Rabalais: Cotton, Outback likely destinations for LSU

The time is rapidly ticking away until bowl bids are announced Sunday night, but for the LSU Tigers the variables and possibilities seem to keep expanding rather than becoming more defined.

Who’s running this show, The Riddler?

After wrapping up the regular season with a victory over Arkansas on Nov. 29, LSU seemed a virtual lock for the Cotton Bowl.

Not so fast, cowboy. The Cotton remains a distinct possibility for the 9-3 Tigers, but no longer more likely than a trip to the Outback Bowl. Even an appearance in the Gator Bowl can’t be dismissed.

Those already with their ticket orders and room reservations for Dallas may be dismayed that the Tigers are no more than a maybe for the Cotton Bowl at this point, but LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva doesn’t share those sentiments.

Maybe the disappointment of being passed over for the Cotton Bowl last season has taught the LSU Tigers to broaden their prospects.

“I’m very comfortable with the Cotton, Outback or Gator,” Alleva said Thursday. “Any of those three would be a good place for our team and our fans.

“I don’t think we could go wrong.”

The biggest new variable in LSU’s bowl plans is the injury to starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who is done as a Tiger after suffering a knee injury against Arkansas.

Alleva said he didn’t think losing Mettenberger will be a huge factor in how the bowls look at LSU, a sentiment echoed by Cotton Bowl President/CEO Rick Baker.

“LSU is a great team and one of the reasons they’ve been great for so long is the depth they have,” Baker said. “I know they’re very high on their freshman quarterback (Anthony Jennings). He certainly looked good against Arkansas.”

“No one wanted to see Zach be hurt,” Outback Bowl President/CEO Jim McVay said. “But if their fans are excited (to see Jennings) it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Let’s handicap each of LSU’s bowl possibilities:

Cotton Bowl

Jan. 3, 7 p.m. (Fox)

Arlington, Texas

How LSU winds up in Arlington: To Alleva, the scenario is simple and rests in large part on who wins Saturday’s Southeastern Conference Championship Game between Auburn and Missouri.

“If Missouri beats Auburn we have a chance to go to the Cotton,” Alleva said. Missouri would automatically be in the Sugar Bowl or possibly in the BCS National Championship Game at 12-1, Alabama (11-1) would almost certainly be in the Sugar or Orange as a BCS at-large pick and Auburn (then 11-2) would probably go to the Capital One.

That would leave the Cotton with a difficult choice between LSU and South Carolina. In its 15-year affiliation with the SEC, the Cotton has taken an Eastern Division team only twice (Tennessee after the 2000 and 2004 seasons).

Likely Big 12 opponents: Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State.

Probability LSU goes here: 45 percent. That’s strong, but half of what it was a week ago. There is strong sentiment from Baton Rouge to Dallas-Fort Worth that the Cotton owes LSU after passing on the Tigers last year for Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. But, if the Cotton has LSU’s blessing — and that of the Outback, which has right of first refusal on an SEC East team — LSU may wind up in the …

Outback Bowl

Jan. 1, noon (ESPN)

Tampa, Fla.

How LSU winds up in Tampa: If the SEC Championship Game swings the other way and Auburn beats Missouri, then Auburn goes to the Sugar or BCS title game at 12-1 and Alabama likely goes to the Sugar or Orange at 11-1.

An 11-2 Missouri team could go to the Capital One or the Outback, but Alleva is of the opinion that those bowls would pass and leave Mizzou to the Cotton. This year, the Cotton Bowl is contractually obligated to take the loser of the SEC Championship Game if that team is passed over by the BCS bowls, Cap One and, in Missouri’s case, the Outback.

If the Cotton’s slot is filled, LSU would appear likely bound for the Outback for the first time in 25 years to play a team from the Big Ten assuming South Carolina goes to the Cap One or elsewhere.

Likely Big Ten opponents: Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin.

Probability LSU goes here: 50 percent. Slightly more likely than the Cotton because even if Missouri beats Auburn the Cotton could choose to make a first-time invitation to South Carolina anyway if the Cap One and Outback pass on the Gamecocks. The phone lines between Arlington and Tampa would be burning up Sunday morning to see if both sides have interest in making a deal.

Gator Bowl

Jan. 1, 11 a.m. (ESPN2)

Jacksonville, Fla.

How LSU winds up in Jacksonville: The Outback is often unpredictable and could throw a wild card into the mix by taking 8-4 Texas A&M over LSU. Don’t scoff. The Outback picked Florida over LSU in 2005 after the Tigers beat the Gators and were higher ranked. The bowl could also opt for 8-4 Georgia, which beat LSU in September.

Likely Big Ten opponents: Michigan, Minnesota.

Probability LSU goes here: 5 percent, but there are two intriguing factors. One, LSU could play 7-5 Michigan (Les Miles’ alma mater) for the first-time ever; two, Alleva and Gator Bowl President/CEO Rick Catlett are old friends. The Gator hasn’t had the Tigers since 1987 and rarely gets a team of its stature, and Alleva and Catlett may like to see this happen.

What of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31 in Atlanta? Never say never in the bowl biz — just like the fact LSU is still officially under consideration for a BCS bowl invite — but the Tigers and their fans have made it plain that they aren’t thrilled about a sixth trip to the Chick-fil-A since 1996. What’s more, with five SEC Championship games and a Chick-fil-A kickoff game it would be a 12th trip to Atlanta in the last 17 years.

That makes the Chick-fil-A one of the Tigers’ least tasty options this time.