LSU has its confidence back, but knows Alabama is its ultimate measuring stick

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Leonard Fournette has a simple goal for the next two weeks.

“Get my body right,” Fournette said after LSU's 38-21 win over Ole Miss on Saturday.

That’s right, the guy who shattered his school’s single-game rushing record with 284 yards on just 16 carries Saturday still isn’t in peak form. With just under two weeks left until his Tigers host top-ranked Alabama, LSU’s superstar running back plans to drop some of the weight he gained while sidelined by an ankle injury and also get himself into the best shape possible to face the Crimson Tide’s FBS-leading run defense.

Fournette -- along with the rest of the Tigers -- probably needs to do some mental rehab, too, although that process seems to be well underway with LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron in charge.

Alabama might have held Fournette to just 31 yards on 19 carries in last year’s humiliating 30-16 Tide victory, and Nick Saban’s program might have dealt LSU five consecutive losses, but the Tigers believe they have changed significantly under the new regime after starting 2-2 under fired coach Les Miles.

They have bought into the aggressive mentality that Orgeron preaches, and have won all three games -- by an average of 29 points per game -- since he took over.

“We’re way different than the team that was 2-2,” outside linebacker Arden Key said. “Our backs are against the wall, and a man can do some dangerous things if his back’s against the wall."

Despite their recent success, the Tigers are still realistic about what most around the college football world expects to happen at Tiger Stadium on Nov. 5. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Alabama a 64.5 percent chance to beat LSU, and the Tide will be a comfortable favorite once oddsmakers reveal their lines.

“We’re under the radar,” Key said. “If we beat somebody five years, six years in a row, then they’ll be under the radar. So we know it’s a statement. We know that everybody’s going to pick Bama and we’re the underdogs.”

As Fournette told reporters, “I know y’all see what Alabama’s doing to teams.”

So do Fournette’s coaches, not that reviewing the Tide’s game film is an enjoyable experience.

“After you watch the tape, you might not be as excited,” Orgeron cracked shortly after beating Ole Miss, the program he led for three seasons a decade ago. “No, I’m just joking. We’re going to be very excited to play a very good football team. We’re going to be up for the challenge. It’s going to be a physical football game. They have very good athletes. They are very well‐coached, but so are we.”

Miles landed himself squarely on the hot seat last season when his unbeaten team, which held the No. 2 spot in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, got flattened in the second half by Alabama. That sparked a three-game losing streak that nearly cost Miles his job then, preceding the ugly start to this season that eventually led to his unemployment.

Repeated failures against Alabama -- starting with an enormously disappointing 21-0 loss in the BCS title game at the end of the 2011 season -- were the most significant contributing factors in Miles’ downfall at LSU. This game simply means more than others, no matter how loudly Orgeron insists that each game is equally important.

LSU has been an SEC also-ran ever since that championship-game defeat, and last year’s trampling added yet another insult to the growing list of injuries inflicted by the Tide. It’s impossible to overstate how much psychological good a win over Alabama would do for the LSU program.

“It’s nice to have a little bit of momentum heading into this game, but we understand, same as last year. I think we had a lot of momentum going into Alabama,” tight end Colin Jeter said. “We went in and they outperformed us, so the biggest thing is preparing every day this week and getting the game plan right ... and being ready to duke it out.”

Alabama certainly presents a physical challenge the likes of which the Tigers have not seen this season. Saban’s team also will require the Tigers to play much cleaner games than even the ones they have played lately under Orgeron, when explosive second-half runs overshadowed extremely sloppy first halves.

They’re well aware of the unique demands this game presents given the results of the last five meetings with the Tide. But they also strut into this off week with the confidence of a team that finally looks like the College Football Playoff contender it was supposed to be.

“This is the team that everybody in the country thought we would be,” Key said. “And we’re only getting better, that’s the crazy part.”

If that's true, the Tigers will get the ultimate chance to prove it two Saturdays from now.