Rabalais: These years, even ‘off’ years at LSU are only so bad

If you could give the LSU football program a gift, what would be best?

Perhaps this season, it would be the gift of low expectations.

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a time when preseason thoughts of LSU football were more about wishing and hoping than expecting and demanding.

I know such a flight of fantasy is shocking for any fans of the Instagram generation. But for those of you who are old enough not to know how to tweet, who remember John Ferguson and Walter Hill teaming up to broadcast LSU games in the radio booth, Sid Crocker’s booming voice as Tiger Stadium’s public address announcer or (I shudder, I quake) the Curley Hallman era, you get my drift (’70s term).

For you younger folks, look it up. I’ll wait. This is what you’ll find: From 1974-2000, a span of 27 seasons, LSU won more than eight games only five times, went bowling only 13 times, suffered through 12 nonwinning seasons and finished in at least one final poll just 10 times.

Since 2001, of course, it’s been the purple and golden age: two BCS national titles (the Tigers played for another), four Southeastern Conference titles (they played for another), 10 out of 12 seasons in the final polls, eight seasons of 10 wins or more and a bowl appearance every single year.

So it’s not surprising that those who came late to the LSU football tailgate party (you at least brought a bag of ice, didn’t you?), who only know the Tigers playing in front of full stadiums or in the sharply defined glory of 1,080 pixels are morose over the prospect of LSU being picked third in the SEC West.

LSU has only sunk as low as third in the West once since 2001. That was in 2008, remembered in these parts as the “Year of the Pick-Six.” Somewhere beneath an oak tree on campus, somber tailgaters toss back another round to drown that memory — and one more to forget the Hallman years.

The Tigers aren’t expected to fall far in 2013. It’s a matter of victory-marinated perspective. An “off” season for LSU now contains as many as nine wins. Remember 2009? LSU went 9-4 with a narrow, mud-caked loss to Penn State in the Capital One Bowl. A New Year’s Day bowl, at that. Yet it went down as one of Les Miles’ worst.

The Tigers are widely picked to win that many again this year, ranked somewhere from 12 to the upper teens in most preseason polls. That’s a far cry from last season’s preseason No. 1, pre-Tyrann Mathieu dismissal ranking, but not that far.

No matter the number in front of LSU’s name, Miles sails on unfazed.

“It’s not something that’s affected us,” he said. “We have always felt we need to earn our position, and we understand that people have an opinion that would not necessarily reflect the hard work, effort and energy of the people in this (program).”

Again, though, such expectations for this LSU team could be a gift. The program still attracts and oozes talent, but much of it is unproven.

The defensive depth chart is chock full of freshmen and sophomores. Without Josh Williford, inked in as the starting left guard before going down in early August with a career-threatening concussion, the Tigers won’t have a senior starter on the offensive line. The kickers are new to the task.

So there won’t be pressure. OK, it’s LSU, so there’ll still be pressure, but not as much as usual. For this version of the Tigers, a team with many wide-eyed new contributors, that’s a good thing. For one of the rare times in recent years, LSU may be in the position of sneaking up on a few folks on the schedule above the Tigers in the rankings.

The last time the Tigers were so lightly regarded — and we use the term loosely — was 2010. LSU faced six ranked opponents — including a road game with eventual BCS champion Auburn — and went a respectable 4-2 before turning Texas A&M inside out in the Cotton Bowl to finish 11-2 and No. 5 in the polls.

If the 2013 Tigers could replicate the record of the 2010 Tigers, that would have to be considered a successful season. The schedule — with TCU, Georgia, Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M — is brutal. And teams under new management like Auburn and Arkansas could be in position to pull their own surprises by the time they play LSU.

Much has changed this year for the Tigers in terms of personnel, namely because of the 11 players who left early for the NFL draft. Then again, little has changed for LSU from the glory days of the past decade-plus of Tigers football: LSU can win any game.

“We like us,” Miles said. “We like us in every game.”

That’s Miles-speak for quiet confidence. Confidence in a team that may be more unpredictable than most in recent years, but one that won’t be completely outclassed.

One that doesn’t need charity to craft another successful season.