Harris: LSU treks to Alabama for latest test of faith

Seven hundred and thirty days ago, LSU left the shredded turf of Bryant-Denny Stadium toting more than the figurative scalp of Alabama.

After Drew Alleman thumped a 25-yarder between the uprights in overtime, the Tigers marched into the chilly Tuscaloosa night with a bigger spoil than a 9-6 victory: superiority.

Two years later, what’s frittered away is the ephemeral sense of satisfaction that LSU’s standing with Alabama was as close as being wedged into a phone booth.

On Sunday, LSU (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) inched up a spot in The Associated Press poll to No. 10, setting up the usual rites before the November matchup with the top-ranked Tide. Namely, the hand-wringing and paranoid chatter that LSU is like a miler trying to close too much ground in too little time. That Les Miles’ program is simply a rabbit and Alabama a clinical tactician who sits back and kicks at the right moment.

Spilling out of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in January 2012 after a feeble shutout in the BCS title game, the damndest and cursed sense of inferiority seemed to set back in. I’m new to this culture, but there’s a fatalistic streak ingrained deeply in the psyche of LSU’s fan base.

And last year only seemed to make prescriptions for Prozac more coveted after AJ McCarron and Kevin Norwood minced prevent coverage and T.J. Yeldon hauled in The Screen in LSU’s 21-17 loss in Tiger Stadium.

The passing of 366 days has only heightened the paranoia.

There were the 11 underclassmen decamping for the NFL, leaving a depth chart littered with youth and talk of LSU working on a three-year plan of player development. Bama, again, pulled in its nets with a No. 1 recruiting class.

The current cycle of wooing players hasn’t engendered calm, either. Not when West Monroe left tackle Cameron Robinson, the nation’s No. 3 prospect, pledges his services to Saban.

What about cross-border incursions aiming to swipe St. Augustine running back Leonard Fournette, the consensus top recruit for 2014, and Neville safety Hootie Jones? Even if chances are slim the pair defect, the possibility is enough to put Tigers fans’ teeth on edge.

None of that takes into account what has played out on the field this season.

It’s cruel that LSU’s offense, which ranks No. 22 nationally at 480 yards per game and rings up roughly 40 points each time out, is laden with weapons at the skill positions and a keen leader in Cam Cameron but is paired with a defense that is simply average.

Imagine if the Tigers had averaged 7.2 yards play and a 162 explosive plays of 10-plus yards — both of which rank seventh nationally — at this time in 2012. Or at least produced at a somewhat similar level?

And I’ll withhold straying off onto a further tangent about a defense ranked 21st in the country but susceptible to getting gashed, allowing opponents to shear off gains between 10 and 30 yards almost every fifth snap. Simply cue up film from Georgia, Ole Miss and the listless first half against a rumored-to-be-corpse in Furman.

So when the betting line opened at nine points, and later rose to 11, it only quantified dread at what might be in store at week’s end. The palpable feeling is existential, too.

Chances are there will be another exodus to collect NFL paychecks after this season, with potentially up to seven underclassmen leaving the roster. Let that sink in: up to 18 underclassmen in two years might have left before exhausting eligibility. Shifting to a three-year development plan for players might have been a goal, but now it’s a necessity.

We can parse out all the aspects of impending doom, but this space is limited. By now, the waning days before LSU’s supposed descent into an Iron Age are sketched out like an oracle whispering prophecies.

What happens if LSU, whose recruiting class is ranked No. 14 by Rivals, can’t close late on expected commits like Fournette, Jones or John Curtis’ Malachi Dupre?

What about the transition at quarterback from Zach Mettenberger to Anthony Jennings, who has thrown all of three passes in mop-up duty? If tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson leave early, can freshman Christian LaCouture and sophomore Quentin Thomas anchor the defensive line?

After the past decade — even with two BCS titles, three SEC crowns and a gaudy .816 winning percentage — it’s reasonable to wonder whether a down cycle is at hand for LSU.

It’s almost inevitable now. Tick off the names of similar peers in the sport’s 1 percent that have endured their own strife: Nebraska, Florida State, Miami, USC, Notre Dame, Michigan and now Texas. None has gone extinct, but they’ve seen briefly how the other half lives.

The normal college football life cycle may be unfolding as usual — just with Alabama and LSU at different points in the process. That realization can do little to ebb angst among a segment of Tigers fans worried about what lies ahead.

All of which makes Saturday’s game an ink blot test about LSU’s future, that what you read in it exposes your faith about its direction.

What a difference two years makes.