January 08, 2012

The 2011 LSU Tigers are the second Bayou Bengals squad to make a title run under Les Miles. Baton Rouge-based teams coached by The Hat are no strangers to fine results and good fortune on the field, but up until now there's been a reliable stumble -- two of them, in fact -- in each of the Tigers' most successful seasons. The 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2010 teams all finished with two losses, making an 11-2 record (12-2 in that rip-snorting '07 title-winning campaign) Miles' apparent ceiling. Two losses, always two losses. Can we really be blamed for cheekily predicting in the preseason that LSU would once again hoist a certain crystal ball in New Orleans, but become the country's first three-loss BCS champion along the way?

The '07 squad had some realigning to do after an '06 season that concluded with a Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame. Gone was offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, bound for Florida State. Snatched away in the draft were Jamarcus Russell, Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and LaRon Landry. The schedule was one that would do LSU no favors, featuring No. 9 Virginia Tech, No. 14 South Carolina, No. 7 Florida, No. 18 Kentucky (hey, remember that?), No. 19 Auburn and No. 18 Alabama, the last four of those in consecutive weeks. And it wasn't the best teams on that list who would be the Tigers' temporary undoing. A Wildcats team riding Andre Woodson into the top 20 and an unranked Arkansas squad got the better of LSU, the latter at home, both in triple overtime.

Missouri's demise at the hands of Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game and West Virginia's brain-boggling upset by Pitt in the 100th Backyard Brawl sent LSU to the title game anyway, but one other opponent came perilously close to canceling that trip before it was even a possibility: No. 7 Florida, itself coming off a national title in 2006. That 28-24 home win was fueled by fourth-down conversions, a fake field goal and a last-minute touchdown scramble by Jacob Hester.

We're big believers around here in the wheel of fortune, that the universe is random and that played a hundred times on a hundred parallel planes, those Kentucky and Arkansas losses would come up heads for LSU just as many times as tails. The three top-tier offenses on the Tigers' plate in 2007 handed them their two losses and a near disaster of a third. LSU's performances against its best competition in 2011 has been a different story entirely.

Again, there were necessary offseason adjustments to be made. Patrick Peterson, Kelvin Sheppard and Stevan Ridley were spirited away by the NFL. A preseason altercation and subsequent criminal investigation benched starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson before the season even began. Again there was upheaval at the offensive coordinator post, with newly-hired Steve Kragthorpe stepping down and reducing his duties after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The schedule, again, was a formidable one, with a loaded SEC West slate augmented by neutral-site and road dates with No. 3 Oregon and No. 16 West Virginia. This year's Tigers hurdled all obstacles but one with the greatest of ease.

The Tigers haven't needed any on-field "trickeration" to pull out wins this season. (Has that made it into the OED yet?) The Tigers' one fake punt -- against Florida, perhaps for old times' sake -- was a roaring success, leading to a 44-yard touchdown run by our favorite Bayou Bengal, Aussie punter Brad Wing, that was ultimately called back for taunting. (We will never, ever forgive the refs involved for this, and neither should you, no matter who you cheer for on Saturdays. Let the punter have his moment, guys.) The Tigers still play clean ball, improving on a No. 2 turnover margin ranking in '07 to lead the nation this season. That forbidding defense has only tightened the screws, allowing 20 points per game in '07 and less than 11 in '11. On paper, the Tigers' only close games have come against Mississippi State and Alabama, and that State game wasn't as contested as it might look. An entirely dreary affair, it consisted largely of the Tigers metaphorically sitting as a group upon the collective heads of the Bulldogs until State gave up and ate mud. The top three offenses to challenge the Bayou Bengals threw themselves against that spooky-fast defensive unit to little avail: Oregon, which would close out the season averaging a blistering 46 points per game, scored 27 against LSU; West Virginia, averaging 38, scored 21; and Arkansas, averaging 37, managed a mere 17. So great was the margin for error this season that the stroke of fortune painting the visiting Tigers in Tuscaloosa this November in the form of four missed field goals for the Crimson Tide now seems a little superfluous, doesn't it? Play that game again a hundred times on a hundred parallel planes, and Alabama emerges victorious as often as not. A one-loss LSU team, as it turns out, would have wrapped the season here in New Orleans in January after all; it's hard to imagine the Tigers being shut out as a one-loss team with that strength of schedule and those margins of victory. The Tigers have played lockstep conservative ball all year, albeit at the speed of a dead run. Miles' clock management hasn't made national headlines or been the butt of talk radio. And the Bayou Bengals are 13-0 with one game left to play. In its own way, this 2011 team is the wackiest Tigers outfit we've ever seen, by virtue of being too good to need to be weird.

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