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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

L.S.U. Aims to Keep SEC Run Alive

It will be strange to see the Cotton Bowl played at 8 p.m., as it will be tomorrow night, as we’re all used to this being one the earliest-played bowls of the year, often beginning before noon. It’s also odd to have this game played on any date other than Jan. 1, for that matter. What would also be strange, though pleasant: a Cotton Bowl that ended with a Big 12 victory. The conference has won only once since 2004 — a Missouri win over Arkansas three years ago — and has lost seven of the last 11 overall against the nation’s premier league. Perhaps a date with L.S.U., as offensively challenged as any 10-win team in recent memory, is just what the Big 12 needs to get back in the win column.

The last line is a stretch: L.S.U. is fine offensively, just not as good as one would think a 10-win team would be. The Tigers ended the year 67th in total offense, 50th in scoring and 107th in passing, numbers which belie two things: one, that L.S.U. won 10 games, most importantly; and two, that the offense did round into form — at least to a higher degree — over the second half of the season.

In other words, despite the 10-2 regular season, offensive coordinator Gary Crowton remains on notice. One wonders how much longer Les Miles and L.S.U. can continue to put forth a pedestrian offense, not when the defense remains among the best in the country and rivals like Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas have recently cobbled together dynamic, high-scoring attacks.

It almost seems as if L.S.U. — with its current offense — is a relic, a program too rigid to accept the fact that as it currently stands, the offense in place won’t lead it any farther than, say, a date in the Cotton Bowl. This is somewhat ridiculous: this same offense won a national title, of course, and would certainly fare better with more polished options at quarterback.

Just looking at this specific game, however, a date with a more balanced Texas A&M doesn’t necessarily bode well for the Tigers. The Aggies have an L.S.U.-like defense, for lack of a better comparison; after struggling on this side of the ball for the better part of a decade, first-year coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s defense has allowed only 244 points through 12 games.

That’s a program-low since 2001, R.C. Slocum’s second-to-last season at A&M. What should have L.S.U. more concerned than the defense, however, is the play of an offense that has taken off under a new quarterback. Since replacing on Oct. 30, Ryan Tannehill has completed 115 of his 180 attempts for 1,254 yards and 8 scores — most importantly, Tannehill has avoided the turnovers that plagued his predecessor, Jerrod Johnson.

The change on offense has yielded a relatively unexpected change in results: A&M has won six straight, pushing the program to only it second nine-win regular season since 1999. It’s a somewhat troubling trio of factors for L.S.U. to consider, when combining Texas A&M’s revitalized offense, defense and program as a whole.

If the Tigers wish to maintain the SEC’s recent Cotton Bowl dominance, the offense will need to deliver. There’s little reason to think that the L.S.U. defense won’t put forth another strong performance, particularly when considering the time John Chavis and the defensive staff has had to prepare for A&M’s attack.

The question is not whether the defense will deliver; the question — one asked countless times over the last three seasons — is whether the offense will follow suit.

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