BATON ROUGE, La. -- America's loudest stadium had gone quiet enough to hear the screeches of glee from Stillwater, Okla. Arkansas led LSU by two touchdowns in the second quarter. The Tigers looked out of sorts on offense -- which isn't that unusual. But for the first time all season, LSU's defense looked like a group of human beings and not a band of unblockable maiming machines.
LSU coach Les Miles looked down his sideline and saw no reason for concern. "This football team, down 14 points, did not flinch," Miles said. "There was never a question in anybody's mind on that sideline that they were going to respond. ... It really just was a matter of time."
Eight minutes, 47 seconds -- to be exact.
That's how long it took for LSU's offense to score its first touchdown, LSU's defense to get a stop and LSU's best player to Honey Badger the Razorbacks. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson struggled, got booed and then led the Tigers on a 14-play, 77-yard drive. Then the defense sacked Tyler Wilson for a 14-yard loss on first down and forced a three-and-out. Then Tyrann Mathieu, the aforementioned Badger, stood near LSU's goal line and watched a Dylan Breeding punt drift away from the right sideline and away from the Razorbacks' coverage plan. Mathieu caught the ball, made two cuts and blasted into the open field. Ninety-two yards and a PAT later, the score stood tied as Death Valley roared.
Arkansas never stood a chance after that. LSU's defense and its offensive line handled the rest, and the Tigers' 41-17 steamrolling of the Razorbacks clinched the SEC West, an undefeated regular season and more than likely guaranteed that LSU will reach the BCS title game regardless of what happens against Georgia in next week's SEC title game.
To make next week even more anticlimactic, Alabama can all but clinch a place as LSU's BCS title-game opponent by beating Auburn on Saturday. Some people will say that Alabama shouldn't be allowed to play for the title because it didn't even win its own division, much less its own conference. This is foolishness. Louisville might win its conference. So might UCLA. Ask yourself honestly: What would happen if Alabama and Oklahoma State met on a neutral field? More likely than not, the answer involves Trent Richardson and the Cowboys' equipment manager trying to find an effective way to remove cleat marks from jerseys.
Alabama played LSU to a draw in regulation. The Crimson Tide -- barring a choke against Auburn -- are the obvious choice. Don't like it? Write your favorite university president. They're the ones who keep approving the idiotic system major college football uses to crown a national champion.
At least we can all agree that LSU is the nation's best team at this point. The Tigers have beaten three teams (Oregon, Alabama and Arkansas) that will finish in the top 10 and could all finish in the top five. Someone asked Miles after the game if he believes the 2011 Tigers are the greatest team of all time. Miles said it wasn't his place to answer that question. "They're qualified," he said. "Qualified for what? I don't know."
They're qualified to play for the national title after stealing the Black Friday script from last season's national champ. Remember, Auburn fell behind 24-0 in the same time slot last year and wound up winning the Iron Bowl. In the past two Black Friday SEC games, the winning teams have gone down a combined 38-0 and then outscored their opponents by a combined 69-6. The difference this year is that LSU has lapped the field. Auburn still had to beat South Carolina in Atlanta to reach the BCS title game. Because it would still have the best resume of any one-loss team, LSU doesn't even have to beat Georgia.
LSU certainly wouldn't cooperate with any such plan. "I just want you to know something," Miles said. "There would be no way this football team could come to Atlanta and not play their best. Just so you know."
LSU's defense wasn't in a position to play its best Friday. Safety Eric Reid -- the star of the Alabama win -- had to sit with a thigh bruise. So LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis moved Mathieu from cornerback to safety, moved Morris Claiborne from cornerback to nickelback and moved cornerback Tharold Simon from the second team into the starting lineup.
The move of Claiborne might have happened had Reid been healthy. "They tend to put their best receivers on the inside," said Chavis, whose defense allowed only 89 second-half yards. "We weren't going to have a safety matched up on their best receivers. We were going to use our best corner." Mathieu's move, meanwhile, was born of sheer necessity. Though the sophomore had never played the position, his ball-hawking instincts made him a natural fit. And how did college football's best boxscore-stuffer respond? He led LSU in tackles with eight (all solo), forced two fumbles, recovered one. Oh, and there was the matter of the punt return.
On the return, defensive tackle Michael Brockers caught himself gawking at Mathieu's tackle-breaking before remembering he needed to block. "It's just amazing to watch that guy make plays," Brockers said. "It's crazy how he gets an interception or he strips the ball or he runs a punt back. What can't he do?"
Meanwhile, LSU's offense simply crushed the will of the Arkansas defense. The Tigers ran 30 times in their final 43 plays, rolling up 210 second-half rushing yards. Most of the yards came over the left side, where tackle Chris Faulk and guard Will Blackwell opened gaping holes. "We could see it in their eyes," Blackwell said. "They kind of got tired. They didn't want us to run the ball anymore."
As the Tigers grabbed control Friday, reader
That's what the Tigers do. They devour an opponent, mentally and physically. That's why they won't lay down against Georgia next week, even though their place in the BCS title game is secure.
They wouldn't dare miss a meal.