Even since our case study about LSU’s November swoon on Tuesday, the heat on Les Miles has ratcheted up considerably, with the Baton Rouge paper claiming he’s “coaching for his job” Saturday in Oxford.
Like the LSU-Ole Miss rivalry needed any more fire.
Championship aspirations are (likely) out the window for both teams on Saturday, but this is a game far more acrimonious than most around the country understand. There’s a deep history to the series, whether it was Billy Cannon clinching LSU’s only Heisman on Halloween night in 1959, or Archie Manning cementing his collegiate legacy by spoiling an undefeated Tigers’ season a decade later.
For years, the LSU student paper’s annual front-page headline on the Friday prior to the game was “Geaux To Hell, Ole Miss.” Rebel fans return the favor, always chanting “Go To Hell, LSU” during the national anthem.
The series’ modern era has been far more competitive than LSU’s 9-3 record in the past dozen meetings would suggest. Some truly mediocre Ole Miss teams pushed 10-win LSU teams to the brink with regularity. (See: 2004, 2006, 2010, and 2012.)
Last season’s 10-7 LSU win in Tiger Stadium was a defensive slugfest which sent the Rebels spiraling a bit down the stretch. It was also one of the highest-leverage games you will ever see, embodying the pressure-cooker atmosphere this rivalry often produces.
Both teams enter Saturday coming off demoralizing home losses to Arkansas that effectively ruined hopes for a division title. LSU is officially eliminated in the SEC West race. The Rebels are technically alive but would need wins over LSU and Mississippi State AND an Alabama loss at Auburn next weekend.
For all intents and purposes, this is a classic pride game. It may well be decided by which team actually shows up in the trenches, where effort so often shines through.
Leonard Fournette and the running game carried the Tigers through the season’s first two months. Meanwhile, Ole Miss couldn’t run a lick until averaging 5.2 yards per carry against Texas A&M, Auburn, and the Hogs before the bye last week.
However, the Rebels likely won’t want to test a speedy and still-solid LSU front seven any more than necessary. Chad Kelly won’t sweat that too much.
Coverage busts have been a weekly fact of life for the Tiger secondary this season, leading to a handful of big plays for the opponent each game. They’ve crippled LSU during this two-game losing skid. Against Arkansas, the Hogs gained 201 yards on three plays and 239 on the other 53. It wasn’t even much of a fluke.
The Rebels’ receiving corps should find a lot of room, so Kelly may not have to worry much about the turnover issues that have plagued him at times. LSU has picked off only three passes in six league games.
Despite a defense that is so obviously big-play prone, LSU’s best chance may be to shape (and keep) the game a whole lot like last year’s conservative field-position battle. The Tigers haven’t been able to protect Brandon Harris one iota this November, so the game plan will almost certainly revolve around Fournette.
For LSU to bounce back, Fournette will need to be every bit of the Heisman-worthy runner on display through the first seven games of the season, since Harris and the line have been especially shaky in road games. That may be a problem against a stout Ole Miss front allowing a mere 3.2 yards per rush, the scary news about Denzel Nkemdiche notwithstanding.
Yet, you get the sense the Xs and Os are just window dressing in this one. Ole Miss’ recruiting prowess under Hugh Freeze means there’s more competition than ever to get the players on both rosters at these schools. Each of the three games in this series since Freeze arrived have been decided by one score. The rivalry is as hotly contested as ever.
That level of drama increasingly seems to be the norm between these teams, and this matchup feels like an unexpected SEC on CBS thriller in an otherwise uninspiring weekend slate for the league.
No titles on the line. Only minor bowl implications. A pair of seasons that fizzled after some standout September moments.
It won’t matter. As always, LSU and Ole Miss have a score to settle.