|Under pressure vs. 'Bama, LSU coaches didn't see Jarrett Lee (left) as a viable option. (US Presswire)|
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Nightmares are usually reserved for the sleep cycle. Steve Kragthorpe closed his eyes that night in a New Orleans hotel room already experiencing one.
"I watched the first half," LSU's quarterbacks coach said recently, almost three months removed from the 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS title game, "until I fell asleep at 2:30 in the morning, the night of the game."
And that was the first available replay on TV. The next day, Kragthorpe and family drove back to Baton Rouge. The coach dropped off his wife Cynthia, went immediately to the office and watched the game four more times. Since then, he has probably watched it about 40.
How long did it take Kragthorpe to get over as crushing a loss as there has been in LSU history?
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"I'm still in the present tense, getting over it. It's hard," he said. "You work 16 hours a day for 20 weeks to get to the biggest game -- and don't win it."
A nightmare, it seems, has turned into torture for Tiger Nation. The result was bad enough. Questions lingered. Why didn't backup quarterback Jarrett Lee -- who had saved the Tigers earlier in the season -- replace a struggling Jordan Jefferson? What happened to the option that was so effective in the first meeting against Alabama? Why did the offense go more conservative than Newt Gingrich?
"Some days it comes together and some days it doesn't," a usually chatty Les Miles said. "On the record, I have nothing to say. I know exactly why."
It's clear he has been asked these questions before. Local radio host Bobby Hebert -- a former Saints quarterback and father of then-offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert -- went bat-spit crazy in the postgame press conference. The official party line is that the more stationary Lee would never have lasted against Alabama's withering rush that night. The official party line is that Jordan Jefferson's swift feet were best against the Tide.
Unofficially, LSU is still trying to figure it out. The fallout was swift and significant: More than one pundit said Miles was outcoached. Players openly questioned the game plan.
"Alabama," Jefferson said that night, "was a little bit more prepared than us."
LSU players and staff have heard and read all this. They're over it. And yet they're not.
Before the game it was suggested the Tigers were one of the best teams of all time. They beat eight ranked teams, four conference champions, stayed at No. 1 for 11 weeks. Now history will treat them as the obstacle Alabama climbed over to earn its second national championship in three years.
"When you have 13 that do and one that doesn't," Miles said of the final 13-1 record, "that's the way it happens sometimes. To point the finger at one thing or another, I can't do that."
And so he won't, which is getting easier at this point. Perhaps only in the SEC at powerful LSU do you get this kind of mulligan.
After that crushing loss, the Tigers are likely going to start 2012 as the preseason No. 1. They're going to be a better passing team with Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger. Definitely better at running back, a position with so much depth it reaches down to the Mariana Trench. The secondary loses a top draft prospect (Mo Claiborne), but still features a Heisman finalist (Tyrann Mathieu). And as long defensive end Sam Montgomery keeps playing as well as he philosophizes, the defense won't rest.
"We graduate three guys early to the NFL Draft, we're bringing in a brand new quarterback and they're still picking us No. 1," Miles said. "There's obviously a body of work here that's pretty damn good."
If it's not sympathy you feel for LSU, it has to be envy. It gets one hell of a do-over. Among the eight ranked teams beaten by the SEC champions was the eventual national champion. How are the Tigers supposed to feel bad about that? It is, in part, because of that untidy rematch that the BCS is changing the postseason model beginning in 2014. A four-team plus-one would have had the Tigers playing No. 4 Stanford in a semifinal. If the tournament was for conference champs only, Alabama wouldn't have been in the picture.
If not, there likely wouldn't be this three-month-old embarrassment over not having crossed the 50 against 'Bama until halfway through the fourth quarter. Jefferson wouldn't have had to explain why he threw for only 53 yards.
Kragthorpe says there were "protection situations." Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was open on a slant, but Jefferson was pressured and was sacked. With LSU down 15-0, Jarvis Landry was wide open for a score, Kragthorpe said.
"Jordan gets hit as he's throwing and it goes off Jarvis' fingertips," the coach added.
It's a contrary discussion. Jefferson had replaced Lee in the first meeting because the offense bogged down at 'Bama. Jefferson was the spark, getting the offense going with the option. When the Tide stuffed the option in New Orleans and LSU needed to pass, Jefferson was still seen as the best chance for victory.
If the Tigers' coaches thought they were still in it until Trent Richardson's touchdown run with 4½ minutes left, then why not use Lee to come back?
"At least Jordan gave you a chance to scramble and get out of some things and move the pocket," offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa said.
"Had they not been pressuring us ... then maybe Jarrett is more of a viable option," Kragthorpe said. "The score differential being what it was, knowing we were going to have to throw the football, knowing what kind of pressure they were going to bring on us, we felt like that was a best option. I still do today."
Maybe the truth is that the 9-0 halftime deficit might as well have been 28-0. LSU could have played until the next weekend and never caught the Tide. There is some feeling within the program that playing that extra contest in the SEC title game might have even made a difference. Perhaps, except that's exactly what happened the other way in 2007. LSU played one more game than Ohio State -- and still won the national championship.
Studrawa is among the DVD-afflicted. He has watched the Alabama film "1,000 times," he said. "I've tortured myself."
"You still hear it now. Our kids still hear it now about the game," he added. "Because everybody was so fired up after a wonderful season, that when it ends like that, that's what they focus on. Not the 13 wins, not how great it was up to that point.
"Now you get a chance for redemption."
It was an amazing path, starting with Kragthorpe's diagnosis of Parkinson's in early August. Studrawa took over as offensive coordinator. Then Jefferson nearly undermined the Tigers with his arrest and subsequent suspension after the Shady's altercation. Lee became a savior for the dinged program, only to lose the job in the first Alabama game.
Kragthorope says it was like winning the SEC three times. LSU won at Alabama on Nov. 5 to get the advantage in the West Division. It beat Arkansas at home in the last regular-season game with the Tigers, Tide and Hogs ranked 1-2-3 in the BCS. Then they won the SEC title game -- "at Georgia," as Kragthorpe puts it -- in the Georgia Dome.
The experience has made the coach appreciate Jim Kelly even more. For two seasons (2001-02) Kragthorpe coached quarterbacks with the Buffalo Bills. During that time he became friends with the retired Bills QB. Kelly's Bills, of course, lost four consecutive Super Bowls.
"To me that's one of the great stories in sports that gets lost," Kragthorpe said, "losing that game on three separate occasions and making it back [for a fourth]. I don't think people truly understand how agonizing defeat is. People don't understand how gut-wrenching it is. It's the worst feeling there is."
Until, like at LSU, there is that rare mulligan, a shot at redemption. A chance to not dwell on how the Tigers lost their only game ...
"... to go back and figure out," Kragthorpe said, "how we won."