COLUMN: Game lost, not hope

In the aftermath of LSU's loss to Alabama, reality has set in that the Tigers won't return to the BCS title game. But the team's performance did provide plenty of reason for hope in the future.

Les Miles says it all the time.

LSU's program is "built to win championships."

It stands to reason then that nobody – be it player, coach or fan for the Tigers – is a happy camper this Monday morning walking into school, the office or wherever a typical day takes them.

They all know the ultimate goal in 2012, an early January trip to South Beach, no longer dangles like a carrot on the end of a stick furiously chased after by a pack of greyhounds.

Instead this pack of Bayou Bengals has to readjust its sights, postponing the possibility of returning to the BCS National Championship Game for another season.

That sobering reality is enough to hang heads across the Pelican State.

But Tiger Nation, at least the sample size I've been exposed to in the past 36 hours, isn't as up in arms about the loss as others the past few seasons.

The reason? Discarded LSU, minus a minimum of six starters from Fall Camp, played a whale of ballgame against a familiar villain the whole college football world thought was invincible.

The Tigers poked plenty of holes in that theory, particularly during a second-half barrage virtually no one saw coming.

It's hard to be mad a team that plays that hard, that defies those types of odds.

So, even though championships aren't on the horizon over the next two months, Saturday night in Death Valley did provide grounds to hold your head if you bleed purple and gold.

"They're all compromised. You're exactly right," Miles said postgame of the team's preseason goals. "But the good news is the thing that's not compromised is our team.

"They're a fighting, hustling group of men, and guys are getting better. [Zach] Mettenberger's playing better. The receivers are playing better. The tailbacks are playing better. I like our secondary. I think that we kicked it off pretty good. I think there's a bunch of things that are going better."

Miles is spot-on with that assessment. LSU played its overall best game of the season and, with a few exceptions late, put into motion one of the staff's better game plans in a big game in some time.

The offense, given up for dead (or at least one-dimensional) heading into the contest, sprung to life in the second 30 minutes, running successfully against a stout ‘Bama front and converting an endless wave of third downs.

"We talked about it to each other a lot in and out of practice that we had to be able to open things up so that when they brought the safeties down we could rely on Zach's arm and the receivers to make those catches," senior linemen Josh Dworaczyk told reporters following the game. "We were able to accomplish what we wanted to do as an offense. Honestly, right there at the end, those last two drives, we would've liked to have sustained them and got some points out of that. But at the end of the day, we were able to move the ball up and down the field."

The numbers back up Dworaczyk's statement.

LSU entered the ballgame averaging less than 178 yards passing per outing. The Tigers threw for 296 on Alabama.

Through eight games LSU averaged less than 386 total yards of offense. The Tigers posted 435 yards on Alabama.

To put the cherry on top, LSU also won the turnover battle, 2-0, took time of possession by nearly a two-to-one count, ran 85 plays to 52 from Alabama and rang up first downs on 10-of-20 third-down tries (compared to 1-of-9 conversions by Nick Saban's squad).

And they did it on the best defense in the country.

Still, the only numbers that most will remember are 21 and 17. Those digits provided the outcome that sunk LSU's battleship for this fall.

If this were November of 2014, and a four-team playoff was coming at regular season's end, it might be a different story. But that's not the year, and that won't be the case.

Now LSU must trek on, know its ceiling is lower but its potential higher after a great showing on national television.

Improvement remains the name of the game for Miles.

"We've got to improve on some other things," he conceded. "We can't have penalties when we have a big momentum play and have personal fouls. We've gotta give that up. We've gotta drop some of the high school stuff. We've got to step forward into responsibility to your team … We've got a good football team. We've just got to take that understanding into the next game."

The Tigers' sideline boss, while praising his team's effort, also rightfully threw himself into the mix of those in need of correction.

"I can tell you this, I am proud of my team. I like how they fought," said Miles. "I wish I could have had a couple of my calls back, so you know. That is the way it goes.

"The good news is that we have a good football team. The good news is that we will fight again."

It's a message no one will want to hear about a program "built to win championships," but the Tigers did themselves proud in a loss Saturday night.

The country was reminded that elite football is still played at LSU.

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