LSU’s Wild Ride to the Big Game
As soon as LSU conquered the land’s toughest football conference last Saturday, the Tigers and their loyal pack were resigned to the hard truth that a possible BCS crown had already been lost. SEC champions for the first time since its last national championship in 2003, LSU knew it wouldn’t be enough. A computer–in conjunction with writers and coaches–had decided that a couple of one loss teams, West Virginia and Missouri, were superior to the twice-downed-in-triple-overtime Tigers. And that was that.
Only a miracle could save the Tigers. Actually two.
Check that, two and a half.
Miracle number one came in the form of the formidable Oklahoma Sooners. Oklahoma too had seen its title hopes crushed after a loss at Texas Tech. Oklahoma still found its way to the Big 12 championship game, where the perennial conference power-Sooners faced Missouri, a team it had already beaten by ten points earlier in the season. Accordingly Oklahoma was favored entering the rematch with the top-ranked Tigers. They pummeled Missouri for a second time, this bout by three touchdowns, which ultimately raised the question: which occurrence was more miraculous–Oklahoma beating the number one team in the country or the number one team in the country being Missouri? Subjectivity aside, Missouri was out but all that meant was Ohio State was in.
LSU needed miracle number two, the true miracle, to have a realistic shot of leapfrogging the five teams necessary for securing second place in the final BCS standings. The game in question was #2 West Virginia hosting unranked Pittsburgh. Also known as “The Backyard Brawl”, WVU-Pitt is traditionally adequately summed up by its joint-nickname. The key word being “traditionally”. This season West Virginia, led by quarterback and Heisman-candidate Pat White, had staked its claim as a national contender while Pitt had languished as Big East bottom-feeders. With the line Las Vegas had set, West Virginia by 29 points, it appeared that a backyard beat-down was in the cards. Didn’t happen. The Panthers shocked the mortified Mountaineers and their rugged fans, 13-9. By the time LSU’s charter flight from Atlanta had landed in Baton Rouge, the table was set.
What needed to happen next was for the Tigers to get the official invitation to dinner–a summons that would only be proposed at the behest of a computer.
Due to the convoluted nature of the BCS mathematical formula and the fact that the entire system was being tested by a handful of teams all vying for the desired permutation that would spit them out in the top two, the human element was going to be crucial. Since the polls (Harris and Coaches) represent two-thirds of the BCS compilation, the six computer rankings used as the other third of the BCS formula were going to hold far less weight. As long as there was a consensus between polls on the number two team in the country, the BCS do-dad would likely concur.
So LSU had to wait for one more small miracle by putting its fate in the hands of the voters, who as we all know can be fickle at times. One of four teams–LSU, Georgia, Oklahoma or Virginia Tech–would have to be number two. Voters tend to stick by the guiding principle of “it’s not about losing, but rather when you lose”. In respect to the teams LSU was contending with the Tigers couldn’t feel very confident considering they were the most recent of the four to be defeated, and at home no less on the day after Thanksgiving. Oklahoma last lost on November 17; Virginia Tech on October 25; and Georgia way back on October 6. However, with a little deeper digging you could toss aside all conventional wisdom.
Oklahoma lost its two games to unranked teams (Colorado and Texas Tech) and only beat three ranked teams (Texas and twice Missouri). Virginia Tech lost to LSU by 41 points at Tiger Stadium. And Georgia, although beating four ranked opponents (including Kentucky, who beat LSU), couldn’t get by Tennessee, which was precisely what prevented them from gaining a head to head shot against the Tigers for the SEC championship.
The resume of LSU dwarfed those of its three competitors. Of the Tigers’ 11 wins, six were against ranked teams (Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee). Each of their two losses came in triple-overtime in true SEC-blood games against Kentucky and Arkansas. And to compound the drama, in the hours leading up to the SEC championship against the Volunteers, LSU was thrust into pondering life in the near future without its head coach Les Miles (who had been granted permission to speak with his alma mater, Michigan, about its coaching vacancy) and its defensive coordinator Bo Pellini (who appears headed to Nebraska). Then the Tigers had to play the game itself without their starting quarterback. The injured-Matt Flynn was replaced by sophomore Ryan Perrilloux, who in an MVP-performance, won the game despite playing through an injury on his throwing hand sustained during the contest.
LSU’s immediate reward for reclaiming the SEC? A birth in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Any other year an LSU appearance in the Sugar Bowl would have the state of Louisiana thumping. After Saturday’s game though, the sugar wasn’t tasting so sweet. While the Tigers were assured of playing a BCS game in the Superdome, it wasn’t the one they had envisioned throughout the ’07 season. This year, so it happened, was New Orleans’ turn to host the BCS National Championship and it sure seemed like the Tigers were going to miss the party.
Not until the finishing touches were put on one predictable and one epic choke, and not until those chokes were assessed by the voting powers-that-be were Tiger fans finally rewarded with that invitation they’d been expecting since two-a-days began last summer. An invitation to travel into their backyard and compete for a national title.
While the reality is LSU will likely win the national championship in a de facto home game, the simplicity of one winner-take-all game that has evolved from the chaos of an unprecedented and enthralling SEC campaign is almost an anticlimax for LSU fans. Between two triple-overtime losses and three other games in which the Tigers rose from the ashes (against Florida, Auburn and Alabama, all games in which the Tigers came from behind in the waning minutes or seconds) Tiger fans must feel as if they’ve been stuck in a centrifuge since the beginning of October; they may no longer be plastered against the wall but their heads are still spinning.
Once they regain their collective equilibrium they’re going to realize that no one game could compare to the five heart-stopping battles they waged within their own conference. I chronicled one of those struggles, the Auburn game, which I attended while the Red Sox were simultaneously making a fierce ALCS comeback against the Indians. Much like LSU after the Arkansas game, the Red Sox were all but written off after falling behind three games to one against Cleveland. When the seemingly impossible finally happened and the Sox clinched the pennant after three straight wins, Red Sox Nation gleefully looked ahead to the grandest stage in baseball, the World Series. But deep down we all knew the true trials of willpower were behind us. All that laid ahead was business. The business of winning a championship.
LSU ran the gauntlet that was the SEC this year. Like the Red Sox in the ALCS, the Tigers escaped battered and bruised if not preciously close to knocked out, but they escaped nonetheless. Boston, after finally putting away the Indians in Game 7 at Fenway Park, took four straight from the Colorado Rockies to win its second World Series in four years.
Expect the Tigers to follow in kind with their second in five.
It’ll all take place on January 7 in N’Awlins, in a Dome inhabited by Saints but at times destined for Tigers. And even if the game doesn’t end up shaving additional years off the lives of LSU fans, only when the purple and gold confetti starts flying will the path traveled be fully appreciated.