LSU’s conference championship dreams are gone, but it still has lofty goals.
Targeting another top-five finish, the 10th-ranked Tigers return to SEC play Saturday when they go for their fifth straight victory at Mississippi.
Although a 24-15 loss at then-No. 3 Alabama on Nov. 7 eliminated it from contention for in the Dec. 5 conference championship, LSU is seeking to finish in the top five nationally for the third time in four seasons.
“I think for me it’s the opportunity to play well,” coach Les Miles said of the Tigers’ final two regular-season games versus Ole Miss and Arkansas. “The finish that we’d all like is to be a team ranked five and above and to be an elite team in this conference. That’s how we see ourselves.”
LSU is hoping to finish its season with sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson taking the snaps. Jefferson, who sprained his right ankle in the Alabama loss, was sidelined for last week’s 24-16 win over Louisiana Tech, but returned to practice Monday.
“We expect Jordan to play,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “He sat out last week and we are fully expecting him to play.”
If Jefferson can’t go, sophomore Jarrett Lee would get a second straight start. Against the Bulldogs last Saturday, Lee completed only 7 of 22 passes for 105 yards, but he did throw a 38-yard touchdown to senior wide receiver Brandon LaFell.
“He’d like to play better,” Miles said of Lee. “I think he understands how to, but again, we’re fortunate that he competes and fights for us. I think you’ll find that he’ll play better as we go forward.”
Lee started against Mississippi in the teams’ last meeting, but injured his right ankle in the second quarter and was replaced by Jefferson, who completed 10 of 20 passes for 129 yards in the 31-13 loss in Baton Rouge last Nov. 22.
Rebels quarterback Jevan Snead was 16 of 25 for 274 yards and two TDs in that matchup as Mississippi snapped a six-game overall losing streak to LSU and improved to 38-55-4 in the all-time series.
Snead, who needs 17 yards to join Eli Manning as the only quarterbacks in school history to throw for 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons, will look to lead the Rebels to their first home win in this series since a 37-31 overtime victory Oct. 31, 1998.
Another big game from senior running back Dexter McCluster could help Mississippi (7-3, 3-3) achieve that goal.
McCluster posted program records of 282 rushing yards and 324 all-purpose yards in last week’s 42-17 win over Tennessee.
“For 170 pounds he is special,” Nutt said of McCluster, who also rushed for a career-best four TDs en route to SEC offensive player of the week honors. “He can make the first one miss. He has game breaking speed. As you can see, he won’t just run out of bounds on a long run. He’ll cut back against the grain and separate to get into the end zone.”
McCluster managed only 33 yards on 14 carries last season versus LSU, and will face a Tigers defense that hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown in its last six games.
LSU’s running game took a major hit in the loss to the Crimson Tide when leading rusher Charles Scott was lost for the season with a fractured collarbone, but senior Keiland Williams stepped in last Saturday and ran for 116 yards and two TDs.
“It definitely gives you more confidence when you are out there knowing that you are not going to be pulled after one or two carries,” Williams said after making his first start of the season.
Williams had 10-yard touchdown run in the Tigers’ last visit to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium - a 41-24 victory Nov. 17, 2007.