Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Closer looks shows LSU game is opportunity for Heels

Les Miles
LSU is ranked No. 16 in the USA Today coaches’ poll – the third-highest SEC team – and if you only saw that, you’d think the Tigers were their usual juggernaut.

They are not, which makes their Sept. 4 game with North Carolina particularly intriguing. In the Triangle, attention has been focused on the NCAA probe and which Tar Heels will be eligible. But in the Bayou, there’s rising concern that LSU has dipped since Les Miles led them to the national title in 2007.

LSU was 8-5 in 2008 and 9-4 in 2009 but a combined 8-8 in SEC play over those two seasons. It’s interesting that reporters who cover college football overall and the SEC in particular aren’t as convinced about LSU’s potential. The Tigers are ranked No. 21 in preseason in the AP poll, their lowest showing in that poll since 2000.

The SEC media picked the Tigers for fourth in the SEC West. In fact, the media vote total for LSU was only the seventh-highest in the league and only one reporter picked the Tigers to win the SEC.

LSU wide receiver Russell Shepard told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "A lot of teams would kill to be there. At the same time, our expectation levels here are very high.

"You can't get caught up in them. We're going to take it one game at a time and make our statement Sept. 4."

Miles’ reputation as a game manager took a hit with LSU’s goofy ending in a 25-23 loss at Ole Miss in November. The Tigers recovered an onside kick at their own 42-yard line with 1:16 left and started driving, but squandered their chances with incredibly poor decisions. They got sacked to get knocked out of field goal range, wasted 17 seconds before calling time-out and, when a long pass put them at the 6-yard line, had no plan to kick a field goal as time ran out.

“I know there was a lot of confusion on the sideline,” quarterback Jordan Jefferson said after the game. “Nobody knew what to do.”

Miles accepted blame, but those blunders don’t play well in the frenzy that is the SEC. So LSU faces real scrutiny as the season opens, and fields a team with real questions.

Jefferson, for example, didn’t endear himself to Tiger fans with some tentative play and was sacked 34 times. LSU averaged only 305 yards of total offense, ranking a dismal 112th nationally. Jefferson will work with talent and depth at receiver and running back, so LSU hopes to improve on offense.

"He's starting to realize that it's more than a position, that it's not just: Call the play and throw the ball," Miles said of Jefferson in USA Today. "It's a responsibility to function the offense and to give us an opportunity at victory, and to see the defense, and to understand the call."

The defense is strong, led by two preseason All-SEC picks in cornerback Patrick Peterson and linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.

When you look at the Sept. 4 game objectively, you can easily see Carolina’s defense being dominant. LSU is still a legitimate SEC power, but the Heels might be catching them at the right time. A win in Atlanta would be a huge statement for Carolina and the ACC – and exactly the kind of statement LSU followers fear.

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