Finally, someone made a statement. In a November filled with highly ranked teams doing their best to veer off the road to New Orleans — where have you gone, Oklahoma State? What happened to you, Oregon? Stanford? — No. 1 LSU ratified its standing as the team to beat.
You might quibble with how the Tigers did it — spotting No. 3 Arkansas a 14-0 lead before roaring back to win 41-17 on Friday. But the record is the record is the record. LSU is 12-0 with victories over seven ranked teams, three of them in the top three at that time.
Besides, at some point, we must accept that a Les Miles-coached team goes about its tasks differently than, say, every other dominant team in the history of college football.
The rout of the Razorbacks clinches the SEC West title and a berth in the league championship game for the Tigers against No. 13 Georgia. After last week, when three top-five teams fell, the BCS can relax. LSU is the Justin Verlander of the BCS rotation, cleaning up any mess that the rest of the staff might leave.
But the BCS being the BCS, there is a catch. If LSU loses Dec. 3 in the Georgia Dome, the Tigers will go from savior to lightning rod. It’s entirely possible, if not downright probable, that LSU could lose to Georgia next week and not fall below No. 2. That would be the worst thing to happen to the BCS since the invention of the computer.
No one knows for sure whether the Tigers could lose and remain in the top two, because the computers keep their own counsel.
And given that the SEC championship is at stake, it’s not likely Miles will rest his starters next week. But the grassy knoll crowd will note that if the Bulldogs win, it easily could benefit the SEC to the tune of three BCS teams, not two.
"I just want you to know something," Miles said in his postgame news conference. "There will be no way that this football team comes to Atlanta and not play their best. Just so you know.”
If you’ve watched LSU this season, you understand what Miles is saying. Rarely does a team so physically talented fight so hard. The Tigers do not take plays off. They do not believe they are two touchdowns ahead when they run out of the tunnel in the north end zone at Tiger Stadium. They possess a drive that coaches desire and rarely develop.
"This team doesn’t flinch," quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe said after the game. "With all the things that happened — things that happened to me, things that happened with players, get down 14-0 in a game you’ve got to win to go to the game next week — they didn’t flinch at all."
Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease over the summer and gave up the duties of offensive coordinator. LSU didn’t pause. The bar brawl on the night that two-a-days ended in August that resulted in suspensions of starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson and linebacker Josh Johns didn’t split the locker room. It made the team pull together.
"That just showed us all we got is each other in the locker room," sophomore tailback Michael Ford said. "… It definitely could break up a lot of teams. We couldn’t hang our heads. It just made us so strong."
Defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon and tailback Spencer Ware served a one-game suspension, missing the Auburn game after reportedly failing a drug test.
After all that, when Arkansas took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter Friday, why in the world would LSU flinch?
"We’ve got guys here that have been through a lot," guard Will Blackwell said. "Family problems, hurricanes, stuff like that. Everybody on this team is a fighter. We had all the stuff happen with Jordan, the bar fight, other suspensions and stuff. There’s just nothing that distracts this team or derails us from our goal, and that’s to get to Atlanta."
Here’s an example: Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith plucked Ford’s midair fumble after a big hit by Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas and returned it 47 yards for the touchdown that put the Razorbacks ahead 14-0. Ford bounced back with a 49-yard run to the Arkansas 6 that set up a third-quarter field goal.
Here’s another: free safety Eric Reid, the hero of the victory over Alabama, didn’t play Saturday because of a thigh injury. Mathieu slid over from corner to replace him and led the defense with eight tackles and two forced fumbles, one of which he recovered. Not to mention his 92-yard punt return for a touchdown that kickstarted the comeback.
Arkansas scored three times. Twice LSU answered those scores with scores. It is a talent LSU has developed over the course of the season. After that field goal, which put LSU ahead 24-17, the Tigers scored 17 more points. Arkansas had no answer.
"We’ve beaten everybody by double digits, except for Alabama," Blackwell said. "Our goal now is not only to win the SEC and go to the national championship but be the best team we’ve ever had at this school."
LSU exposed Arkansas as another top-five team that failed to measure up to its ranking. The Tigers showed Friday that they belong at the top of college football. They are talented and they scratch and they claw and they don’t give away much. LSU has set the standard in college football this season. And the BCS ought to love the Tigers for it — as long as they beat Georgia next week.