This was never really expected to be Leonard Fournette's final game with LSU even if many feel he's ready to move on.
Many Tigers fans are just as happy this isn't Les Miles' swan song, either.
Even with Miles' team in one of the worst scoring slumps of his tenure, a shootout could be on tap for the Texas Bowl with Fournette facing a hole-filled Texas Tech defense and No. 22 LSU taking on the nation's second-ranked offense Tuesday night in Houston.
Article continues below ...
It wasn't even clear whether Miles would survive long enough to coach this game let alone next season after rumors swirled last month he would soon be let go, even with the seeming majority of the fan base strongly advocating he stay. The silence from the higher-ups at LSU only increased the chatter over Miles' status as the program dragged through three straight losses for the first time in his 11 seasons as coach.
However, after the Tigers halted that skid with a 19-7 win over Texas A&M to close the regular season, athletic director Joe Alleva announced that Miles wasn't going anywhere. Alleva said he was just following policy of waiting until after the season to comment on a coach's status, but he regretted not saying anything as the rampant speculation grew.
The Tigers (8-3) will fail to reach 10 wins for the second straight year and fourth time under Miles. They also enter NRG Stadium having failed to score 20 points in four consecutive games for the first time in his tenure.
''We're a talented football team. We seemed to undershoot our mark this year,'' Miles said. ''I agree with Joe. Winning championships is something Joe wants to work toward fully and I'm right with him. It's not enough to win occasionally. You have to win all the time. I get that.''
Some suggested early this season that Fournette should go as well. There were rumors that he might consider suing the NFL over its rule not allowing players to enter the draft unless they were at least three years removed from high school. The notion to sit out next season to avoid injury also arose.
That talk grew from his domination during LSU's 7-0 start, rushing for 193.1 yards per game and 7.7 per carry with 15 touchdowns, but it all seemed to go away during the three-game skid. The sophomore was held to 230 yards in that span, including 31 on 19 carries against Alabama.
Fournette bounced back to rush for 159 yards against Texas A&M, just about on his FBS-leading average (158.3), but he wasn't invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
“I think he lined up against some better defenses,” Miles said. “It's more difficult to get some of those big runs. I think we could've done a better job for him in several of those games offensively.”
Fournette needs a career-high 259 yards to become the 14th player in the past two decades to rush for 2,000 in a season, and that certainly appears possible.
The Red Raiders (7-5) are third-worst nationally against the run, giving up 271.8 yards per game. They allowed a 200-yard rusher in four Big 12 games, including a Texas freshman-record 276 to Charles Warren III – a player who previously had totaled 88 yards.
“I'm sure they're licking their chops looking at our video waiting to run us over, so we got our work cut out for us,” said defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who admitted Texas Tech is “overmatched defensively.”
“… We're not gonna stop LSU from running the ball. We gotta slow them down, get a couple turnovers, make them kick a couple field goals and give our offense a chance to win the game.”
Texas Tech was ripped for 42.6 points per game – 124th of 127 FBS teams – and gave up averages of 62.8 points and 677.3 yards in four matchups with ranked opponents. The overall average of 540.2 yards allowed ranked ahead of only Kansas (560.8).
That led to Gibbs' co-coordinator, Mike Smith, being fired along with cornerbacks coach Kevin Curtis and outside linebackers coach Trey Haverty.
The Red Raiders often made up for that atrocious defense by simply outscoring opponents. Coach Kliff Kingsbury's team averages 46.6 points, 594.5 total yards and 389.7 passing yards – all ranked No. 2 nationally.
“When you learn you're gonna face an offense like that, that throws it out a lot, you're up for the challenge,” Tigers cornerback Tre'Davious White said. “As a defensive back, you want that. You embrace that type of challenge.”
Patrick Mahomes' 4,283 passing yards ranked third in the FBS – as did his 517 attempts – but he also led the Big 12 with 14 interceptions. Eight of those came in four games against Top 25 foes.
The only quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards against LSU were Mississippi State's Dak Prescott and national passing leader Brandon Doughty of Western Kentucky.
The Tigers defense also must be wary of DeAndrew Washington, who topped the Big 12 with 1,455 yards rushing. He ran for 421 and four TDs over the final two games – wins over Kansas State and Texas which followed a three-game losing streak.
“I think the last two games, played our best football and felt like that is what we wanted to do and have a month to continue to try to get better and play one of the best teams we will have played all year,” Kingsbury said. “I like where we are at.”
Kingsbury has gotten the Red Raiders to a bowl for the second time in three seasons at the helm after last year's 4-8 finish.
“Having not gone to a bowl game last year, it's huge for us to get back,” he said.
Texas Tech, 0-2 against LSU with the last meeting in 1957, has won four straight bowl games and nine of 11 going back to 2002.
LSU has lost three of its last four, and this is the fourth consecutive year the Tigers have failed to reach a major bowl since losing to Alabama in the national championship game.