Senior College Football Columnist

LSU so good it could afford to lose and still play for BCS title


BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU doesn't want to consider the idea, a mortal sin against college football and competitive sports, really. The best team in the country won't hear any of it, not even hypothetically. It's heresy, an insult to what they've accomplished.

But it's true. LSU can now afford to lose. With an SEC and national championship berth at stake next week, the nation's No. 1 team could rest its starters, mentally take the afternoon off against Georgia and still skate into New Orleans on Jan. 9 as conquering heroes. Deep down the Tigers know this.

They just won't say it out loud.

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"I just want you to know something," Les Miles said when presented with the scenario after a 41-17 dismantling of No. 3 Arkansas. "There would be no way that this football team could come to Atlanta and not play their best. Just so you know."

But the question had to be asked because that's what the BCS has left us. LSU broke that glorious 1-2-3 SEC logjam at the top a bit by taking out the Hogs. No. 2 Alabama would all but assure itself a rematch with the Tigers by beating Auburn on Saturday. In between, LSU has to play a game that would be an annoyance if it wasn't for the championship of the almighty SEC.

The fact remains LSU has built up so much equity with so many people and machines -- analysts, voters, computers -- that it is playing with house money. That house being New Orleans' Superdome where, incredibly, LSU could play for a third national championship since 2003 just 70 miles from campus.

Remember, all LSU has to do is finish in the top 2. Unless Georgia blows out the Tigers, giving the voters and computers the slightest reason to doubt, they are in. What are the chances of that for a team that has won 13 straight? Even then LSU would be lumped in with a group of one-loss teams that lost at Iowa State (Oklahoma State), was embarrassed at home (Stanford) and Virginia Tech. That's a school from a conference that hasn't played in the BCS title game since 2000.

Who would you pick? Try the one with his helmets screwed on right.

"The BCS traditionally has problems with teams that lose late in the season," LSU offensive lineman Will Blackwell said. "We're going to try to keep that from happening ... Our goal now is to not only win the SEC and go to the national championship but to be the best we've ever had at this school."

In fact, the best result for the SEC as a whole would be for Georgia to beat LSU next week. That could assure the league of an unprecedented three BCS teams now that LSU officially clinched the SEC West.

This being the best team in the best league at the height of its power, one writer suggested to Miles that this might be the best team ever. The question was validated when no one laughed and Miles didn't back off.

"They're qualified," the coach said, then in typical Milesean fashion added, "Qualified for what, I don't know."

Qualified to have the best players led by the best staff at the moment. These Tigers came into Friday facing a quarterback currently ranked in the top 20 in pass efficiency for the first time this season. When Arkansas' Tyler Wilson threw the first touchdown pass against the Tigers since Oct. 8, the energetic defense looked vulnerable.

When LSU tailback Michael Ford coughed up the ball that was returned 47 yards for a 14-0 Hogs' lead the Tigers looked shaken.

"We weren't down very long," Blackwell said of the biggest deficit faced by his team this season. "I didn't have time to sulk."

On a 14-play, 77-yard drive that resulted in cutting the lead in half quarterback Jordan Jefferson was booed as many times as he fumbled during the series (twice). Cornerback-turned-safety Tyrann Mathieu then restored confidence in the quest with a 92-yard punt return for a score, the fourth-longest in school history, that tied it.

At that moment, the ol' Honey Badger had returned, taking what he wanted. Mathieu ended a month of anonymity. There just hadn't been that many big plays before he returned from a midseason suspension.

Because of an injury to safety Eric Reid, Mathieu was asked to move from corner to replace him. The result was a Mathieu sampler platter -- two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and that punt return.

"That's probably why I slowed down at the end of the run," Mathieu said, sensing the game had changed in front of the second-largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history. "I could feel the stadium rocking in my cleats."

Can an All-American corner, also be an All-American safety, and an All-American returner?

"I think so," Honey Badger said with as little modesty as you can imagine.

The Jefferson that had looked so shaky on the first touchdown drive, looked like John Elway on the next. He completed four of five for 66 yards giving the Tigers a 21-14 halftime lead.

In one afternoon, Jefferson had lived his entire season. In the space of the game he was both booed for clunky play and celebrated as a hero. Days before the season Jefferson was suspended because of the bar fight at Shady's. Friday marked his second start since taking over for Jarrett Lee.

The second half was a coronation. The defense played like we've come to expect. Arkansas ran only 19 plays in the final 30 minutes. Tyler Wilson was sacked five times on the day. So much for falling behind early.

"This football team, down 14 points, did not flinch," Miles said.

Not after a 41-3 response in the remaining 42 minutes.

LSU is that good, 12-0 for the first time in school history. One of two undefeated teams left. Houston is the other. In between are that bunch of one-loss wannabes. None of them have beaten seven ranked teams, three of them in the top five. Every one of the victories have come by double figures except one.

If you have a problem with that 9-6 decision over Alabama earlier this month, settle in. If form holds, you'll likely get to see it over again.

"Ever since we beat Alabama, it's been a playoff system," said LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery. "One game you lose, you go home. That's been our mindset."

Since that tussle in Tuscaloosa, the Tigers have won by 33, 49 and 24 points to get to this moment. It is one that has been lived, 14 years apart, by LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis. He was Tennessee's DC in 1998, the first year of the BCS, when the Volunteers won it all. Now he is within a game of going back again to that BCS title game.

"I like the BCS system," Chavis said. "A lot of people are screaming for playoffs, playoffs, playoffs. I think we got as good a system as we could possibly have. 12-and-0, that's special. I'm not going to look any further than Atlanta right now."

He may not have to. New Orleans may await either way.

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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