It has turned the knees of All-Americans to goo. It has caused coaches to lose their coaching minds.
It only happens at a special space at a special time. LSU can be up, LSU can be down, but LSU's best weapon remains ... sunset.
Actually, it's what comes after the sun sets. Dark. That combined with Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night is something loud, strange and holy. There is noise in stadiums everywhere from Eugene to Tuscaloosa. Only in Baton Rouge is there a living, breathing being lurking in its grand, old stadium.
"Tiger Stadium is haunted," former LSU player John Ed Bradley said, "and all the ghosts favor the home team."
This is an issue this week because for the first time in 50 years, two top five teams in Tiger Stadium kick off -- when else? -- at night on Saturday. No. 1 Florida and No. 4 LSU meet in what, for now, is the biggest game of the college football season if for no other reason than recent history. Since 2006, the winner of this game has won the national championship.
LSU has won its first five, rising from No. 11 in the preseason to within shouting distance of No. 1. The Tigers are 99th in offense and won last week at Georgia with the help of a bogus excessive celebration penalty. That seems laughable at LSU where every game involves excessive celebration. LSU has won 32 consecutive Saturday night games and is 45-4 at night this decade.
"There's a reason," said the man responsible for 21 of 32 wins, "to believe there won't be enough tickets to go around."
That's Les Miles' cheeky idea of hyperbole. LSU's coach will have enough on his mind figuring out how to beat the defending national champions who also sport the nation's longest winning streak at 14 games. The last time these teams met in Baton Rouge two years ago, the third-largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history witnessed Miles losing said coaching mind.
That night "Crazy Les" went for it five times on fourth down, making all five in a 28-24 win. When tailback Jacob Hester scored the winning touchdown with 69 seconds left, it seemed like heaven, hell and, certainly, the bayou came undone.
Later in that season, Demetrius Byrd caught the winning touchdown against Auburn with a second left in a night game. Once again, something close to an earthquake shook the Mississippi River flood plain in a 30-24 win.
"I suspect there will be some similarities [on Saturday]," Miles said.
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Those are mere numbers. Feel the mood that Tiger Stadium creates at night. Bear Bryant once called Tiger Stadium "the worst place in the world for a visiting team." P.A. announcer Dan Borne drops the checkered flag on 92,000 maniacs when he proclaims, "It's Saturday night in Death Valley ..." shortly before kickoff.
Games were moved to night time decades ago to keep them out of the oppressive Louisiana heat of the day. So why does it feel more humid at night? Taste the andouille and fried gator -- yes, the actual animal -- as you maneuver through a massive tailgate. Stick your arm in that cage and try to pet Mike the Tiger as he is paraded around the field. On second thought ...
Someone once compared the noise level in Tiger Stadium to a 747 taking off or a Who concert.
Those two events are background noise compared to the real thing. You actually need earplugs when watching football.
"What's it worth on the scoreboard? I don't know. It's worth something," former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo said. "It puts points on the board. If they've done everything right going into it, the defense will play better and the offense will play better and it will be reflected on the scoreboard."
The mortal lock that was Florida for the national championship is now vulnerable not only because of Tim Tebow's concussion, but also because Tiger Stadium is going to bring it. In the 2007 meeting, Tebow threw for two touchdowns and ran for another but was only 12 of 26 passing.
"If it's [noise] a factor, Tim won't play ..., " Urban Meyer said considering the effect on his banged up quarterback. "If noise is bothering Tim, Tim won't be in the game. That's means he's still symptomatic."
If Tebow can't play, the alternative is redshirt sophomore John Brantley, who would be making his first start.
"The issue becomes obviously the crowd noise," DiNardo said. "The not-so-obvious is the 40-second clock within the crowd noise. That's what becomes the most difficult to manage. You know the old expression the game slows down (for a veteran)? The 40-second clock won't slow down Saturday night."
|The last time Florida came to Tiger Stadium it was greeted by an amped-up, capacity crowd. (Getty Images)|
"What are we doing?" DiNardo said mimicking the typical reaction, "selling out [to television]?"
The last Saturday night loss at home was in 2002, 31-0 to Alabama. The Tigers are 56-10 at home overall this decade, 45 of those victories have been at night.
In a way, not much has changed since the last top five matchup in Baton Rouge. In 1959, with LSU coming off a national championship, Billy Cannon scored the only touchdown of the game against No. 3 Ole Miss in a 7-3 win that propelled the Cannon to the Heisman Trophy.
Cannon broke seven tackles on the twisting, turning 89-yard punt return that clinched the Heisman for him and a legacy for LSU. Those who were there still talk about how loud the 67,000 fans were that night.
"Once you win the national championship, the fans are never satisfied until you do that again," said Joe Dean, LSU's legendary former athletic director. "Now you gotta win it, you know? If you don't reach that level, there are always some fans on these talk shows."
That kind of sums up where we are this week. The program has won two titles this decade and is in the top five this week but you'd never know it. The insanely loyal LSU fans, or at least a portion of them, are hung up on the sputtering offense or a slow start by tailback Charles Scott or the near upset at Mississippi State.
Or all of the above.
Who wins on Saturday?
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If not for an excessive celebration penalty against Georgia that has taken up the SEC consciousness this week, the historic matchup might not be taking place. Now that it has, you want to talk excessive celebration? Show up about 4 p.m. on Friday when they open the campus to RVs.
Why not earlier? Believe it or not, there has to be some room for the actual purpose of the university.
"There are students here," LSU play-by-play man Jim Hawthorne said. "People here know how to have a good time. Once you begin to have success, it kind of snow balls into mythical proportions."
There is nothing mystical about it when you consider good teams play well whatever time of day. In 1992, a Colorado State team with Meyer as its receivers coach won at LSU 17-14. That was against a Curley Hallman team that went 2-9. As recently as 2000, Alabama-Birmingham beat Nick Saban's first team 13-10 at night.
"We went down there and beat them and the stadium wasn't a factor," Meyer said. "That's because the team wasn't very good. What makes LSU [is] the environment and the fans and those guys wearing the jerseys. They're really good players."
Good players who somehow get worse during the day. The Tigers are only 11-6 in daylight at home during this decade and 21-25-3 since 1960. So let the big orange blob in the sky take its place below the horizon. That seems to cure all of LSU's deficiencies.
"I know that LSU has looked sluggish so far this year. I know its offense hasn't pulled it together yet," Bradley said via e-mail.
A noted author and journalist, Bradley was a center on the 1979 team who wrote a memoir of his time at the school, It Never Rains In Tiger Stadium.
"We're going to see a different Tiger team come Saturday night -- a very different team. The crowd will be insane. And we'll see the LSU players respond the way they usually do when it gets dark down on the bayou."