LSU began the season with half a team’s worth of new starters.
It has played three ranked teams and lost to one of them.
It has endured growing pains on a young defense, though that seems to be getting better.
The Tigers have hit some bumps in the road, but they are ranked No. 6 in the country and in a strong position as they begin the second half of the Southeastern Conference schedule at Ole Miss on Saturday night.
“We’re getting to where we thought we would be,” wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said.
LSU, 6-1 and 3-1 in the SEC, plays four of its last five games against West Division rivals, beginning with the Rebels (3-1, 1-3)
“I definitely feel like this team has turned the corner,” Tigers linebacker Lamin Barrow said. “We had some ups and downs to start the season, but we have our destiny in our hands.”
Having your destiny in your hands is one thing; maintaining it through five more games, including matchups with No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Texas A&M, is another.
But if the Tigers can beat the Rebels, who have lost three straight, they’ll be guaranteed control of their SEC fate when they play at the Crimson Tide on Nov. 9, after a nonconference game against Furman and an open date.
“At times our team has shown flashes of being almost perfect in every facet of the game,” LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “I think we can do just about anything to beat a team.”
LSU showed the defense could handle a low-scoring game when the Tigers beat then-No.17 Florida 17-6 last week.
The Tigers had already proved repeatedly they could win primarily behind Mettenberger, Beckham and wide receiver Jarvis Landry (the most productive receiving tandem in the country), and the SEC’s most efficient passing game, not to mention running back Jeremy Hill, who leads the conference with nine touchdowns.
“Defending those two receivers, with that running back, is a different animal,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “You’re going to be put on an island quite a bit. Our goal will be to try and eliminate the number of explosive plays they have.
“They’re good enough that they’re going to win some of those battles. You have to commit people to help with the run game, also.”
Freeze has spent the week trying to figure out who can count on as six defensive regulars are injured as well as his leading rusher. Just who will be available and who won’t likely won’t be sorted out until game time.
“We’re a beat-up football team right now,” Freeze said.
The Rebels began the season as an intriguing dark horse in the West, coming off a bowl win in Freeze’s first season and adding one of the most highly regarded recruiting classes in the country.
The season got off to a promising start when Ole Miss opened with a conference win on the road against Vanderbilt. Successive wins against Southeast Missouri (31-13) and Texas (44-23) propelled the Rebels to the No. 21 spot in The Associated Press poll before what Freeze called “a difficult stretch” began.
Ole Miss went to Alabama and got whipped 25-0, being shut out for the first time in 15 years. Then came a 30-22 loss at Auburn and last week’s last-second 41-38 loss at home to Texas A&M.
“We’ve gotten beaten by the No. 1 team, No. 6 team, No. 24 team, and we have another top 10 team coming in this week,” Freeze said. “It’s been arguably the toughest stretch of games that I can recall.”
The Rebels led the Tigers 28-20 early in the fourth quarter in Tiger Stadium last season, but Hill’s 1-yard touchdown run with 15 seconds left completed an LSU comeback in its 41-35 victory.
“Any time you line up against the Ole Miss team, there’s tradition and history, and it’s just more important,” Tigers coach Les Miles said. “It’s a great game.”
For the Tigers it represents the next step to getting back to where they have been accustomed to being in recent seasons — fighting for the SEC West title.
“This is what you come to the SEC for, this stretch run that we’re going on right now,” LSU cornerback Jalen Mills said. “You prepare for this through the offseason and the summertime so you’ll be ready.”