference office assigns bowl matchups in conjunction with the bowl committees and schools.
It would be a major disappointment if the Tigers tumbled to this level after carrying national title hopes into the Alabama game. It’s a distinct possibility, however, if they fail to right the ship in a hurry. Arkansas, Ole Miss and even slumping Texas A&M are capable of tag-teaming with Alabama to turn an enormously promising LSU season into one where the Tigers finished in the middle of the pack once again.
Although the Tigers no longer control their own destiny, they still control how this season will go down in LSU history. Winning out won’t erase what happened in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, but it would still help make this season a success.