LSU: Eyes on the Prize

LSU fans are seeing crimson over former coach Nick Saban's return to college football with Southeastern Conference rival Alabama.

``Every time we go out some place, it's all we hear from people around Baton Rouge: 'We just hope y'all win against Alabama,''' Tigers quarterback Matt Flynn said after a recent practice.

But for second-ranked LSU, this season should be about a lot more than a Nov. 3 showdown in Tuscaloosa. A national title could be at stake if the Tigers can win perhaps the toughest games on their schedule against defending champion Florida and SEC West Division rival Auburn.

That sets up a rather interesting and sometimes entertaining balancing act for head coach Les Miles, who seems to delight in stoking the passions of LSU's rabid fan base.

He's helped spice up the rivalry with Alabama, even dropping an expletive during a reference to the Crimson Tide during an offseason event with boosters. He's shown an aversion to mentioning Saban by name. Yet he can't afford to have his players getting too wrapped up in one late-season contest, and he knows it.

``The issue is being prepared way in advance of that game and putting ourselves in position so we can play to win a championship,'' Miles said. ``Certainly, that's a game, OK? I do understand that rivalry. And I do understand the familiarity that their coach has with LSU and I think our guys understand it as well. But it's really just one game. It's a game that, like the rest of them, we need to win. But we'll play that game when we get to it.''

Miles, perhaps unfairly, has been working in Saban's shadow since arriving in Baton Rouge.
Even as LSU won 22 games and two bowl games in the past two seasons, skeptics wasted little time pointing out that the Tigers' dominant lineups were comprised of players Saban had brought in before jetting to Miami for a two-year stint in the NFL.

LSU's football program has won two national titles since its founding in 1893 - one of them under Saban during the 2003 season.

Now that Saban is with Alabama, Miles' support has at last begun to surge in Louisiana, and Miles could consolidate his backing even more with a victory over the Crimson Tide, followed by a national championship of his own.

Generally, a team can't lose four starters to the first round of the NFL draft and expect to be as good the following season. Gone are quarterback JaMarcus Russell, receivers Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis, and safety LaRon Landry, among others.

But the Tigers remain well-stocked, particularly on defense, where tackle Glen Dorsey has returned, even though he might have been a fifth LSU player picked in the first round of the draft had he turned pro.

On offense, much will depend on how Flynn handles stepping in as full-time starter. History is on the Tigers' side. Flynn's only previous start resulted in a rout of Miami in the Peach Bowl two seasons ago. Also, LSU won its last national title with quarterback Matt Mauck, who like Flynn was not flashy and had to watch and learn on the sidelines for all but his final season in purple and gold.

``JaMarcus Russell had physical skills and talent that were superior to any quarterback in the country ... he could sling it a mile, so we're not going to look that way,'' Miles said. ``We hope that maybe we can be a little different, maybe a little more productive, more efficient and win a championship.''

Flynn exudes confidence, suggesting that backing up this year's No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft prepared him well for his shot as a starter.

``I've learned a lot about myself, I've learned a lot about football,'' Flynn said. ``I feel like I'm kind of a coach out on the field.''

LSU has one of its top receivers back in Early Doucet, a starter last season. A new starter will be speedy, young and talented Brandon LaFell, who caught only five passes last year, but had two long touchdowns. A host of others are competing for time in three- and four-receiver formations, including sophomores Chris Mitchell and Jared Mitchell, and freshman Terrance Toliver.

Miles expects the running game to improve with the maturity sophomores Keiland Williams and Charles Scott. Versatile fullback Jacob Hester, a heady player whom the coaching staff loves, returns for his final year. Redshirt freshman running back Richard Murphy has impressed coaches with his efforts during spring practice.

Tyson Jackson, Marlon Favorite and Kirston Pittman will complement Dorsey on a ferocious defensive line.

All three starting linebackers - Luke Sanders, Darry Beckwith and Ali Highsmith - return as well.
And while LSU lost starting safeties Landry and Jesse Daniels, new starting safety Craig Steltz played well whenever he was in as a reserve last season, intercepting four passes.

The strength of LSU's defense is what gives the Tigers' the potential to vie for a national title again, and it was one of the reasons Dorsey returned.

``I love the team and we have prepared to be in that position,'' Dorsey said. ``We understand the time is now. We have all the talent, the support staff and the coaches to do that.''

by: Anthony White - - Email Us

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