TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A somber Zach Mettenberger shook his head.
“Debbie Downer,” the LSU quarterback said in response to a question. “Jesus.”
The comment was directed at one of the 20 reporters surrounding Mettenberger on Saturday night, minutes after No. 1 Alabama pounded now-No. 18 LSU 38-17 in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The question: With your SEC championship goals now completely crushed, what now?
Sure, it’s a negative-leaning question, but it’s one LSU must answer. For a team that’s used to being in conference championship contention until late November, the Tigers (7-3, 3-3) are officially down and out.
Halloween isn’t more than two weeks old. Christmas décor isn’t yet flowing from every department store aisle, and bag-wrapped Thanksgiving turkeys are still plentiful and resting on their chilly perches.
LSU’s path to the SEC title game is even more clogged than Tuscaloosa roadways four hours after a game.
The Tigers sit in a shocking spot with two games left: They’re in fifth place in the SEC West, only above circus shows Arkansas and Mississippi State.
LSU’s loss to Ole Miss three weeks ago made a trip to Atlanta a steep climb, but heading to Alabama, coach Les Miles’ crew had at least some outside shot, some hope to grasp.
The shot’s been fired. The hope’s long gone.
“They’ll be miserable tonight,” Miles said about his team afterward.
Back to that question. What now?
“I don’t know,” Mettenberger started after the comment about Debbie Downer, a reference to a skit on “Saturday Night Live.”
“We’re going to dig deep now. There’s a lot to play for. We don’t want to be a five-loss team at the end of the season. We’ve lost some tough games, but we can still save some self-respect for ourselves.”
Playing for self-respect. That’s what it’s come to this season.
The top-tier goals for this squad — though many were lofty for a team that lost eight defensive starters — have been scratched.
The lower-level ones will have to suffice: a 10-win season, a winning record in conference play, a New Year’s Day bowl.
But even those aren’t a given. Not with this team. Not with this defense.
That’s what makes the next game so big. (LSU meets floundering Arkansas to end the season.)
Up next is Johnny Manziel and No. 10 Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2) on Nov. 23. Both teams have open dates this week.
Manziel’s numbers may fall shy of his 2012 quota, but they’re still good: 200-of-276 passing for 2,867 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and 96 carries for 564 yards. Manziel averages 392 yards per game. That’s second in the nation.
Losing at home to A&M might send already-raging fans over that steep edge. It would remind too many of that 2008 season, Miles’ one slumping year during a sparkling nine seasons at LSU.
So, yeah, there is something to play for. It’s not a championship or even a BCS bowl berth. It’s not a 10-win regular season, either.
It’s to keep pace with preseason expectations, to meet the minimum standard for this “rebuilding” year.
Advocate columnist Scott Rabalais, a seasoned veteran of LSU sports and a crystal ball-carrying preseason predictor, had the Tigers finishing the regular season 9-3.
LSU was picked to finish second or third in the West in most preseason projections.
Beat A&M and Arkansas, and a subpar year is just that: a predictable season that most saw coming. Lose to either, and subpar becomes disappointing.
Debbie’s down, indeed.
“We still have a lot to play for,” running back Jeremy Hill said. “We’re going to have a big home game and get to play in front our fans. So it’s going to be a big one.”