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blacksaint 08-13-2007 08:32 AM

Miles' path to title would be tougher than Saban's
 
Monday, August 13, 2007
Peter Finney


BATON ROUGE -- Want a debate?

As a public service, all I can do is give you one side of the argument.

My side.

And here it is: No LSU football team has been more over-rated than the one that will start the 2007 season as the consensus No. 2 club in the land.

Please don't misunderstand.

If Les Miles' Tigers manage to run the table and defeat someone (I know who you have in mind) in the BCS championship game Jan. 7 at the Superdome, it would not be the No. 1 shocker of all time.

But, to me, it would be more of a shock than what Nick Saban's Tigers did in 2003 when they started with a No. 14 ranking and wound up capturing the BCS crystal ball with a victory over Oklahoma at the Superdome.

So how did LSU this season wind up with its highest preseason ranking since 1959, a year the Tigers, to no one's surprise, opened the season ranked No. 1, which was expected because they were coming off a national championship season and 95 percent of the championship team was back in uniform?

I'll give you two reasons.

Notre Dame and Florida.

It wasn't that the Tigers finished the '06 season 11-2. It was they finished with a 41-14 pasting of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome. When you embarrass a Fighting Irish club ranked 11th on national television, history tells us you earn extra brownie points, from coast to coast, in the minds of voters who shape the rankings.

Then, a few days later in the BCS championship game, the underdog Gators didn't just beat Ohio State, a bunch some suggested might be the team of the century. The Gators took the Buckeyes apart, by the same Sugar Bowl score, 41-14.

What message did this send to those coast-to-coast voters?

The message was: Hey, maybe the SEC, top to bottom, is the best conference in the country. Let's see. Who beat Florida? Auburn did. And Auburn lost two games. You know, maybe it's tougher to get through the SEC with a perfect record than it is in the Big Ten, or the Pacific-10.

In the minds of many, other than elevating the draft status of LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, what the Sugar Bowl did was convince voters that, maybe, even though they played their toughest opponents on the road, the 2006 Tigers were the best team in the SEC.

Maybe they were.

But guess what. The 2007 Tigers that greeted the media and, later, their fans inside Tiger Stadium on Sunday, do not have Russell, linebacker LaRon Landry, wideout Dwayne Bowe and wideout Craig Davis, players taken with the first, sixth, 23rd and 30th overall picks in the NFL draft.

Offensively, that alone represents a loss of 28 touchdown passes by the quarterback, 16 touchdown catches by the receivers.

To me, it means Miles' '07 Tigers won't have the luxury of sneaking up on the enemy as Saban's Tigers did in '03. It also means Matt Flynn, whose résumé comes down to one game in three seasons, directing a 40-3 Peach Bowl victory over Miami in 2005, will be under far more pressure to deliver than Matt Mauck faced in the championship run of '03.

Sure, but aren't the '07 Tigers good enough to win with defense? Isn't the '07 defense, with folks like future high picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson, as good as any in the country, which is what pundits are saying?

It could be. It better be, that is, if you're going to run the table, which means surviving more SEC bullets than Saban's Tigers did in '03.

Last season, LSU's defense dominated lesser foes. But it was not the case in life-and-death victories over Tennessee, Ole Miss and Arkansas, when Russell's arm and special-team moments were the difference. Those were the kind of games that illustrated how tough life in the SEC can be.

As for Flynn, he'll be operating under a new coordinator, Gary Crowton, a head coach at Louisiana Tech and BYU, who's eager to impart his "vision" into Flynn, someone he calls "a pleasure to coach," someone with impressive measurements for a quarterback -- "he's 6-3, 230 and he can run a 4.6."

Ask Miles about his quarterback and he goes back to the Miami game when Flynn was the only QB standing, after Russell suffered a shoulder injury in a loss to Georgia in the SEC championship game.

"More than anything, I liked his comfort zone, his balance, how he did things he knew he could do, how he wasn't going to do things that could get you beat," Miles said.

Ask Flynn about Crowton and he said: "He gives me the freedom, audibles and such, to make the kind of decisions a quarterback wants to make to build his confidence."

Ask quarterback rusher Dorsey what he's noticed, sitting across the trench from Flynn as the kid from Tyler, Texas, settles into a spot occupied by the first player taken in the NFL draft and he said: "I like his look when he comes to the line. He's running things like he's been there a while. He's a man in charge. He's no wimp. You want to go to war with a guy like that."

So Miles, at the moment, with three recruiting classes behind him, is a man continuing to distance himself from the shadow of Saban.

You keep hearing freshmen names -- such as wideout Terrance Tolliver, safety Chad Jones, running back Richard Murphy, offensive lineman Joe Barksdale -- the kind that can help a coach's résumé.

When Miles, despite his 11-2, 11-2 getaway in Tigertown, was reminded that one survey ranked him no higher than 41st among big-time college head coaches, all he could do was grin.

"Maybe, they ranked me too high," he said.

Score one for the coach.


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