BATON ROUGE, La. -- A week ago, Alabama coach Nick Saban complimented LSU for being "the most consistently successful team in our league."
That might not seem the case after Saturday's epic 21-17 Crimson Tide win over LSU, a game where Alabama re-established itself as the SEC West's reigning bully and put itself into position to contend for its third national championship in four years.
But what Saban said was true. LSU has finished among the top two spots in the SEC West in 11 of the last 12 seasons, making it the most consistent finisher at the top of the SEC West standings during that stretch.
The Tigers might have lost their chance at their ultimate goals -- SEC and national championships -- but they still have a chance to maintain their status as a top-tier Western Division team and extend its stretch of consistent success. To achieve it, LSU has to beat three teams who have become used to looking up at LSU in the standings, starting Saturday against Mississippi State, then against Ole Miss and finally, at Arkansas Thanksgiving weekend.
Sweep and LSU can finish 10-2 and no worse than second place in the West, probably behind Alabama. Lose any of the three and the notion that the Tigers are a top two program in the SEC West takes a jab.
And it's not just a perception.
In that same 12-year stretch where LSU has been so consistently outstanding Alabama has been in the top two just three times, although Alabama was ineligible for postseason play in 2002, a season in which it finished with the best record in the division.
In that same stretch, the final three opponents for LSU (7-2, 3-2 in the SEC) have finished among the top two in the West a combined five times -- less than half of what LSU has produced by itself in the same period. So by holding off Mississippi State (7-2, 3-2), Ole Miss (5-4, 2-3) and Arkansas (4-5, 2-3), LSU can keep itself where it thinks it belongs while keeping the upstarts back with the pack.
Of course, for the remaining opponents, it's a never-ending battle to try to climb the conference ladder. Dan Mullen seemed to have MSU on the verge of being among the elite before the Bulldogs took back-to-back losses from Alabama and Texas A&M by a combined 76-20 score. Even after seemingly getting put in its place in two humbling weeks, MSU still has a chance to give Mullen a signature win in Baton Rouge.
"This is a showdown between 7-2 teams," LSU guard Josh Dworaczyk said. "That's how we look at it."
Ole Miss is trying to build momentum with first-year coach Hugh Freeze. Arkansas, which has had more success than the Mississippi schools, will be hoping to put a product on the field that can attract a coach who can create the same kind of excitement for its program that Mullen and Freeze have brought to theirs.
"It's about legacy," Dworaczyk said. "It's about finishing the season the way we want, getting to 10 wins, which is a great season, and getting a good bowl."
"Maybe even a BCS bowl," said wide receiver Jarvis Landry with a hopeful smile, demonstrating that such a distinction matters for the Tigers.
If they win out, there's a decent chance they could wind up in the Sugar Bowl if Alabama plays for the national championship.
That might be enough of a carrot on the stick to get good effort from the Tigers, even with their initial goals now out of reach. On Saturday, LSU will host a Bulldogs team with a good record, but that's 1-19 in the last 20 meetings with LSU. The Tigers will close with two more games where they will be heavy favorite.
At the end of that stretch, there is no trip to Atlanta waiting, nor is there any hope for an early January trip to Miami. The question is, with those goals no longer attainable, will maintaining LSU's lofty standard be enough to get the best out of the Tigers?
Landry thinks so.
"It's about us," he said. "It's about us doing what we do."