By The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — LSU has done its part to set up a clash for the ages with historical rival Alabama, even if the Tigers’ path to 8-0 and the No. 1 ranking was a bit unorthodox.
The list of distractions that could have derailed LSU’s bid for a national title has been growing steadily since the Tigers reported to campus this summer. They have responded with what is easily the best eight-game start to a season in more than century of football down on the bayou.
“Throughout several times this year this team has been able to go beyond the distractions — what could be perimeter noise — to focus and play,” coach Les Miles said after his team posted a 45-10 triumph over Auburn on Saturday. “That is what this team does.”
By now, there can be little doubt about Miles’ ability to manage a crisis.
Auburn came into Baton Rouge ranked 19th, and LSU was without three key players — star cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, leading rusher Spencer Ware and nickel back Tharold Simon — who were all suspended for violating the team’s drug policy.
After debates galore among football analysts and fans on talk radio about whether the suspensions left LSU vulnerable to an upset, Miles’ players turned in a hard-hitting, highlight-filled performance and posted the most lopsided victory in the 46-game history of the LSU-Auburn series.
Fittingly, Mathieu’s replacement, senior cornerback Ron Brooks, intercepted a pass and returned it 28 yards for a score.
The Tigers also had six sacks — two by reserve defensive end Barkevious Mingo, and one each by starting end Sam Montgomery, reserve end Jermauria Rasco, linebacker Tahj Jones and reserve defensive back Derrick Bryant.
As for Ware’s absence, LSU had too much depth at running back to worry about that. The Tigers racked up 174 yards on the ground, with true freshman Kenny Hillard scoring the first two TDs of his career and gaining 65 yards on 10 carries.
“To imagine him playing high school football last year is pretty insane,” LSU center T-Bob Hebert said. “The way he ran the ball tonight, they just couldn’t bring him down.”
For the first time in school history, LSU has won its first eight games by double digits, with five of those wins coming over ranked teams. LSU has trailed for fewer than seven minutes all season, and has not trailed at all since the second quarter of its season-opening victory over Oregon. Those feats have come in the face of a preseason coaching shuffle and suspensions to two other starters.
Quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and relinquished offensive coordinator and play-calling duties to offensive line coach Greg Studrawa about a month before the season opener.
About a week before the Oregon game, starting receiver Russell Shepard was suspended three games for violating an NCAA rule and Jordan Jefferson was arrested and suspended indefinitely — it turned out to be four games — for his role in a preseason bar fight.
Jefferson and Shepard are back and comfortably in the fold. While Jarrett Lee has started every game, Jefferson now rotates in routinely. Each quarterback hit Rueben Randle for touchdowns of more than 40 yards against Auburn, while Lee also found Shepard for a score.
“Those guys are just good teammates,” Miles said of the two quarterbacks. “They enjoy the success that each other are having and they are rooting for each other. We understand that it takes two. We have to have both quarterbacks play well for us to win games.”
While LSU’s approach to offense has been more hard-nosed than explosive, it has also been largely mistake free, with three turnovers all season. LSU’s playmaking defense and kick coverage teams, meanwhile, now have 18 takeaways (11 interceptions, seven fumble recoveries), giving the team a turnover margin of plus-15.
Having navigated so many potential pitfalls as if they were stomping on ant hills, the Tigers now have a week off and expect to be at full strength for the game college football fans everywhere have been hoping to see: a showdown between undefeated Southeastern Conference powerhouses at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Like LSU, the No. 2 Crimson Tide is 8-0 overall and 5-0 in the SEC, and also has a bye next weekend.
“It is going to be one of the best games ever,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “Basketball, football, video games, whatever — it is going to be the most competitive thing that I have ever been a part of. These guys (Alabama) are just like us. They are big, fast and strong. Two great teams are going to be facing each other in two weeks.”