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The Tiger Unleashed

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Nick Saban and every football franchise better watch their backs, LSU is a force to be reckoned with

NOL Oct07_MedRes_Page_32_Image_0001.jpgAs a topic of discussion in Louisiana, football is on par with great food, passionate religion, well-blended drinks, and questionable politics, but winning football is far more rarely found. Through the decades, the successes and travails of the New Orleans Saints, the Tulane Green Wave, the LSU Tigers and various other local teams have unified the disparate parts of this state. Louisiana has most often found character exemplified on the two-yard line of Tiger Stadium rather than on the steps of its capitol.

Surprisingly, when it is needed most, in this era when the reputation of the state’s politicians are either dwindling or exploding in the national spotlight, the football coming out of Baton Rouge is at an all-time high. Ranked No. 2 nationally for the first time since 1959, LSU did not disappoint fans with consecutive drubbings of its first three foes by a combined total of 147–7 (the lone touchdown appeared to have been a fluke, a questionable call at that) and is showing promise of returning a third national championship to their home state.

Helmed by a brace of brilliant quarterbacks, led by Matt Flynn (who decimated Miami at the end of the 2005 season) and reinforced by national phenomin- waiting Ryan Perrilloux (who in approximately 70 minutes of play in the first three games completed nearly 82 percent of his passes and amassed 473 yards and seven touchdowns), the Tiger offense has appeared nearly unstoppable. Outproducing its first three opponents by 76 first downs to 29, the Tigers’ offense also features a powerfully huge front line (including the monstrous 6’7″, 371-pound Herman Johnson, accompanied by two more 300-plus-pounders Carnell Stewart and Ciron Black, along with Lyle Hitt and Brett Helms) and as many as five high-quality running backs— Jacob Hester, Keiland Williams, Charles Scott, Richard Murphy and Trindon Holliday—from which to choose. The team carries a stable of wide receivers, including Early Doucet, Brandon LaFell, Demetrius Byrd, Jared Mitchell and Terrance Tolliver, who are ably replacing two first-round 2006 NFL draft picks.

The defense is arguably the best since the Chinese Bandits of the hallowed 1958 champions, with defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, linebacker Ali Highsmith and defensive backs Craig Steltz, Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon (all seniors), looking to exceed the 2006 starting offense’s remarkable tally of three first-rounders to be selected in the NFL draft. The rest of the defensive front, featuring ends Tyson Jackson, Rahim Allen, Kirston Pittman, and tackles Marlon Favorite and Charles Alexander, are proving to be equally fearsome, so much so that the chance to match the Bandits’ astounding record of holding nine opponents to seven or fewer points per game is already a third of the way accomplished.

As it stands, the Tigers are entering a neck and neck run to the finish line with nemesis USC. However, as usual, while the men of Troy will be trying to hold off teams with names like the Beavers and the Ducks, LSU will face a tougher uphill schedule with the likes of a Spurrier-led South Carolina, national champion Florida, resurgent Kentucky, Auburn (albeit struggling early on), always-fierce Ole Miss, and the consistently excellent Arkansas. South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas will all have to survive in the roar of Tiger Stadium, a notable advantage for LSU.

Of course, LSU will also, at the very beginning of November, have to face what is ordinarily its perennial bogeyman, the Alabama Crimson Tide. But this year is special, (perhaps the only showdown reminiscent of Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader to be found in sports this year) as the father of LSU’s football renaissance, Nick Saban, welcomes his former prized program into the angry confines of Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was Saban who yanked the Tigers out of the flaming pit of mediocrity and resuscitated them to heights not enjoyed since the days of Paul Dietzel. Having repudiated his own creation for the more jaded and glossy NFL, he now returns, surely somewhat humbled but not visibly so, with the aim of casting the same magic for the one program that, under Bear Bryant, used to regularly stand in the way of the Tigers’ higher glory when they were led by the Ahab-esque Charlie McClendon. Alabama still holds the rights to wins or ties in more than a full two-thirds of the games they have played against LSU since 1902, a collective 21–42–5 in that time. It is no accident, though, that the Tigers’ rise to national prominence has coincided with their own dominance of Alabama just over the last seven years when they have been 6–1 against them. Since 2000, Saban’s first year, LSU has enjoyed four Top 10 finishes, including a national championship. All that would not have been possible if Alabama had been a stumbling block each season instead of a stepping stone.

There is something distinctly Louisianian about a Saturday evening at Tiger Stadium. Our state, cobbled together from the traditional south (above the Red River), the plains (in its west), the wide and dark marsh, swamp and bayous (in its south and east) and its gloried queen city (New Orleans and its surrounding parishes), sends its heart and soul from all corners in the form of tens of thousands of impassioned, seething, ready-to-fight individuals from all walks of life who hurl themselves surging and roaring through the autumn nights until the foes who have dared to invade have been vanquished. It indicates a strength and determination in the face of adversity, and a ferociousness when called upon, that have marked this region’s survival for more than 300 years. Nick Saban, USC and America’s football nation should beware, because this year, Louisiana is wanting, if not expecting, a national championship more than ever—and with its being played in New Orleans, they just might take it.