East: Lots of ifs for this LSU team

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — It’s hard not to think about how close LSU came to not having to scoreboard watch on this last weekend in November.

The Tigers sat around Saturday, hoping against hope that Auburn and Alabama would both defy logic and somehow Auburn would come away with a stunning victory in the Iron Bowl. It didn’t happen.

They were also hoping — far more realistically — that Texas A&M would beat Missouri and Florida State would beat Florida. After Alabama’s win, the A&M game didn’t mean much to the Tigers. The Florida State game still did, but the Seminoles didn’t come through either.

None of LSU’s goals were unattainable when play began Saturday. That in itself was a pretty significant accomplishment for a team that lost eight starters after the beginning of preseason camp and relied heavily on several first-time starters.

But the Tigers’ championship goals were out of their hands. They were dependent on an Auburn team that was winless in the Southeastern Conference, on an A&M team whose upset victory against Alabama two weeks earlier had mostly just made LSU’s last-minute loss to the Crimson Tide that much harder to bear, and on a Florida State team that largely controlled whether the Tigers could get their consolation prize — a berth in a BCS bowl — once a trip to the SEC title game officially became unattainable.

If only LSU had found a way to beat Bama three weeks earlier instead of letting that regular season-defining game slip from the win column into the loss column in the waning moments.

If only the Tigers had gotten one more first down on their penultimate possession and run out the clock and prevailed 17-14.

Failing that, if they had only found a way to keep the Tide from scoring in the final two minutes.

If somehow, some way LSU had made the one or two outcome-determining plays that it failed to make, the Tigers would have been preparing for a return trip to Atlanta to play Georgia for the SEC title for the second year in a row instead of scoreboard watching.

Other teams would have been jockeying for position and looking for help to qualify as the opposition to the SEC champ for the national championship.

That’s how small the difference was between LSU having all of its goals within its reach and having to wait on a series of improbable events to bail it out.

The difference between who the Tigers dreamed of becoming and who they have actually become is that minute, which makes accepting the latter that much harder.

This team had the characteristics of a relatively young team — often seeming to adjust its level of play up and down to match the anticipated level of the opponent.

LSU had as much if not more trouble defeating the weaker SEC opposition — Auburn, Arkansas, Ole Miss and State — as it did doing so with stronger league opponents such as South Carolina and Texas A&M.

It lost to the No. 10 team in the country (Florida) by one score on the road even with an impotent offense after losing two starting linebackers (Kevin Minter and Kwon Alexander) and a starting offensive lineman (Josh Williford) to injury during the game.

It led the No. 1 team in the country (you-know-who) until those fateful final few minutes.

In non-conference play, the Tigers had uneven games against three schools (North Texas, Idaho and Towson) from leagues that don’t have automatic qualification to the BCS. But they manhandled Washington, the one non-conference opponent that comes from an AQ league.

The offense, defense and special teams all took turns carrying one another and needing to be carried. The latest example came in the 20-13 victory at Arkansas on Friday in which the offense struggled for much of the game but was rescued by the defense and the special teams.

Much of the offense’s limited success came on big plays by sophomore wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., whose play has been symbolic of the team’s — at times spectacular, at times maddeningly sloppy, overall good enough and tantalizingly short of being special.

There will be no repeat SEC championship or return to the BCS Championship game for this team. It will find out in one week just what its reward is for a 10-2 season, the third consecutive one with at least that many victories.

We all know who the Tigers could have been and who they would have been if not for a play or two back on Nov. 3.

But in reality this team is what it probably should have been under the circumstances.

It’s a talented but relatively inexperienced group that was forced to grow up faster than planned and probably did so faster than was reasonable to expect, just not quite fast enough to reach the most ambitious of goals.