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LSU can't afford for what-ifs to linger

BATON ROUGE, La. – Saturday’s overtime loss to Alabama was the kind that will sting for a long while at LSU.

Not only were the Tigers disappointed by the missed opportunities that allowed Alabama to tie the game in the final 50 seconds and then win in overtime, they also were seething over multiple calls that went the Crimson Tide’s way at crucial junctures.

“I think that game could have ended a lot of different ways with the Tigers in front,” LSU coach Les Miles said.

Miles credited Alabama and acknowledged his team’s own execution issues -- particularly the multitude of dropped passes that could have extended drives -- but he seemed particularly peeved about an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against left guard Vadal Alexander on LSU’s final drive in regulation.

LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith had just recovered a T.J. Yeldon fumble at Alabama’s 6-yard line, giving the Tigers first-and-goal with 1:13 to play in a 10-10 game. After Terrence Magee’s first-down run up the middle for no gain, Alexander shoved Alabama’s A'Shawn Robinson when the defensive end grabbed him and pulled his leg.

The 15-yard penalty pushed LSU back to the 21-yard line, so instead of a touchdown, they settled for a Colby Delahoussaye field goal with 50 seconds remaining. Miles said he didn’t have a good view of what transpired, but questioned whether it warranted a flag.

“That changed the complexion of the game,” Miles said. “That call was the single most significant piece, minus their turnover, in the game.”

The play -- only one factor in LSU’s late collapse -- also changed the complexion of the Tigers’ season. With a win, they were still alive in the SEC West race and a potential dark horse for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Now at 7-3 overall and 3-3 in SEC play, the Tigers are an afterthought in the conference race and must win out in order to extend their school-record streak of four consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins.

“We have strong character in the locker room, and we’re going to push and push and push until we can’t push no more,” said senior center Elliott Porter, who played the final home game of his career on Saturday. “That’s the biggest thing. You keep on fighting. It’s tough losing this game in Death Valley, a senior in my last game in Death Valley. It hurts, but that’s what we signed up for.”

The challenge for the Tigers now is to make sure that the hangover from the Alabama game doesn’t extend into their next game, Saturday at Arkansas (4-5, 0-5). Despite not having won an SEC game since October 2012 -- a losing streak that now sits at 17 games -- the Razorbacks actually opened as a slight betting favorite over LSU on Sunday.

While it hasn’t won a conference game, Arkansas has hung tight with Alabama (losing 14-13), Mississippi State (losing 17-10 when quarterback Brandon Allen threw an interception at the goal line in the closing seconds) and Texas A&M (blowing a late lead and falling 35-28 in overtime). The Tigers likely can’t afford to enter this game with less than their full focus and expect to beat the improved Razorbacks.

Miles expressed confidence that his team will regroup and not allow the Alabama loss to linger.

“I think our football team has got more character than that, to be honest,” Miles said. “I think we’ll have to play well. I think this Arkansas team is a good football team. We’ll have to prepare well. That will be a challenge for us.”

The Tigers rallied from a much more hopeless situation earlier this season, and many of them say a players-only meeting after they dropped their first two SEC games was the turning point that helped them move in the right direction. Quarterback Anthony Jennings said he believes they will bounce back again.

“I think this team is very resilient,” Jennings said. “They never give up, so I think that early, we had that players meeting to say we’re still a great team and we’re going to fight until the end of the season and we’re going to continue to do that.”