BATON ROUGE, La. -- The weirdest thing about LSU’s undefeated regular season is that the Tigers may be able to rest their starters next week in the SEC championship game.
Such is LSU's large margin for error after beating No. 3 Arkansas on Saturday. The win before the second-largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history cleared up the BCS mess just a bit. The Hogs, having lost their second game, were eliminated from the SEC West and national championship races. LSU clinched a spot in Atlanta next week against Georgia. But as one of two undefeated teams left -- Conference USA’s Houston is the other -- it may have room to lose that game against the Bulldogs and still play in the BCS title game.
Against who is to be determined. Alabama can all but get to New Orleans itself for a rematch by beating Auburn on Saturday in the Iron Bowl. 'Bama began the weekend as the best of the one-loss teams. That doesn’t figure to change if beats Auburn’s Tigers.
That’s where it comes back to LSU’s Tigers. Barring a blowout win by Georgia in Atlanta, LSU will still have to be considered one of the top two teams in the BCS. That’s the result of going undefeated in the SEC, beating No. 3 at home and advancing to a less-than-pressurized SEC title game.
The Tigers have built up that much equity with the pollsters and computers that it may be able to suffer a loss. It’s happened before. Nebraska didn’t even win its division in 2001 before advancing to play Miami. In 2003, Oklahoma lost by four touchdowns to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game but still advanced to play … LSU in … New Orleans.
The BCS formula has actually changed since then to make it less likely. But with LSU and Alabama having separated themselves from the college football pack, what else are you going to do? Is a one-loss LSU at that point better than a one-loss Stanford, Oklahoma State or Virginia Tech?
Up to this point, the BCS has spoken. LSU is the only team to beat seven ranked opponents, three in the top five. In the biggest game at Tiger Stadium since 1959 -- when No. 1 LSU beat No. 3 Ole Miss -- the home team survived. Barely.
It was clunky: LSU fell behind 14-0, trailing for the first time at home all season, then rallied in the final seven minutes to take a 21-14 halftime lead. Trailing 14-zip, the Tigers fumbled as many times as Jordan Jefferson was booed on the Tigers’ first touchdown drive. A 14-play, 77-drive was finally completed when freshman Kenny Hilliard scored to lead LSU back from its biggest deficit of the season.
It was amazing: Tyrann Mathieu ended a month or so of anonymity by taking a Dylan Breeding punt back 92 yards for a score. Cue the Richter Scale. Tiger Stadium shook, seemingly knowing what was coming next. Fourteen-all.
It was a turnaround: After stinking on the previous series, Jefferson completed four of five for 66 yards and a touchdown to put LSU ahead 21-14. That drive was set up when Arkansas’ Dennis Johnson was ruled to have fumbled at LSU’s 34. Three scores in 6:50 put the Tigers ahead to stay at halftime.
LSU should have known it was in trouble when Jarius Wright snuck free over the middle for a 13-yard touchdown reception. The first score of the game marked the first time all season the Tigers had trailed at home. It was the first touchdown pass given up by LSU in 1½ months.
The BCS started to look murkier when Arkansas’ Alonzo Highsmith returned a Mike Ford fumble 47 yards for a touchdown that made it 14-0.
Through all of LSU’s recent excellence, Arkansas had been that rock in the Tigers’ shoe. The Hogs had won three of the last four meetings. Something was going to give.
Eventually, Arkansas did.