By GLENN GUILBEAU | Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
The hard part is over for the LSU football team.
It lost the Alabama game again, but it gained some credibility because it fell by only 24-10 as a 22-point underdog. The only prettier loss to the No. 2 Crimson Tide (9-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) was by Texas A&M, 27-19, which helped save Aggies’ coach Kevin Sumlin his job as much as any of his wins … until the last two weeks.
Despite an awful start with a 30-point loss at Mississippi State and an upset at the hands of 20-point underdog Troy, the Tigers (6-3, 3-2 SEC) are still ranked at No. 25 in the USA Today poll. They are still bowl eligible. The program has been maintained as it remains on its way to an 18th straight winning season. But better than that, LSU is on its way to its first double-digit winning season since 2013.
Yes, with a bowl win, the Tigers will finish 10-3, because they will finish the regular season 9-3. It would be hard not to. LSU does not exactly finish against a Murderer’s Row of opponents. In fact, the Tigers’ last three SEC foes are all unranked for the first time since 2004 when they beat Alabama, 26-10, Ole Miss, 27-24, and Arkansas, 43-14, to finish 9-2 and 6-2 in the SEC.
And here they are:
-Arkansas (4-5, 1-4)
-At Tennessee (4-5, 0-5)
-Texas A&M (5-4, 3-3)
That’s combined records of 13-14 and 4-12. Not exactly George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, to say the least. In fact, all three coaches of those programs may be fired by the end of the season. Murderer’s Row? More like a firing line.
LSU has not finished a season against three SEC teams with worse overall and conference records since 1984 when it played Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State, which were a combined 9-15-1 overall and 1-10 in the SEC when the Tigers played them. LSU finished with a 32-29 win over Ole Miss and a 16-14 victory at Alabama in Birmingham before losing the SEC title at Mississippi State, 16-14, to finish 8-2-1 and 4-1-1. Ole Miss finished 4-6-1 and 1-5. Alabama finished 5-6 and 2-4 under Coach Ray Perkins for its first losing season since 1957 under J.B. “Ears” Whitworth. And State’s only SEC win that year was over LSU as it ended up 4-7 and 1-5 for a cellar tie with the Rebels.
In 1997, LSU was able to finish the regular season at 8-3 and 6-2 and reach the Independence Bowl thanks to a terrible trio of Kentucky, Alabama and Arkansas that were a combined 12-14 overall and 5-11 in the SEC. LSU beat Kentucky, 63-28, Alabama, 27-0, and Arkansas, 31-21. Kentucky finished 5-6 and 2-6. Alabama ended up 4-7 and 2-6 in the first year of one of its worst hires in history – Mike DuBose – for its first losing season since the aforementioned 1984 campaign.
This stretch sprint provides a rare opportunity for the 2017 Tigers. And LSU’s coaching staff needs to seize it. The next three weeks need to be treated a bit like a spring practice. Here and there, see who can play who has not played much. Of course, at some positions – particularly along the offensive line and in the secondary – LSU has been doing that anyway by necessity.
But the next three weeks could be a golden opportunity for Coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Matt Canada to work on their quarterback position and passing game. Senior quarterback Danny Etling is one of my all-time favorite LSU players because of his toughness and the fact that he never blames other players, even though he accurately could. He was sacked another four times Saturday and has been harassed in the pocket all season behind an average at best offensive line. His receivers are also good for at least two drops a game. His best one – senior D.J. Chark – dropped a deep ball right in his hands in the fourth quarter at Alabama. If he makes the catch deep in Bama territory, LSU has a chance to get within 24-17 early in the fourth quarter.
Etling is better than backup Myles Brennan, who should not have started playing more – as many demanded – after the 24-21 Troy loss that he was largely responsible for because of an interception early in the fourth quarter. Etling deserved and earned the chance to right the ship, and his teammates and the program deserved the best quarterback in there at the time to right the ship. And he did. The ship has been righted and is sailing to 10-3. LSU has an excellent chance of finishing the regular season at 9-3 and 6-2.
In fact, LSU – because of its defense and running game – has an excellent chance of finishing the regular season at 9-3 and 6-2 with Justin McMillan at quarterback. So start Brennan from now on, or at least play him the most. And why not get in fellow true freshman Lowell Narcisse some as well? The passing game is not getting any better with Etling in there. It’s not all his fault, but it’s not getting any better. And he’s a senior. It is time to start working on the 2018 passing game now. It is time for LSU’s receivers to learn how to catch the ball from Brennan.
It is also time to see if Brennan really is that good. Frankly, I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen the quick release, but that can mean quick interceptions. Perhaps Canada and Orgeron think he is good because of what they have seen in practice. Let’s see him do it in a game – a whole game against the type of opponents that a quarterback can build his confidence upon. He would have been thrown to the wolves before. Now, he would just be getting thrown to the Hogs, the Vols and the Aggies. It may as well be a NFL preseason.
The Razorbacks could well be 2-7 and 0-5 now, considering their luck in beating Ole Miss, 38-37, on Oct. 21, and Coastal Carolina, 39-38, on Saturday. The Chanticleers led the Hogs 38-25 in the fourth quarter Saturday before losing. Coastal Carolina is 1-8 on the season and 0-5 for last in the Sun Belt. Arkansas is near the bottom in the SEC in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense. Three of its losses were by an average of 26 points. Just what LSU – the school on a never ending search for a quarterback – ordered.
Then it’s a date at Tennessee the week after that. The Volunteers, who were able to snap a four-game wipeout with a 24-10 win over Southern Mississippi Saturday, are last or close to it in scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense, passing offense and rush defense. Two of the Vols’ last four losses were by 38 or more. Rocky Top is looking pretty smooth for the Tigers.
Then it will be the regular season finale against free falling Texas A&M, which got pummeled 42-27 by the same Auburn team that lost at LSU, 27-23, on Oct. 14. The Aggies and defensive coordinator John Chavis lost the week before by 35-14 to Mississippi State. The Aggies are in the lower end of the SEC against the pass as it is no longer just Third-and-Chavis. It’s First-and-Chavis, and Second-And-Chavis.
The next three games could be an excellent dress rehearsal for Brennan. Then continue with the same philosophy during bowl preparations. By the time spring comes around, Brennan could have already had about two months of preparation as the top quarterback with a whole spring to continue that. Etling can still play here and there this season and in the bowl just to play or to preserve or take victory if need be, but these next three, he may not be needed.
It’s time to give the reins to Brennan to see if he really is that good. Or, to see if he’s bad. If that’s the case, Orgeron and Canada will still have time to step up their recruiting pitch to an undecided high school senior. As in, “We need you now. You will play now.” Or they can try to find a graduate transfer.
A very good 2017 season is all but secured. It’s time to start working on 2018.
GUILBEAU POLL: 1. GEORGIA (9-0, 6-0 SEC). 2. ALABAMA (9-0, 6-0). 3. AUBURN (7-2, 5-1). 4. MISSISSIPPI STATE (7-2, 3-2). 5. LSU (6-3, 3-2). 6. TEXAS A&M (5-4, 3-3). 7. SOUTH CAROLINA (6-3, 4-3). 8. OLE MISS (4-5, 2-4). 9. VANDERBILT (4-5, 0-5). 10. KENTUCKY (6-3, 3-3). 11. TENNESSEE (4-5, 0-5). 12. MISSOURI (4-5, 1-4). 13. FLORIDA (3-5, 3-4). 14. ARKANSAS (4-5, 1-4).
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The game plan was really good. I mean, you saw the guys open. We had plenty of chances to go make something happen. We just didn’t.”
—LSU quarterback Danny Etling after the Alabama game.