For me, the most painful part about the loss to LSU was just how close we came...not just to winning, but to winding up in an upper tier bowl that would have made a major "we've arrived" statement to recruits, opposing teams and fans nationwide.
Thanks to Ole Miss' straight-out-of-the-Houston-Nutt-playbook loss to Mississippi State, the Hogs were looking at a guaranteed Cotton Bowl slot, if not the Capital One Bowl, with a win in Baton Rouge. Think about that for a second - for all the ups and downs of this season, we would have essentially placed 3rd in the SEC. Ahead of Ole Miss, ahead of LSU, ahead of everybody not named Alabama or Florida. Instead, we're in the middle of the pack with everyone else, wondering what might have been with a defensive stand here or a made field goal there.
Although the raised expectations are what make the loss the hardest, as I reflect back on the season I'm realizing that it was probably never meant to be. Bill Parcells likes to say "you are what your record says you are", and in this case I think the Hogs' record is exactly right. A Capital One Bowl berth would have been a bit of a (very nice) fluke...all things considered, we're a 7-5 team, for better or for worse.
At 7-5 we're a few big notches behind Florida and Alabama, but only a play or two behind LSU and Mississippi. I honestly think we would have beaten both of those teams in Fayetteville. At 7-5 we're noticeably better than Mississippi State or Vanderbilt, but otherwise at about the same level as South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn. All those teams have impressive strengths and glaring weaknesses, and all of those teams are capable of beating just about anyone on a good day, but in the end they're all 7-5. Just like we are.
The good news is that we're at the upper end of 7-5...with a more favorable bounce (or referee's call) here or there we easily could have been 9-3. But, 9-3 teams make those plays and we didn't...so, 7-5. It's disappointing knowing how close we came to something bigger and better, but we've come a long way and - most importantly - are on the right track for something more next season. In 2010, we most definitely should be more than a 7-5 team and that's cause for excitement. But, in 2009 we are what our record says we are.