Back in pack, but so close

BATON ROUGE, La. -- On bowl selection Sunday, some LSU fans were fighting mad.

LSU, they felt, was one rival program and two games away from being the dominant program in college football right now. Yet, a loss in the BCS title game to Alabama in January and a last-minute, game-winning drive by the Crimson Tide this season combined to have the Tigers in the SEC's No. 5 bowl (Chick-fil-A) and just another team not in the BCS.

Never mind that the Chick-fil-A Bowl deserves to be much better than No. 5 in the SEC bowl pecking order (really No. 6 when you consider SEC is usually a lock to get two teams into BCS bowls). It's one of the best-run bowls out there, it's played in an NFL stadium and could well end up as host site for future national championship playoff games.

LSU fans get that. They honestly appreciate that a bowl matchup with Clemson is one of the best ones in the bowl season. And they are well aware that the SEC had six teams with double digit wins, all deserving of solid bowl matchups.

That's not really why Tigers fans were a little miffed about going to Atlanta and why there's a bit of a lethargy among them.

It's about how close LSU has come to being the best program in college football, hands down. If not for a certain red-clad team coached by a former LSU coach, the Tigers might be at the top of the heap. It just didn't seem to fit that a team that came so close to something truly special would slip to so far down the bowls' pecking order.

You can sympathize with that. LSU really did get tantalizingly close to the dynasty conversation.

A break here and a better BCS title game draw there (Would LSU have laid an egg against Oklahoma State like it did against Alabama?) and perhaps LSU would be sitting where Alabama is right now on top of the college football world, not just for this season, but for an extended stretch of outstanding seasons.

Nick Saban, the former LSU coach, has the Crimson Tide going for a third title in four years -- and a shot at being the team forever associated with this era. Change two outcomes and LSU could be going for its second straight national title and its fourth in 10 years, while the Tide would be just another good SEC team.

A season ago, the Tigers had one of the magical runs through a regular season in the history of college football, beating eight ranked teams en route to a 13-0 record. Of course, that led to a rematch with Alabama, the one team that was able to stay on the field with LSU for four quarters in the regular season. LSU lost, 21-0.

Fast forward to this season and the rematch in Baton Rouge. Had LSU stopped Alabama from driving 71 yards with no timeouts for the winning touchdown in the final minute of a 21-17 Crimson Tide comeback win in November, the Tigers would have won the SEC West, finished 11-1 and would have played Georgia for the right to go to the BCS title game.

Instead, the Tigers are in the No. 5 bowl in the SEC pecking order this year. That's the rub for some Tiger fans.

In the last couple of years in college football, only two teams got to the crossroads where one way would take you to the path of greatness and the other way took you back to the college football pack. LSU and Alabama reached it together and the Tide shoved LSU the wrong way.

Back to the pack the Tigers went while Alabama continued its stroll toward dynasty status, Notre Dame now alone in its way.