If we can go out there and win the remaining games and get 10 wins, it’s going to speak volumes for the character of this team.” Zach Mettenberger, LSU quarterback
The odds are very much against LSU repeating as Southeastern Conference champion or even winning the West Division title.
And the Tigers can forget about going back to the BCS Championship game after their last-minute 21-17 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
But though the list of team goals has been trimmed from the top and edited, it has not been discarded.
No. 9 LSU still has work to do, hosting No. 22 Mississippi State on Saturday, then finishing the regular-season with games against two more division foes — Ole Miss and Arkansas — before heading off to a bowl site to be determined.
So the Tigers went back to work Monday, took a final, painful look at the Alabama game and moved on.
“It (stinks) that we can’t have a chance to play in the BCS national championship now, but there’s still a lot to play for this year, and hopefully a lot of guys on the team realize that,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “You’ve just got to realize that the season’s not over. A 10-2 season is a pretty dang good season. Ten wins is very hard to come by when you play in a league like this. If we can get the remaining wins on the schedule and play in a good bowl game, that’s a pretty good year.
LSU only has to look as far back as two years ago to see how much still can be accomplished when conference and national titles can’t be. The Tigers were 7-0 and ranked sixth before losing a West showdown to eventual BCS champion Auburn. They bounced back to beat Alabama and win two more games before a loss to Arkansas in the regular-season finale knocked them out of a probable Sugar Bowl berth.
The Tigers headed instead to the Cotton Bowl and whipped Texas A&M 41-24 in a performance that players later said was a launching pad to their historic 13-0 regular season last year.
“The goals are to finish strong and win our last few games,” defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “There’s still a lot to play for.”
This is the sixth LSU team that tackle Josh Dworaczyk has been a part of. He was around for the 2007 BCS title, the Cotton Bowl bounce-back and last year’s BCS runner-up finish. But he also was around for an 8-5 finish in 2008 and a 9-4 finish a year later.
“In years past, when leaders on teams that I’ve been a part of have had to refocus and change goals,” Dworaczyk said, “it’s always been, ‘How do you want to finish nationally? What do you want to be when this is all said and done? Also, what’s the legacy you want to leave behind?’”
Dworaczyk said the younger players will be looking to him as he once looked at older players to see how he reacts.
“You have to make sure that you leave that legacy behind that things don’t change,” Dworaczyk said. “You have to go out there and play your best.”
The Tigers can take some solace in the fact that they played their best game of the season against the Crimson Tide.
“The new goals are basically to play like we played,” Dworaczyk said. “I think we set the bar for ourselves, especially as an offense, that we go out there and execute and do the things that we know that we can do.”
LSU’s passing game came to life as Mettenberger was 24-for-35 for 298 yards, all season-highs, and he had a touchdown and no interceptions against the No. 1 defense in the country.
The Tigers are still seventh in the BCS rankings, which won’t allow them to get into the top two unless a bizarre series of events plays out, but good enough for them to play in a high-profile bowl game. In fact, LSU could still play in a BCS bowl if it wins out and gets some realistic help.
“I think there’s an understanding that we’re a good football team, and Saturday in certain ways proved that,” coach Les Miles said. “Now, we have to play like that and see how this thing goes and can end up.”
The Tigers have usually responded well after losses during Miles’ eight seasons, having lost consecutive games just once. After a 14-6 loss at Florida on Oct. 6, LSU came back a week later and defeated then-No. 3 South Carolina 23-21.
Miles was asked if the Tigers’ performance Saturday was the best of any of his LSU teams in defeat.
He paused a while before answering, “The good news is there’s not been many.”
Miles’ has just 20 losses at LSU.
“Honestly, I try to forget any time we finish second in a game just as fast as I can,” Miles added. “When you work as hard as we do and you get to the back end of the week and finish second, you have a lot of incentive to win.
“A championship-style effort and a championship-style football team is still very much our need and want. The opportunity to do some very significant things in this season is still in front of this team.”
Mettenberger said a strong finish would make a strong statement about a team that has lost seven starters since the start of preseason camp.
“We’ve definitely been through a lot of adversity this year with off-the-field stuff and injuries,” he said. “This is a very tough team. And if we can go out there and win the remaining games and get 10 wins, it’s going to speak volumes for the character of this team. Hopefully, we can go out there and get that rolling by getting a win against Mississippi State.”