TAMPA, Fla . — The temperature was 1 degree above zero Monday when some frigid Iowa fans were leaving Des Moines for Florida.
One. Degree. Above.
That’s arctic. Then again, it’s nothing like the wind chill that blows through Baton Rouge when LSU ends its season with a bowl loss.
The town goes into a months-long funk when the Tigers come up short in a bowl. Traffic is worse; it rains more often, even the Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade’s pink flamingos seem droopy.
Remember the BCS championship game loss to Alabama? I know some of you still aren’t over that. Haven’t been back to Gulf Shores in two years. Sold the timeshare. It’s a common tale.
LSU fans stayed away in droves from Wednesday’s Outback Bowl, otherwise ardent Tigers backers who looked at the prospect of a 10-hour drive (through Alabama) to watch LSU play 8-4 Iowa and said, “Meh.” But those at home and abroad will have their moods altered just like the 7,000 or so of you who decided to make the trip here based on whether the Tigers win. Or lose.
Football is about blocking and tackling and catching and running and kicking. And it’s rigidly timed. It will end even if we have to go into sudden death (still missing you, George Carlin).
But it’s also about emotion. For, or against. Having it can make an inferior team accomplish great things. Lacking it can leave a superior team vulnerable, like a vampire at a garlic festival. Or the Dallas Cowboys with a playoff berth on the line.
The vibe out of the LSU camp during bowl week has been that the Tigers have come to play in the Outback Bowl. Hard. And with passion. That they learned their lesson from trying to play at about three-quarter impulse power against Clemson in last season’s Chick-fil-A Bowl. Clemson didn’t lead for one second of regulation, its game-winning kick not navigating the uprights until the clock read all zeroes. Clemson won just the same, 25-24.
Then came the funk that ate Baton Rouge.
This is a hard LSU team to read. It was good enough to hand Auburn its only loss — not quite the same Auburn team that will play Florida State on Monday for the BCS national championship, mind you — but still a win for the wall of fame. It was good enough to manhandle Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M’s offense like no one else has, perhaps making Johnny Football think twice about returning to Aggieland for another sequel to 2012’s incomparable season.
But LSU lost to Ole Miss, too, bleeding red (Les Miles’ least favorite color) inside the Rebels 20. And the Tigers struggled to beat Arkansas (more on that later).
Still, there is much worth playing for in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl other than dibs on the last Bloomin’ Onion. We start with …
1. Confidence. Alabama’s AJ McCarron is done in college football after Thursday night’s Sugar Bowl. There’s a new A.J. in the Southeastern Conference, one who has the good sense to use proper punctuation.
His name is Anthony Jennings, the freshman quarterback who led LSU on that breathtaking 99-yard touchdown drive to subdue ornery Arkansas in the regular-season finale. The lad created a tough act for himself to follow. All he has to do is play a complete game, a successful game, against an Iowa defense ranked No. 7 in the country. (I know, I know, the Big Ten. I get it.)
Jennings got a booster shot of confidence from what he did against Arkansas. If he can play well in an entire game against Iowa, it would be like a complete blood transfusion. There are still expectations he will have to fight off incoming freshman Brandon Harris in the spring/fall.
With the chance for great reward comes great risk. What if he struggles, turns the ball over, calls a play from high school? But it’s a bowl game and it’s worth the gamble for Jennings and LSU if he comes out of the game better equipped to deal with next season as he should.
2. Recruiting. A show of hands please for those of you who would trade the prospect of an LSU win Wednesday for a sweep of all five five-star prospects the Tigers could get commitments from across the bay in St. Petersburg in Thursday night’s Under Armour All-American game?
You sir, with the five recruiting service subscriptions, just have to raise one hand.
Of course, few recruits hinge their decision on one game, one bowl game at that. And some of the five-stars that LSU’s after, such as Karr’s Speedy Noil and Beaumont, Texas, native Tony Brown (surely others) have their minds made up.
But the sweep of momentum for LSU could start with a win Wednesday, making pledging to the Tigers on Thursday seem that much more irresistible.
3. History. Records are made to be broken, but be the first to do something and it lasts forever — unless you commit NCAA violations en route. If LSU wins, it will be the first time the Tigers have won at least 10 games a season for four straight seasons — meaning the fourth-year seniors will never have known anything other than double-digit delight.
To 20-year-olds, ancient history is Adele’s first album, but when they come back to wave at halftime of their 20-year team reunion they can wave with pride.