In the lead-up to Alabama’s early November game against LSU, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban described the Tigers’ offense as a unit that had evolved from the stereotypes placed upon it during the Les Miles era. “They’re going fastball, they’re playing tempo, they’re a lot more open formations than what they have been in the past,” he told reporters. “They’re not in the I-formation just trying to run the ball against people. This team is nothing like any team that we’ve ever played before at LSU.” Then, the Tigers scored zero points against the Tide in a seventh straight loss to their SEC Western Division rival, leaving folks in Baton Rouge wondering if LSU’s offense was truly on the path to changing from its run-heavy, archaic scheme.
The first day of the new year brought a new outlook. Quarterback Joe Burrow and the Tigers showed a glimpse of the dynamic passing game coach Ed Orgeron promised to bring when he was hired in November of 2016, as LSU rolled up 556 yards, 32 first downs and nine third-down conversions in a 40–32 victory over UCF in Tuesday’s Fiesta Bowl, exploiting the Achilles’ heel of the undefeated American Athletic Conference champions.
The Tigers snapped the Knights’ 25-game win streak, silencing one of the nation’s most polarizing teams, which has had to fend off stereotypes of its own. UCF officials and fans have spent the past 365 days lobbying for inclusion in the College Football Playoff, famously touting a mythical national championship last year after completing a 13–0 season with a win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. They were gearing up for another celebration tour before the shorthanded Tigers rained on their parade.
Many in the college football world will likely dance on the grave of the Knights’ winning streak in the coming days. See, you don’t belong in the playoff! That goes for LSU players and administrators, too. “I don't think they could play in the SEC week-in, week-out,” LSU linebacker Devin White told reporters afterward. Even athletic director Joe Alleva got involved.
LSU spread out the Knights and chucked it downfield with authority and efficiency. Along the way, the Tigers gave a peek at the possible future of an offense that continues to take steps to arrive in the modern era—while shutting down UCF’s 21st-century spread scheme and limiting the Knights to just 15:29 of possession time. Players who are expected to return to Baton Rouge next season offered flashes of that future: Burrow (21-for-34, 394 yards, four TDs), sophomore back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (167 total yards), freshman receiver Ja’Marr Chase (93 yards on six catches, TD) and sophomore receiver Justin Jefferson (four catches, 87 yards, two TDs).
Burrow’s banner day was jump-started by one nightmare of a play. In the first quarter, he threw an ugly pick-six and while chasing after the play was crushed by a legal crackback block thrown by 313-pound D-lineman Joey Connors, a collision that went viral and had Burrow woozy on the sideline. He immediately returned to the game on the next series, however, and proceeded to put on a dazzling performance, completing nine of his next 10 passes for 178 yards and three touchdowns. It was a tough, dominating performance by the former Ohio State transfer, something that has Tigers fans optimistic for his senior season.
Burrow’s counterparts weren’t bad, either. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s unit entered the game without five starters, including their top three cornerbacks. Over the course of the game, the Tigers lost two more defensive starters: cornerback Terrence Alexander (ejected for throwing a punch) and safety Grant Delpit (ejected for targeting). They held the Knights to 250 yards, a 40% third-down conversion rate and no first downs in the third quarter. They buried UCF—playing shorthanded itself without injured starting QB McKenzie Milton—with pressure up front, forcing backup Darriel Mack into a 36% completion rate and sacking him five times.
This game will be widely remembered as the Knights’ first loss in two years, but it may also be looked back on as the coming-out party for Burrow and this offense. There are caveats, of course: UCF’s defense entered this game ranked 83rd nationally in yards allowed, and despite that the Tigers struggled in the red zone, settling for four field goals. But qualifiers aside, the Tigers marched to their first 10-win season since 2013, something Orgeron feels is a monumental step in building a championship program, in the process carrying the flag for a conference that had been humiliated by UCF the previous year.
In a season that started with such low expectations (few had the Tigers winning more than eight games), LSU will likely find itself in the top 10 of the final AP rankings, with an offense that’s growing up and a nationally televised muscle-flexing at the expense of the “other” defending national champs to set its trajectory.