CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

Once again, Tigers march to Mathieu's drum and roll to victory

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ATLANTA -- It's not Tyrone Matthew, OK?

That's the first lesson for a legion of gray-haired, crotchety Heisman voters who may have been conditioned to write "Andrew Luck" on the top line. Your ballot now takes a bit of critical thinking because submitted for your consideration is a 5-foot-9, 180-pound Heisman Badger from LSU.

Feel free to argue whether LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu is worthy of becoming the first defensive player in 14 years to win The Stiff Arm. But please think hard and long of this pocket Charles Woodson who has little idea how good he is or how much money awaits on the horizon.

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There is less of an argument about the big picture now that the BCS race was fused into place by a modest kid from New Orleans who led his team to New Orleans.

The setting was the SEC championship. The game was Mathieu's. For the second game in a row he returned a punt for a touchdown. All season he has been, perhaps, the best jump-starter in the country for an offensively challenged No. 1. It just takes that voting vision and spelling lesson to get him to New York for the Heisman ceremony.

"70-30 they don't know how to spell it," teammate T-Bob Hebert said. "The guy makes plays when you need him most. If that's not a Heisman candidate I don't know what is."

A 42-10 SEC championship game win over Georgia suggests LSU won easily. It says here the listless Tigers were cattle prodded by two Mathieu electrifying punt returns. One went for a touchdown (62 yards). They other set up a touchdown (47 yards). Saved, in order, were ...

 LSU's season which looked flushed after a zero first downs and only 12 total yards in the first half.

 The SEC's rep which was hung on the alleged excellence on that Nov. 5 Game of the Century. The nation's No. 1 tanking in the SEC's showcase game would not have played well at all.

 The candidacy of the Heisman Badger.

OK, so his real nickname is the Honey Badger, the football equivalent of the wildlife thief that takes what it wants. Mathieu was introduced to this video by defensive coordinator John Chavis on the team's way back from West Virginia earlier in the season. As you can see, the Honey Badger takes what it wants.

With apologies to Robert Griffin III, LSU's sophomore might have provided as big a Heisman Moment as there has been on the last Saturday in recent years.

"I don't know that anybody has had a player that has impacted their football team like he has ours," said Chavis, who has seen a few SEC, national championship and Heisman races.

For him, bitter memories still linger. Fourteen years ago it was Woodson, the last defensive player to win the Heisman, who won it over Tennessee's Peyton Manning. Vols everywhere still consider Manning jobbed when the national media (ahem, the four-letter network) took a shine to Woodson.

"Did Woodson have this kind of [season]?" said Chavis, Tennessee's DC back then. "I'm asking the question. You answer that."

Mathieu spoke for himself Saturday. The first punt return came when LSU's offense looked absolutely dead, the Tigers trailing 10-0. For the second consecutive week, the Tigers had to rally. Last week it was 14-0 before Mathieu's 92-yard punt return sparked the team.

On Saturday he was backed up to his own 38 by Georgia's Drew Butler. What followed was a pretty fair imitation of Reggie Bush in his prime at USC. Mathieu's flipping of the ball to the official at the goal line will become SEC lore. That's because it looked like Mathieu, in his enthusiasm, flipped the ball to the line judge before he crossed the goal line.

"Yeah, kind of," Mathieu said shyly. "I could see the referee looking at me kind strange. I'll be sure the next time to make sure I cross the goal line."

When you're on this much of a roll, apparently even the replay booth is in awe. Georgia never seemed to get the memo to kick away from Mathieu. With LSU up 14-10 early in third quarter, Heisman Badger's twisted 47-yard return to the Georgia 17 was even more amazing. It took an ankle tackle by Georgia's Kosta Vavias to avoid another touchdown or Johnny Rodgers himself would have given a testimonial.

Amazingly, Mathieu wasn't used as a punt returner until his senior year at St. Augustine in Orleans Parish. LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson, a former high school coach in the city, saw through that to help recruit a treasure.

"It's almost like split personalities," Wilson said. "On the field he has this bravado about himself, this swag for lack of a better word. Off the field he's humble and almost shy. He's not very talkative. But when the lights come on, he's a different guy.

"All he says is, 'I got this. Let's roll guys. I got this.' "

Mathieu is still carefree enough to die his Fauxhawk blond. He told himself there would be no more product applied until LSU made the title game. Bring on the Lady Clairol.

He still naïve enough to have little idea how this Heisman thing works.

"I don't even think I'm in the top three," he said. "I'm a long shot. I never hear my name in the conversation."

What about now?

"I should."

Would you vote for yourself?

"Absolutely."

LSU rolled the same way it did last week against the Hogs. In that game, they finished 41-3. On Saturday it was 42 points unanswered. The Dawgs who threatened to muck up the BCS with a stunning upset were, well, stunned.

For those of you scoring at home, that's a combined 83-3 rally against a pair of top 12 teams.

"Basically, we just lost the momentum, they gained it and we really couldn't slow it down once it got going," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

Basically, the kid knew it was coming.

"Last night I envisioned me having three touchdowns," Mathieu said. "I think I came close to that."

The difference between 1997 and now is that the Heisman race is still scrambled with ballots due on Monday. Luck finished his regular season a week ago. Griffin finished by tossing four touchdowns in a win over Texas on Saturday.

Mathieu gave the nation's No. 2 defense a face. A bleach-blond, Fauxhawk, Lady Clairol face.

Can he get to New York? Debatable. Is he worthy of winning the Heisman? Absolutely.

Told you it took some critical thinking.

It started in the opener against Oregon, his second career start. Mathieu led all LSU tacklers with 10, accenting that with a strip and score of the Ducks' Kenyon Barner. At the end of the season, in his 25th career game, Mathieu has averaged what we're going to call one big "Badger Play" per game. That would be four career interceptions, 11 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and two punt returns for touchdowns. Add 'em up. That's 25 Badger Plays in 25 games.

The performance took the edge off the rematch angle. As we consider two teams from the same conference possibly playing for the 14th BCS title, we pause to catch our breath. With its offense ranked 62nd nationally, LSU is making just enough plays. With its defense, it has a Honey Badger who wouldn't accept the Heisman next week in New York if he stepped up to the podium, he'd take it.

Just get the spelling correct, gray hairs.

"I don't think it matters," teammate Morris Claiborne said, "as long as they get the announcement right."


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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