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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

Best ever? LSU's ferocious secondary could solidify its case with BCS win


Try asking Chip Kelly about the best college secondary he has ever seen and before you can finish your question, he'll spit back LSU. The Oregon football staff has guys who have coached and played in leagues literally all over the country, but to a man they agreed that this Tiger team has the best secondary of any they had ever faced.

Statistically, it's an interesting dynamic between the two secondaries playing in the BCS title game. Alabama, of course, leads the country in just about every meaningful category: scoring defense, total defense, pass efficiency defense and run defense. The Tide's stars back there are safety Mark Barron -- first-team All-SEC -- and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, a second-team All-SEC pick.

The Tigers are second in scoring defense and second in total defense and are first in turnover margin. A key distinction worth noting, though, especially as it relates to the secondaries is this: the best quarterback Alabama faced this season is Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, who is 23rd in the country in passing efficiency. The second best? Well, either Florida's John Brantley or Mississippi State's Chris Relf.

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LSU has had to face a much better group of passers. The Tigers faced not only Wilson, but Oregon's Darron Thomas (No. 13 in passing efficiency), West Virginia's Geno Smith (No. 24) and Georgia's Aaron Murray (No. 26).

The Tigers proved just how suffocating they could be in the season opener when they completely short-circuited arguably the most explosive attack in the country. Oregon, the nation's No. 3 scoring team, had 82 snaps yet did not have one play go longer than 18 yards the entire night. Thomas threw a career-high 54 passes, but still didn't have any big plays. He finished with, by far, the lowest passing efficiency rating he ever had in two seasons as a starter. Then-No. 25 Mississippi State didn't have a play go longer than 23 yards and the Bulldogs managed just six points.

Smith did burn the Tigers a few times when LSU visited Morgantown in September. Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen felt like he could exploit some of the Tigers' aggressiveness with double moves, fade-stops and jerk routes, and they had quite a bit of success with the latter. Smith went 38 for 65 for 463 yards, but to beat LSU he would've needed to be nearly flawless (thanks in part to the work of the Tigers DBs playing on special teams). Twice, Tyrann Mathieu made big plays -- once forcing a fumble, the other baiting Smith into an interception that Mathieu ran within a few yards of making a pick-six. LSU won in a rout 40-27 despite the QB's gaudy stat line.

Opponents say they rarely, if ever, see an opponent play as aggressive or as much in-your-eye man coverage as LSU does. The Tigers are relentless and just have so much length, Kelly said. Oregon's Josh Huff, one of the fastest men in college football, described facing LSU as "a learning experience." Huff said the Tigers were so dominant, it forced him to think he needs to raise his level of dedication to the game.

The first guy who gets rival coaches' attention when they break down LSU's defensive film is No. 7, Mathieu. He is LSU's x-factor because coaches can -- and will -- deploy him virtually anywhere on the field. The 5-foot-9, 183-pound sophomore is so versatile and so unpredictable, the West Virginia coaches deemed him a SAM linebacker in their preparation for LSU rather than his officially listed designation of cornerback. "The guy is like a little [Troy] Polamalu," said Mountaineers assistant Shannon Dawson, referencing the Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl safety.

Mathieu backed it up against WVU and did more of the same for what proved to be an epic season, leading the team in tackles (70), fumbles forced (six), fumbles recovered (five) and finishing second on the team in passes broken up (seven).

Mathieu's spectacular year somewhat overshadowed the special season Morris Claiborne has put together. The 6-foot, 195-pound junior, who led the Tigers in interceptions with six, won the Jim Thorpe Award, honoring the nation's top defensive back. He was also voted by the SEC's coaches as the league's top defensive player.

NFL scouts rave about Claiborne's skill set. Lavasier Tuinei, Oregon's 6-foot-5, 215-pound wideout who was the offensive MVP of the Rose Bowl earlier this week, got matched up with Claiborne for much of the Ducks' game against LSU. He said for as athletic and quick as Claiborne is, it's the corner's patience that makes him a truly rare college cover man. "You don't see guys who can play that way," Tuinei said.

The next biggest star is 6-foot-2, 208-pound sophomore free safety Eric Reid, a vicious hitter who also happened to make the biggest defensive play of the season. Reid's heroics saved LSU when he spotted an Alabama tight end, Michael Williams, running free on a trick play in the fourth quarter, darted back toward the goal line and made a leaping interception by wrestling the ball away from the 6-6 tight end. Reid made a few other huge plays in the Tigers' first meeting with the Tide this season. He forced a fumble and blocked a 26-yard field goal attempt.

LSU's other safety, senior Brandon Taylor, was the team's second-leading tackler (67) and is the group's leader, Mathieu says. Taylor and Reid are so solid that sophomore Craig Loston, formerly the top high school defensive back recruit in the country in 2009, hasn't been able to crack the starting lineup.

The corners listed behind Claiborne and Mathieu are 6-3, 190-pound Tharold Simon and 6-foot senior Ron Brooks. They would probably start at more than 20 other Top 25 programs. Not many other teams could say they have a backup (Brooks) who has returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season.

And maybe the scariest thought of all when it comes to the talent level of this LSU secondary: It still could've had uber cornerback Patrick Peterson if the 6-3, 220-pounder didn't opt to leave a year early for the NFL Draft.

The gold standard for the most talented starting back four in college football history is Southern California's 1980 bunch, led by All-American safety Ronnie Lott. The other three starting DBs (cornerbacks Jeff Fisher and Joey Browner and safety Dennis Smith) all played in the NFL. Combined, the group played in an astounding 22 Pro Bowls (10 for Lott and six each for Browner and Smith.)

The Trojans didn't win the national title like they did two years earlier. They finished 8-2-1 and No. 11 in the final AP poll. But keep in mind this was a team that started a walk-on quarterback, Gordon Adams.

USC didn't allow more than 21 points to anyone that season and held No. 2 Notre Dame to three points in the season finale. The Trojans allowed just 134 points in 11 games, fewer than they had in each of the previous two years when they went a combined 23-1-1.

Lott, known even back then for his ferocious hitting, also led the nation in interceptions with eight. He and Fisher were the leaders of the defense, recalled then Trojans head coach John Robinson last week.

Smith, a spectacular athlete who was a 7-foot high jumper despite minimal practice time with the Trojans track team, was the real underrated one in the group while Browner, a 6-3, 200-pound sophomore, was the youngster of the quartet.

"The big thing about them was they were all great tacklers," Robinson said. "This was such a ferocious tackling group. They were just so very physical."

While the Trojans had the most talented starting secondary, the 2001 Miami defense had the deepest and most effective unit. The Hurricanes' secondary yielded just over 130 yards passing per game and the defense allowed nine points per game and five passing touchdowns all season. The most amazing stat of all: UM defenders scored 10 TDs that season -- just one less than the Miami defense allowed.

Five guys who played in the 'Canes secondary became first-round picks and a sixth (cornerback Kelly Jennings) was being redshirted because they were so stacked.

Like LSU, the Hurricanes' headliner was a ball-hawking, do-everything, fell-through-the-cracks, unheralded recruit from New Orleans. Ed Reed was the largest single reason Miami led the country in takeaways with 45 and with 27 interceptions en route to their 12-0 record and national title. Reed led the country in interceptions with nine in 11 regular-season games and also led the Big East in passes broken up with 18.

"We could do so much because of the versatility we had with Edward [Reed] and because we had five seniors that could really play," said Randy Shannon, UM's defensive coordinator. "On second-and-longs, we could go all DBs in with seven guys to play with Jon Vilma and bring [senior DB] Markeese Fitzgerald or [freshman] Antrel Rolle in to cover guys in the slot."

The 'Canes had a starting cornerback tandem that gave Shannon added versatility with speedy Phillip Buchanon able to cover the opponents' quickest receiver and 6-2 Mike Rumph capable of matching up with the biggest wideout. Off the bench they relied on bruising 6-3, 220-pound Sean Taylor to provide added muscle.

"That group was about as cohesive as can be," Shannon said. "I think we only had about 10 mental busts all season of any kind. Normally, if you only have two or three a game, you're playing pretty well. Those guys just knew the coverages and each other so well."

Talking to some coaches who had to face that Miami D, the things you hear first, beyond just the talent aspect, was the aggressiveness and the fearlessness the 'Canes came at you with. They made people play on their heels. And for as much as people can talk about things like "talent" level, first-rounders and Pro Bowls to try and gauge a group's worth, the biggest thing, as Shannon pointed out, is how well those guys actually play together.

If you ask anyone that has faced LSU, that sounds eerily like these Tigers. Of course, they still have some work left to do before we can go much further into any of this legacy stuff.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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