Senior Writer

Planets aligned for Oregon-LSU showdown in Lone Star State


Darron Thomas and Oregon get another shot at the SEC vs. Jordan Jefferson's Tigers on Sept. 3. (Getty Images)  
Darron Thomas and Oregon get another shot at the SEC vs. Jordan Jefferson's Tigers on Sept. 3. (Getty Images)  

BATON ROUGE, La. -- T-Bob Hebert didn't know it at the time, but the LSU players were probably the last ones consulted.

Play Oregon in the 2011 season opener? Sure.

"Why would you not, as an athlete?" said Hebert, a Tigers senior offensive lineman.

Exactly. Besides, what would the school's stance have been if the players somehow voted no?

"Well," Hebert said, "we're playing anyway."

That was the thinking then, that's the anticipation now. LSU-Oregon at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to kick off the season has become more than one of those season-opening, neutral-field eyebrow raisers. It has become historic. According to college football historian Richard Billingsley, the game marks only the third time two top-five teams have opened the season on a neutral field.

The only two other times it occurred was more than 25 years ago, according to Billingsley, who is also in charge of one of the six BCS computers. That was in consecutive Kickoff Classics, a sort of "preseason" game played at Giants Stadium over parts of three decades.

In '83, consensus No. 1 Nebraska beat No. 4 Penn State, Joe Paterno's defending national champs, 44-6. That game jump-started the Huskers' epic run to the Orange Bowl that year. Miami ended it, and college football has never been the same. The next year the Hurricanes (fourth in coaches, No. 10 in AP) were picked for the Kickoff, beating No. 1 Auburn 20-18 to begin the 1984 season.

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No one is claiming the beginning of a dynasty the night of Sept. 3, but if it's possible for things to get better for the SEC, this game might be it. The conference's quest for a sixth straight national championship gets the national television treatment in sports' newest wonder of the world -- 80,000-seat Cowboys Stadium has long been sold out.

Standing room is going for $50 a shot. Motor-home slots -- the college football equivalent of oceanfront property -- went in three minutes.

There are another five million or so reasons to play the game. LSU is getting a $3.5 million guarantee. Oregon is getting $1.75 million. In essence, this is a BCS bowl on Labor Day Weekend.

"It sets the tone for the season," said LSU's Spencer Ware, whose team ended last season in the same venue, beating Texas A&M in January's Cotton Bowl.

If that isn't enough, there is a common bond between the participants. Who wouldn't be surprised to see a few "Lyles Bowl" T-shirts in the crowd? Mentor/talent scout/non-scholarship third party/lightning rod Will Lyles sold his recruiting service to both schools.

You might have heard that both institutions have drawn the NCAA's interest because of those particular transactions.

The best thing about the game: It has legs. The Cowboys Classic is early enough and each team is strong enough, that the loser could conceivably still be in national championship contention in December.

"It's not impossible to come back from a loss in a game like that," Tom Osborne said, "but it certainly leaves you no margin for error."

Osborne, perhaps the godfather of these neutral-siters, should know. He won three Kickoff Classics then went on -- chronologically -- to play for a national championship (1983), win a Big Eight title (1988) and capture a national title (1994).

The term "classic" applied to any game is usually in the mind of the ticketholder. That old Kickoff Classic died nine years ago after a 20-year run. The late, great Pigskin Classic (1990-2002) started in Anaheim, Calif., then switched to campus and municipal locations. The Eddie Robinson Classic lasted six years (1997-2002). It featured only three top-10 teams in its history.

Similar arranged marriages exist today -- the Chick-fil-A Classic (Atlanta) and this game. LSU-Oregon represents the third year of a five-year agreement between the Cowboys and ESPN. Matchmaker Dave Brown of ESPN (also head of the Longhorn Network) finalized the deal last year.

"After playing in the Cotton Bowl, it doesn't get any better than that," Hebert said. "This one is probably going to be even bigger."

How big? These season-opening specials are usually arranged so far in advance that relevance is a crapshoot. But geography, the polls and the programs themselves have combined in a cauldron of hype to be played out in Jerry Jones' Cowboys Stadium.

Dallas/Fort Worth is a drive for most LSU fans, who have spread the word of Cowboys Stadium's opulence based on January's visit.

"It's not a stadium," said Verge Ausberry, an LSU senior associate AD who worked on the matchup. "It's a building. You're in awe."

According to Ausberry, Cowboys Stadium suites were gobbled up in 1½ days. The game has long been sold out, with LSU fans taking 37,000 of the tickets. (Oregon has taken approximately 15,000.)

Ticket prices range from $70-$250, but Ausberry said the Cowboys could have sold $300 seats, no problem.

"If we had 100,000 tickets, we could have sold them all," he said.

The game became a real classic, officially, last week when Oregon and LSU debuted at 3-4 in the coaches poll. The Tigers have championship aspirations after an 11-2 season. Hopes were raised about 2011 following that 41-24 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M.

The up-and-down Jordan Jefferson had one of the best games of his career against the Aggies. Les Miles has established such a recruiting foundation that he could afford to lose three defensive stars -- Drake Nevis, Patrick Peterson and Kelvin Sheppard -- and still be considered a national championship contender.

That's exactly what the Tigers are in most preseason polls. This is only the fourth time LSU has played in a top-five matchup in the regular season. That history goes all the way back to Billy Cannon in 1959 and extends to the 2009 loss to No. 1 Florida.

One of the few downers for LSU: If Miles gets the urge to graze at Cowboys Stadium, he'll be munching on artificial turf.

The game had already been arranged when the planets began to align. LSU finished eighth in both polls last season. Oregon made its BCS title-game run. Ducks coach Chip Kelly is not one to shy away from big nonconference games himself. In his first two seasons, Oregon has gone to Boise State (2009) and Tennessee (2010).

"If your mantra is creative scheduling will get us somewhere, that's not what it's all about," Kelly said. "People that play three warmup games and then get into conference play, that's not what this program is about."

Watching from the wings is the Cotton Bowl itself. It has never gotten over being left out of the BCS loop 13 years ago. Since then, its quiet, diligent intention has been to get back into the top bowl rotation. The game moved from the Cotton Bowl stadium to Cowboys Stadium in January 2010. It has Jones, a moneyed, powerful proponent, in its corner.

With the Fiesta Bowl having gone through offseason scrutiny, the Cotton hopes it might elbow its way into the BCS after the current contract expires after the 2014 bowls.

"We've got the stadium, that's our hook," Cotton Bowl president Rick Baker said. "We just hope we have the opportunity to make our case."

The programs, polls, even the planets, have aligned to this point.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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