Without sophomore safety Eric Reid, LSU probably wouldn’t have beaten Alabama.
His interception at the goal line might have been the play of the year in the SEC.
Reid didn’t play at all Friday against Arkansas because of an injury to his quadriceps, and LSU pummeled Arkansas 41-17.
Senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson’s ability to run the option was the offensive edge the Tigers needed to squeeze past the Crimson Tide.
Jefferson didn’t play at all in LSU's first four games, including its 40-27 win over No. 3 Oregon, while serving his suspension.
The Tigers were missing five starters in their 45-10 romp over Auburn back on Oct. 22.
Junior receiver Russell Shepard served an NCAA-mandated suspension the first three games.
One of the Tigers’ best offensive linemen, guard Josh Dworacyzk, hasn’t played at all this season with a knee injury, and junior center P.J. Lonergan was hit-and-miss during the middle part of the schedule with injuries.
Notice a trend?
The No. 1 Tigers have suffered the kind of injuries and suspensions this season that would have crippled most teams.
But this isn’t most teams.
LSU’s depth is staggering and one of the main reasons the Tigers are unbeaten heading into their SEC championship game matchup with Georgia on Saturday.
It’s like Alabama center William Vlachos said prior to their big showdown back on Nov. 5. The Tigers run one group of athletic defensive linemen out there for one series.
And then on the next series, there’s a whole new group out there.
Here’s the catch: You can’t tell the difference.
“That’s the standard that’s been set here,” said LSU sophomore defensive end Sam Montgomery, who’s tied for the team lead with eight sacks. “If you want to play on this team, you’ve got to earn your way onto the field. There aren’t any free passes.
“There’s always somebody on this team pushing to take your spot. They’ve recruited great players, but we also have great competition on the practice field. All that does is carry over to the games.”
One of LSU’s hottest runners of late has been freshman Kenny Hilliard, who burst onto the scene in that Auburn game when Spencer Ware was serving a one-game suspension along with cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon.
Up until that game, Hilliard had been listed No. 4 on the depth chart and had carried the ball just five times all season.
Now he might be the Tigers’ most effective power runner, although they come at you in waves in the second half with a fresh set of legs.
“The thing with this team is we recruit you,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “You come in to make a contribution, and we put you on the field, and we give you an assignment and a place. If you're talented and you're capable as a freshman, like a Tyrann Mathieu or Patrick Peterson, or for that matter, an Anthony Johnson or a Kenny Hilliard, we send you to the field, and we expect you to play big. We expect you to play as you've been trained to play.”
In a lot of ways, Miles views it as an apprenticeship.
After all, how many teams could lose players the caliber of Peterson, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and tackle Drake Nevis and come back even stronger the next year on defense?
That’s exactly what the Tigers have done this season, and 13 of their top 22 players on the defensive two-deep are sophomores or younger.
“Mo Claiborne played opposite Patrick Peterson,” Miles said. “Now it's Tyrann Mathieu playing opposite Mo Claiborne. There's an implied peer pressure, if you will, that says this is how we do it, this is what we do and that you come of age when you step on the field.”
That peer pressure ensures that younger players are ready, but more importantly, it creates the kind of depth that overwhelms teams in the second half.
“They have the mindset of running the ball down your throat,” Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas said following Friday’s game.
That and the mindset of suffocating you defensively in the second half.
LSU’s first-team defense has now gone six straight games without allowing a touchdown in the second half.
With Reid out last week, the Tigers retooled their secondary with Mathieu moving to safety.
Never mind that Arkansas was the SEC’s top offense coming into the game with the best corps of receivers the Tigers had faced all season.
The results were the same.
“It's a good team to be a part of because week in and week out there won’t be any letdown if anybody gets hurt or anybody isn't playing that week because we have so much depth and talent,” LSU senior safety Brandon Taylor said. “Backups have just as much talent as the starters.
“We just put somebody else in.”