Tigers-Ags rivalry runs deeper than the annual game

GOOD NABERS:  LSU got a big game last Saturday from Malik Nabers, who collected 129 yards on seven receptions in a 41-10 romp over UAB. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — When LSU and Texas A&M kick off tonight, it’ll be the next chapter in a rivalry that’s picked up steam in recent years.

There was the mind-blowing seven-overtime 2018 epic, won 74-72 at home by the Aggies. LSU’s response came in Tiger Stadium, a year later, with the first appearance of the Joe “Burreaux” jersey in Senior Night introductions followed by a 50-7 thrashing handed out by the eventual national champions.

Just last year, the Tigers gave lame duck coach Ed Orgeron a happy sendoff by surprising the 14th-ranked Aggies 27-24 in Tiger Stadium.

LSU is 8-2 in its Southeastern Conference contests against A&M since the Aggies joined the SEC. There’s an abundant collection of lore from prior matchups in a series the Tigers lead 35-22-3.

The 6 o’clock kickoff at Kyle Field is 2022’s on-field collision, but it’s not the first battle, or the most important, the two SEC West rivals have waged this year. Even if somehow, the struggling Aggies (4-7, 1-6, on a six-game SEC skid) shock the sixth-ranked Tigers (9-2, 6-1), LSU is still headed to the SEC Championship Game next Saturday in Atlanta.

The first confrontation came on Feb. 2, when Harold Perkins signed his letter of intent to play for LSU after originally committing to A&M. Perkins was ranked as the No. 8 player in the nation and a five-star recruit, according to 247Sports. This season and for at least 1-2 more, he’s a dynamic factor for the Tigers and a missing link at A&M.

Both head coaches, the Aggies’ Jimbo Fisher and LSU’s Brian Kelly, remember that recruiting battle well.

Fisher recalled something else about watching the freshman phenom play in high school.

“Harold’s very gifted,” Fisher said Monday. “As great as he’s playing on defense, if you watched him in high school, you could argue he was just as great of an offensive player as he was a defensive player. I think he averaged 10-yards-per-carry. Was really athletic, ball-skilled. Really good basketball player. You could just see a natural athlete.”

While Perkins spurned the Aggies, Max Johnson did the opposite: The former LSU signal caller earned the starting spot on Fisher’s offense, but has missed most of the season with a broken hand.

Freshman Conner Weigman has taken the reigns and found limited success, though he’s been hampered by the absence of starting running back Devon Achane, who’s missed the last two weeks with a foot injury. He’s been spelled by former LSU-target and Baton Rouge native Le’Veon Moss, who posted 78 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries in a lackluster 20-3 win over Massachussetts last week.

Fisher felt “very optimistic” that both Achane and freshman wide receiver Evan Stewart would play in the season finale.

LSU may also be without its starting running back in Josh Williams, who missed last week against UAB with a knee sprain. Kelly said he’s “made progress” throughout the week, but was ultimately noncommittal on Williams’ status for the game.

Noah Cain turned in a three-touchdown performance in the 41-10 win last week over UAB in Williams’ absence, and may have earned himself a larger share of snaps moving forward, regardless of Williams’ status.

“I think Noah Cain has helped himself,” Kelly said at his Monday press conference. “He’s not flashy, I don’t think he’s going to be a guy that makes a ton of people miss, but does he really have to? He plays with low pads, he’s physical, he’s smart, he catches the ball coming out of the backfield. He’s reliable in pass protection, and he’s tough to bring down. I think I just mentioned four or five things that are pretty good to have.”

The bottom line: LSU and Texas A&M are two programs headed in very different directions. The Tigers have their sights set on a shot at the SEC championship and a playoff berth, while notching the 17th 10-win season in program history. The Aggies are limping into the offseason, ready to end their miserable 2022 campaign, regroup, reconsider and recover. And, of course, recruit.

Fisher knows just how important a win against LSU could be.

“It’s huge. Again, the future and what we have here is extremely bright, where we’re going and what we’re doing, playing together and being together,” Fisher said. “I think for the seniors it would be a great sendoff for the last time they walk in that stadium.”

Contact Ryne at rgberthelot@gmail.com