November 25, 2011
LSU 41, Arkansas 17.
I should probably clarify right out of the gate that the headline is not meant to suggest there was any doubt about LSU. Far from it: At the beginning of the day, the Tigers were already owners of the biggest win of the season at Alabama, a neutral-site mugging of Oregon and the No. 2 defense in the nation in terms of both yards and points allowed. Aside from the Crimson Tide, none of LSU's other ten victims had come within two touchdowns, largely because most of them hadn't come close to scoring two touchdowns.
In fact, if there was any point this season that justified some creeping doubt, it was today, at the start of the second quarter, when Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith took a freak LSU fumble back 47 yards for the Razorbacks' second touchdown in a little over two minutes. Down 14-0, the Tigers were suddenly faced with their largest deficit of the season, a sputtering offense that had gone nowhere on its first three possessions and an impatient crowd that was beginning to express its frustration in no uncertain terms. For the first time all year, LSU was facing genuine adversity.
Its response: A 7-minute, 77-yard to cut the deficit in half, immediately followed by a three-and-out by the defense, immediately followed by a 92-yard punt return by Tyrann Mathieu to tie. As quickly as they'd gone down, the Tigers had punched their way back to even, and forged ahead on a 66-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes of the half. Down 14-0 after Highsmith's fumble return, the Tigers commenced a 41-3 rout that made the No. 3 team in every major poll look like Western Kentucky.
Offensively, LSU's 495 total yards was its best output in more than four years, since its last BCS championship team in 2007. Defensively, the Tigers held the No. 1 offense in the SEC to 256 yards, barely half the Razorbacks' season average, on just 50 plays, fewest in Bobby Petrino's four-year tenure as head coach. Arkansas' first score was only the second meaningful touchdown LSU has allowed in eight SEC games — three others have all come in garbage time — and it was the only one the Razorback offense would get.
This from a team about which there was plenty of reasonable doubt at the start of the season: The Tigers were uncertain at quarterback, green on defense, in search of reliable playmakers on both sides and staring down one of the toughest schedules in the country, even before the starting quarterback ran into trouble in late August for his role in a bar fight. In late November, the same team has answered every question, repeatedly, with more consistency and more dominance than any team in college football. Its reward tonight is LSU's first undefeated regular season in 53 years.
The next reward is next Saturday's SEC Championship Game against Georgia, with an automatic ticket to the BCS Championship Game waiting for the Tigers at the end of Win No. 13. Whether that ticket still depends on Win No. 13, we can't be entirely certain until the voters are actually faced with the question — even hypothetically, would they really consider dropping 12-1 LSU behind 11-1 Alabama after the Tigers' win in Tuscaloosa earlier this month? — and all the votes are in and accounted for in the final BCS standings. Predicting the ripple effects of a Georgia upset seems akin to predicting the fallout of an alien invasion, which at this point seems about as likely to happen.
But whatever the political hurdles it may have left to clear in Atlanta, after today, there's almost nothing that can happen there that could make LSU's season anything less than the best in college football in 2011. The Tigers are talented, deep, balanced, resilient and relentless. Their resumé speaks for itself. All that's left now is to make the extended coronation count.
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