BATON ROUGE, La. – How thoroughly has this LSU team dominated the 2011 college football season?
So thoroughly that the Tigers have rendered the championship game of the greatest football conference in the land a non-factor. A glorified scrimmage. A losable game on the way to a bigger prize come January.
Dec. 3 – a date circled on the calendar the minute the schedules were released – is now a big, fat anticlimax.
LSU could leave insatiable defensive back/special-teams monster Tyrann Mathieu at home that day, when the Tigers invade Atlanta to play Georgia for the SEC championship. It could start Zach Mettenberger at quarterback. It could make Les Miles coach hatless.
None of it would matter. After steamrolling Arkansas 41-17 Friday, LSU could lose the SEC title game and still have the BCS standings juice to play for the national title.
You know it. I know it. Just don't tell the Tigers.
"We don't want to hear that," said sophomore linebacker Barkevious Mingo, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound velociraptor who produced two sacks and three tackles for loss against the Razorbacks.
"I just want you to know something," Miles said firmly. "There would be no way for this football team to come to Atlanta and not play their best. Just so you know."
OK, we know. We know that a team this relentless won't be able to turn it off now. Not with voters often prisoners of the moment, creating at least an outside chance that a lousy showing in the Georgia Dome somehow drops the Tigers to third on a majority of USA Today and Harris Poll ballots.
But that would be a remarkable travesty, even by the BCS' travesty-ridden standards. The dazzling resume compiled by LSU to date should lock it into a serendipitous chance to play for the national title in New Orleans for the third time in eight years.
Talk about a body of work:
In October LSU pole-axed two other ranked teams – Florida and Auburn – by a combined 65 points. In November they won an epic tough-man contest at No. 2 Alabama, 9-6. (A rematch of which is now 60 minutes away, if the Crimson Tide handles Auburn on Saturday.) Then the Tigers responded to a 14-0 deficit against No. 3 Arkansas with a 41-3 flurry over the game's final 35 1/2 minutes, crushing the Hogs with a powerful running game, explosive pass plays to Reuben Randle and the usual relentless LSU defense.
That's seven ranked opponents beaten, all but one of them by at least 13 points. Four of the seven were beaten away from home. Three were ranked in the top five at the time.
To borrow a Lesism, that's a damn strong football team.
"When it comes to strength of schedule, playing week in and week out, six games on the road and so many ranked teams, I would have to say that they are qualified," Miles said. "Qualified for what? I don't know. But they are qualified."
That's another trademark Miles quote, circumloquatious enough to leave you wondering what exactly he's talking about. But there is no doubt about his team.
Well, maybe there was some doubt after a Michael Ford fumble was captured in midair by Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and returned 47 yards for a touchdown. That produced LSU's first double-digit deficit of the season.
"As (the ball) came out of my hands, I thought the world just dropped on my shoulders," Ford said. "But coming through adversity, that's something great teams have to do."
LSU ripped through adversity with astonishing speed. Down 14-0, the Tigers methodically marched 77 yards in 14 plays to score, then tied the game on the latest highlight play by the Honey Badger.
Mathieu is a phenomenon – he makes more big plays per touch of the football than anyone I can remember. His first back-breaking play this game was a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown – his third TD of the season – that left this place as loud as it might ever have been during daylight hours.
"I could just hear Tiger Stadium rocking in my cleats," Mathieu said.
He rocked it – and the Razorbacks – twice more Friday.
Four plays after the punt return, Mathieu stripped Hogs running back Dennis Johnson of the ball just before he went down and teammate Ron Brooks recovered. LSU scored in five plays to take a lead it never relinquished.
In the fourth quarter Mathieu ripped the ball away from Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg, pulled it in out of the air and returned the fumble 19 yards. That gave him a school-record 11 forced fumbles for his career – and he's not yet done with his sophomore season.
Playing safety for the first time in his college career in place of injured Eric Reid, Mathieu also contributed a team-high eight tackles. Given the scrambled Heisman Trophy race, Mathieu's percussive impact on games would seem enough to make him a renewed Heisman candidate – but you'd have to overlook a mid-season suspension after testing positive for synthetic marijuana.
That might be why Mathieu downplayed any discussion about the Heisman.
"I try not to get into all that," he said. "I don't want to get my feelings hurt."
The only hurt feelings in Tiger Stadium on Friday seemed to belong to Bobby Petrino. The coach of the Razorbacks allegedly gave Miles a foul-mouthed greeting at the postgame handshake.
Question to Miles postgame: "Did you and Bobby Petrino have some kind of words?"
"Not many," Miles quipped in response, minutes before he left the podium and tenderly kissed the head of his diminutive mother, shook a few more hands and posed for pictures.
Les has charm. Petrino has none.
Petrino has done great work elevating Arkansas to a level where it can be a competitive third wheel in the murderous SEC Western Division. But the Hogs are still far behind the twin towers at the top, losing to Alabama by 24 and LSU by the same margin.
"We got beat by a better football team," Petrino said.
They got beat by the best football team. A team that has so thoroughly dominated the 2011 season that it can mail in the SEC championship game and still play a virtual home game for the national title a month later.
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