Gauntlet stands in front of unbeaten Tigers
By MARTY MULÉ
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
Here’s a jarring thought: Imagine the 2012 season winding down and LSU in the position of having to win one of its last two games against Ole Miss and Arkansas in order to be eligible (meaning having at least six victories) to play in, say, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, or the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
Boy, that’s a long, long way from the BCS National Championship Game, where virtually everyone in the preseason predicted this team would again finish.
But it could happen. The Tigers high-stepped their way - all right, maybe tipped-toed is a better phrase for the last two games - to finish a shaky 5-0 in the cupcake portion of the season. In their next five games, though, against a murder’s row of college football, it’s not hard to imagine LSU losing to anyone - maybe all - of their upcoming five opponents, standing at the moment a cumulative 21-1 record.
Would anybody take LSU, playing herky-jerky football, against a field of 10th-ranked Florida (4-0 with impressive road wins at Texas A&M and Tennessee), No. 6 South Carolina (perhaps the best balanced team in the SEC), No. 28 Texas A&M (3-1 and loser only to Florida), No. 1-ranked Alabama (5-0 and which has picked up right where it left off in January’s BCS game with LSU), and No. 20 Mississippi State (4-0)?
Didn’t think so.
Let’s face it, LSU is ranked a lofty No. 4 right now only because it was ranked first or second before the season’s opening kickoff.
If the Tigers started off being picked 15th or 20th, and played exactly as they have after five games, they wouldn’t have risen significantly, even with their unbeaten record against largely mediocre (North Texas, 2-3; Washington, 3-1; Idaho, 0-4; Auburn, 1-3; and Towson State, 2-2) competition.
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Not only might LSU be an overrated team, but what we’re seeing right now is not even remotely the team Les Miles thought he’d be sending on the field in 2012.
Remember, he lost two preseason All-Americans almost before he turned around. Tyrann Mathieu, not a major setback by himself, but definitely a difference-maker who had to be accounted for by every opposing offense; then, and this was crucial, left tackle Chris Faulk with a knee injury. You can attribute some of the subsequent sacks and hurries on immobile quarterback Zach Mettenberger to the absence of Faulk.
Also missing from the equation is expected starting linebacker Tahj Jones (grades) and running back Alfred Blue with a knee injury, an especially damaging loss. LSU is well-stocked at running back, but Blue was cut from a different mold than the other bulldozers in the Tiger backfield. Blue was the flash - a breakaway threat every time he touched the ball. He added an additional dimension to the offense that’s lacking now.
Now, fullback J.C. Copeland is also down with a knee injury. A superior blocker both on pass plays and for clearing the way for runners. If Copeland is gone for a substantial period of time, it will adversely affect everything LSU runs offensively.
The absence of both Faulk and Copeland will be tabulated from here on by the number of sacks and hurries of Mettenberger and tackles for losses of Tiger backs.
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It’s not necessarily his fault, but it should be clear that, despite the protestations of those who found the quarterback tandem of Jarrett Lee/Jordan Jefferson lacking, Mettenberger is by himself not a savor.
He can’t move (like Jefferson occasionally could), and without the protection of blockers like Faulk and Copeland against higher-grade competition, things are going to get worse. He doesn’t have top-rank receivers like Terrence Toliver and Reuben Randle that Lee had, nor the protection.
Less than a year ago, Lee was the talk of the college football world because of his deft-when-necessary passing against infinitely more stringent opponents than this season.
In 2011 LSU, amid the angry and constant talk of dissatisfied Tiger fans, was ranked 112th in the country. Going into the Towson game, LSU was 110th.
Assuming someday there may be more than a rudimentary passing offense at LSU, Mettenberger may grow into the expectations of him when he signed.
As for now, LSU is a long way from that - or where it was a year ago.
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This is an amazing statistic: There was a time in 2009 when Miles’ record at LSU stood at 67-13. At the time the light bulb went off in my mind that there was a good chance he could coach the Tigers to 70 wins before his 20th defeat, a startling achievement.
Towson represented Miles’ 80th LSU victory, and he still hasn’t tasted his 20th defeat. He is now 80-17.
The downside of those figures is that Miles may well have that significant defeat before the end of 2012.
With the attrition of his football team, and the way the remaining Tigers have performed the last two weeks, not only is that a possibility but if one of those minor bowls really wanted a Pelican State representative at season’s end, they may opt for Louisiana-Monroe or Louisiana Tech.
Marty Mule’ can be reached at MJM981two@charter.net