FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — At no point during the 2016 season has a coveted New Year’s Six bowl game seemed like a realistic goal for the LSU football team. Yet with two games left in the regular season, the Tigers have stayed the course through a year of massive chaos and suddenly find themselves in the driver’s seat for a bid to the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s night.
The first blow to LSU’s hopes this year came in the season opener, a 16-14 loss to Wisconsin. But as the season has progressed, the Badgers have climbed all the way to No. 7 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings, helping LSU’s stature along the way.
LSU’s next disaster was its 18-13 loss at Auburn, which was deemed so unacceptable that Les Miles was fired.
As it turned out, it ended up being the best thing that could have happened. Auburn continued winning its way into the top 10, and interim coach Ed Orgeron kicked LSU into a gear that it was unable to reach in four games under Miles.
LSU even worked its way back into dark horse contention for the Playoff under Orgeron, but those dreams came to a halt with a 10-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama. It has been a deflating defeat for the Tigers the past two seasons, and the elements were in place for the same thing to happen again this year.
Instead, a team that is increasingly taking on the identity of “Coach O” rebounded with a dominating 38-10 win at No. 25 Arkansas.
“We had heard all the stuff,” Orgeron said. “This is a new team, new mindset. We think different and act different. You saw it tonight.”
While the Tigers were focusing on their own business to claim The Golden Boot, other teams were helping the Tigers’ chances of getting back to the Sugar Bowl for the first time since January 2007.
It’s a foregone conclusion that Alabama will be in the College Football Playoff, leaving a bid to the Sugar Bowl open for the SEC’s second-best team.
For most of the year, that distinction appeared to be a three-dog fight between Texas A&M, Auburn and Florida. That tune has changed dramatically in the last two weeks.
With Florida’s loss to Arkansas last week, A&M’s back-to-back losses to the Mississippi schools and Auburn’s stumble to Georgia, No. 16 LSU is the second-best SEC team in the AP Top 25 and likely will hold the same pecking order spot in the Playoff rankings.
Auburn is technically in position to hop back over the Tigers with an Iron Bowl win over Alabama, but the analytics site atomicfootball.com had the probability of that happening at 15.8 percent before the loss to Georgia.
With head-to-head games remaining against the other two teams left in the Sugar Bowl derby, LSU is almost entirely in control of its fate.
A Sugar Bowl berth is no small deal. LSU has the second-most all-time appearances in the game with 13, but its current nine-year drought is the longest since it failed to reach the game from 1988-2001. (The 2012 BCS National Championship in New Orleans was a separate entity from that year’s Sugar Bowl matchup, which featured Michigan and Virginia Tech.)
Given the circumstances of this wild season, getting to the Superdome would rank as one of the most impressive feats in LSU history — not to mention an assurance that Orgeron’s tenure in Baton Rouge will continue for years to come.