With LSU’s rise to the top of Southeastern Conference’s West Division lead, and emergence at No. 7 in both The Associated Press poll (now No. 6) and College Football Playoff rankings, these Tigers aren’t held in the same regard when it comes to the opposition.
LSU nearly found that out the hard way Saturday where a week after knocking off then sixth-ranked Alabama 32-31 in overtime, it took everything the Tigers could muster in a 13-10 road win over Arkansas at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
“We’re in a different realm now,” LSU football coach Brian Kelly explained. “We’re being hunted and we’re going to get everybody’s best shot. They understand that.”
Arkansas (5-5, 2-4 in SEC) certainly got that point across.
Teams no longer treat LSU as the team selected to finish fifth in the SEC West during the conference’s media days in July.
Kelly’s smartly hired a competent coaching staff, recruited well in both the NCAA transfer portal and national high school landscape, to return LSU (8-2, 6-1 in SEC) to the role of contender in a short span.
The Tigers won for the fourth straight time, including three away from Tiger Stadium, to wind up as champions of the SEC West Division and secured a berth in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia on Dec. 3 in Atlanta.
“You still have to find a way to make plays and win these games, like at the end,” Kelly said. “We’re far from a finished product. I don’t believe anyone’s in there (locker room) feeling like we’ve arrived. We have a lot of work to do.”
Spoken like a coach with his eye on a much bigger prize, the one Kelly gave as his intended reason for leaving Notre Dame for LSU nearly a year ago.
LSU’s managed to win games in a variety of ways to reach this point in the season with two remaining, this Saturday at home against UAB at 8 p.m. and travelling to Texas A&M on Nov. 26.
There have been not-so-flashy triumphs like the 21-17 exhibit Oct. 1 at Auburn where LSU was more reliant on its defense to keep it close, even pitching in a touchdown, until quarterback Jayden Daniels and the offense generated points and yards to kick-start the team’s first four game winning streak.
LSU displayed its resilience for the second time in six weeks, having to bounce back after the season’s second loss of the season, when then eighth-ranked Tennessee jumped out to a 20-0 lead and never looked back in a 40-13 win over the Tigers.
Kelly completed the rare feat of becoming the first coach in school history to guide LSU to road wins over Auburn and Florida in the same season. Daniels caught fire, accounting for six touchdowns, and the Tigers got a late field goal from Damien Ramos in a 45-35 victory.
That ignited LSU’s current four-game win streak, carrying over to a home performance where the Tigers overcame a 17-3 deficit against then seventh-ranked and previously unbeaten Ole Miss. They steamrolled the Rebels, 42-3, the remainder of the way in a 45-20 victory.
LSU’s red-hot 32-31 overtime win over Alabama the week before quickly melted in the 36-degree temperatures at Arkansas where the field was covered by an inch of snow and ice from a winter storm the previous night.
Conversely, LSU struggled to move the ball with any semblance of consistency and never built a lead of greater than 10 points.
Arkansas’ defense was also culpable in making life difficult for the Tigers who gained 284 yards and for Daniels who totaled 96 yards, playing what Razorbacks head coach Sam Pittman said was his team’s best game this season.
“They gave us a chance,” Pittman said. “They kept us in it.”
Arkansas’ defense was trumped, though, by its counterparts from LSU which arguably benefitted from having to face reserve quarterback Malik Hornsby instead of injured KJ Jefferson.
Regardless, the Tigers allowed 249 yards and one touchdown. Freshman linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. continued to play to rave reviews where in 17 snaps, he collected eight tackles, tied a school record with four sacks and forced two fumbles.
“He impacted the game to the level where we win the game because of the final play,” said Kelly, who presented Perkins with the game ball. “I don’t think there can be enough superlatives to talk about this young man.”
Perkins was at his dominating best late in the game with LSU’s hopes and dreams hanging in the balance. He sped around an Arkansas offensive lineman and hit quarterback Cade Fortin, forcing a fumble that Mehki Wingo recovered with 1:19 left.
“He’s great,” Pittman said. “He’s really good. We knew it coming in. He’s what I thought he was.”
Kelly relayed during his postgame news conference that Perkins had battled the flu Saturday and had even thrown up earlier in the day.
It may have been a graphic example of that type of sacrifices Kelly’s witnessed from his team this season, but it dovetailed nicely into type of locker room he’s established since his arrival, a group of players galvanized to give their all for a common goal.
“They know how to win football games and that’s a great trait to have,” Kelly said. “They believe they’re going to win, and they have found a way to win. That’s a perfect example of that.”