ATLANTA -- This feels like a BCS Bowl, looks like a BCS Bowl, even smells like a BC... well, OK, this bowl smells like it was pressure-cooked in 100 percent refined peanut oil and lovingly served on a toasted bun with pickle.
No matter how they dress this one up, and it certainly seems pretty, you can’t fool the LSU Tigers, who were a big deal in college football roughly a year ago when they saw action in a real BCS bowl. Actually, the ultimate BCS bowl.
So instead of playing for a national title again, they’re trying their best to appear peachy here in Atlanta, where their ticket for Monday's Chick-fil-A Bowl was punched by Alabama. And speaking of getting punched, what would the state of Tiger Nation be right now had LSU beaten Bama the last two times they played, as opposed to slightly fractured and humbled?
1) They’d be defending BCS champions.
2) They’d be, most likely, playing Notre Dame for the chance of doubling their pleasure.
3) Les Miles would be getting the Nick Saban treatment right now, hailed as the almighty god of college coaches who not only walks on water, but invented it.
Therefore, the state of LSU football today can be summed up in four words: Nick Saban and Bama, which might as well be four-letter words down in Baton Rouge. As much as they look forward to playing a very nice Clemson team in a very nice bowl that’s very nicely run by the host city and main sponsor, truth be told, the Tigers would love it if the football gods gave them a pair of do-overs.
“Maybe our season would be different, had we won,” All-America safety Eric Reid said of the Tigers' 21-17 loss to Bama on Nov. 3. “Maybe a lot of things would be different. But it didn’t happen. We dealt with it and in some ways we’re still dealing with it, from the standpoint that we’re not playing for a national title.”
We don’t mean to be so retrospectful here when a quality football team is trying its best to move on and put those two games behind them -- and LSU, by all indications, has done exactly that. This remains one of the Top 10 programs in the country; nothing’s been tarnished. But, wow, it’s just too irresistible. In recent college football history, do you know of any other two losses to the same team that meant as much as the two LSU took from the Tide? We could be talking a possible Bayou dynasty right now if not for eight quarters of football. Admittedly, eight quarters that didn’t exactly come against Vanderbilt.
What Bama did was not only keep the Tigers from a title last January, the Tide then denied them a chance to play in this season’s SEC title game and, therefore, the right to go BCS bowling when they beat them in Tiger Stadium eight weeks ago. So while Northern Illinois -- Northern Illinois! -- is playing in a game date-stamped 2013, the Tigers carry the dreaded title of being the Best Team Not Represented on New Year’s Day or Beyond. Which carries a certain degree of respect, I guess. It is a title, after all, and those are always hard to come by.
“Everyone would like to play for a national championship, but it wasn’t meant for us this year,” said Reid.
The Tigers of the last two years are victims of bad timing in so many ways, and that’s only somewhat tied to Bama. First of all, when they beat the Tide, 9-6, about 14 months ago, that was huge, no question, but not bigger than the next two meetings. Fact is, they simply didn’t bring their best in last year's national title game, when Saban had enough time and game film to brilliantly plan for that rematch, winning 21-0.
Then the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu -- the defensive back who symbolized the Tiger snarl more than anyone else, who finished fifth in the 2011 Heisman voting -- picked the wrong time to indulge in substance abuse (as opposed to there ever being a right time for this type of thing, I know). Booting him off the team didn’t make LSU a non-contender, but the Tigers lost some of their soul in the process.
Finally, those rolls of the dice that Miles threw at Saban in their November game, while gutsy and perhaps necessary, came up snake eyes: the onside kick, the fake field goal, the bypassing of another field goal for a fourth-down try. Still, all LSU had to do was hang tight for 94 seconds to beat Bama and put itself back on the road toward the national championship. But the Tigers defense, mighty most of the year, the pride and joy of the program, chose the wrong time to collapse. Oh, Honey Badger, how they missed you.
Miles said the Tigers actually had a season in which they’ve done everything they set out to do, “minus a minute and 30 seconds.” That would be accurate, almost down to the second.
At least timing was on the Tigers’ side in another sense. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger is better now than ever before, having grown up in the most recent loss to Bama, and no longer do the Tigers rely almost exclusively on their defense to pull them through. Mettenberger averaged 177 passing yards early in the season before ramping up his football IQ and his arm and looked all grown up against Bama, throwing for 298. He would’ve been the hero had A.J. McCarron not taken his team 72 yards for the win.
But that’s it. And so the Tigers find themselves staring at a team from the ACC, which would be a frightening thought if this were a college basketball game. That said, Clemson’s offense is SEC-worthy because of the overall wizardry shown by quarterback Tajh Boyd, a yardage and touchdown freak who’s leading the sixth-best scoring unit in the country. When Clemson has the ball, this will be an interesting game, a thrilling offense vs. an LSU defense led by Reid that gives up less than 17 points a game and only disappeared once. And we know when that was. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
“One way for us to find motivation is with the team we’re playing against,” Reid said. “Clemson forces you to come with your best. We’re excited to be playing a team this good. You can ask anyone and they’ll tell you this game is one of the better matchups of all the bowls.”
LSU hasn’t lost since Bama but also hasn’t been quite the same. A mere coincidence? Or perhaps a larger issue? The swagger seems a bit subdued and the sense of purpose, while still visible, not as urgent. You can understand. When there’s no SEC title game or national championship or even a BCS game, deflation becomes a human instinct.
The Tigers pounded Mississippi State the very next week after the Alabama loss, but then beat Ole Miss and Arkansas, neither of them ranked, by a combined 13 points. Reid and the defense were scorched for 304, 316 and then 369 yards passing in those games when, before, they didn’t allow 300 yards in any game this season.
“Clemson is a team worthy of respect,” Miles said. “And frankly, the opportunity to play a very talented team in the back end of a season is every motivation we’ll need to play well.”
The players aren’t the only group that needs a pick-me-up. Few programs are blessed with the kind of intense and religious fan base as the Tigers. The way Saturday nights in Baton Rouge are so sacred in the fall, the passion for football runs deep. But, just the same, the thought of watching LSU in something other than a national title game, or even a No. 3 or 4 bowl, didn’t exactly cause a mad rush to the box office. LSU initially had trouble selling its allotment of tickets for the Georgia Dome.
Look, the Tigers are ranked No. 8 and lost only twice all year. There’s no shame in that. Their recruiting won’t suffer much, if at all, and their quarterback will actually be a plus heading into next season.
They’ll just go into this final game thinking partly about what-if, and as good as the team across the field in the Chick-fil-A Bowl might be, Clemson can’t possibly cause more destruction to LSU than Bama did the last 12 months. Not once, but twice.
“Irrespective of how things have worked out,” Miles said, “the goal at the end of the week, with a game to play, is victory.”
The difference between a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory and a BCS victory? Well, LSU is about to find out, if the Tigers win. Here, they douse the coach with sweet tea that, in LSU’s case, might taste a bit bitter.