Early loss still fuels LSU as unbeaten Tide looms

The only thing more pronounced than the anger in Kyle Williams' voice that night was LSU's collapse in the second half.

"We played like a joke out there," the defensive tackle fumed. "It was an absolute joke in the second half, a complete and total breakdown."

Even the most loyal LSU fan had to walk away from Tiger Stadium in the wee hours of Sept. 27 wondering whether the season was over before it had a chance to begin.

The Tigers, already rocked by a pair of devastating hurricanes, blew a 21-0 halftime lead to Tennessee and lost 30-27 in overtime.

It was almost as if the football gods were working against the Tigers. That and some ultraconservative play calling by LSU head coach Les Miles in the second half.

You've heard of sitting on a lead?

Well, the Tigers might be accused of lounging on a lead, maybe even taking a two-week vacation on it.

Miles was roasted by the fans, as was defensive coordinator Bo Pelini for his squad's having given up all those points and yards after halftime.

A little more than two weeks earlier, LSU had survived a 35-31 shootout against Arizona State despite giving up more than 500 yards of total offense to the Sun Devils.

All over the Bayou, there were APBs out for the return of Nick Saban.

Which brings us to where we are now.

If anything, the disappointment of the Tennessee game only made LSU (7-1 overall, 4-1 SEC) stronger and that much more determined.

And with three games remaining, the Tigers' goals remain right there in front of them.

They head to unbeaten Alabama on Saturday ranked fifth nationally and riding a six-game winning streak.

"This is a game that has been looming on the horizon for some time," said Miles, whose club is coming off back-to-back tuneups over Appalachian State and North Texas. "We control our own destiny, and that's all you can ask for."

If it can top Alabama, LSU would need only to take care of Mississippi (3-5, 1-4) and Arkansas (2-6, 0-5) to clinch the SEC Western Division championship.

"Which team keeps hitting and keeps coming at the other one will win," LSU offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "You have to be relentless. Mental toughness is about being physical."

Mental toughness is also why the Tigers remain in the forefront of the division race.

Recovering from the Tennessee loss was one thing. But remember, this is a team that persevered through the entire hurricane-ravaged month of September not knowing when it was going to practice, where it was going to play or when it was going to play.

The Tigers played just two games in September, and the Tennessee game was moved to a Monday night after Hurricane Rita. They had to postpone their opener against North Texas and moved the Arizona State game to Tempe, Ariz.

The LSU campus was used as the emergency relief center for much of September after Hurricane Katrina's destruction along the Gulf Coast.

Very little has been normal for the Tigers this season.

But they've weathered the storm.

Even when they haven't been at their best, they've found ways to win games.

The Tigers outlasted Florida 21-17 despite committing five turnovers. They escaped 20-17 in overtime against Auburn -- and did so with Early Doucet and Dwayne Bowe dropping sure touchdown passes in regulation.

Of course, on the flip side, Auburn managed to miss five field goals.

LSU's defense hasn't allowed more than 17 points in a game since the loss to Tennessee. With Alabama ranking first nationally in scoring defense and third nationally in total defense, Saturday's game is the kind that could be decided on a single mistake.

Miles said the Tigers have to avoid negative plays, which they've done of late. But they also haven't faced a defense the caliber of Alabama's.

"You move the ball and take your shots down the field, and hopefully, go for the big scores," Miles said. "But if it's not there, then make sure it's no less than an incompletion.

"You're not going to have just a great afternoon against a fine defense. You understand that. You understand it going in. You've got to play hard, scrap for yards, and be smart on offense, defense and special teams ... and score enough."

This will be LSU's first real test on the road. The Tennessee, Florida and Auburn games were all at home.

It's also the eighth straight week LSU has played. The previously scheduled open date Oct. 29 was used to make up the North Texas game, although blowouts the past two weeks have allowed the Tigers to rest some key players, such as tailback Joseph Addai.

The Tigers have been survivors this season in more ways than one. Now, they get a chance to see whether they have the stuff to be champions.

Either way, something Miles said back in September when much of the state of Louisiana was still picking up the pieces rings truer than ever.

"At the end of the year, there will be a ledger," Miles said. "The ledger will read: wins and losses. There's no asterisks."

In other words, the Tigers are right where they expected to be all along.

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.