By BRETT MARTEL / The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The possibility of LSU playing for a national championship doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to coach Les Miles, even if the fifth-ranked Tigers have no chance of winning their own league.
After all, there’s no guarantee that undefeated, second-ranked Auburn will beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa in two weeks, or win the SEC title game against a South Carolina team that nearly won at Auburn in late September.
If Auburn stumbles, that could open the door for LSU (9-1) to finish as the SEC’s highest-ranked squad, and according to Miles’ logic, “The highest-ranked team to come out of this conference should well have an opportunity to play in the national championship game.”
Alluding to the SEC’s four-year streak of producing college football’s national champion, Miles added, “Certainly I’m prejudiced, but the reality of it is, I don’t know that there’s a finer, more competitive conference in America.”
Currently, LSU is the top-ranked one-loss team in the country, with games remaining this Saturday against Mississippi (4-6) and at No. 13 Arkansas (8-2) on Nov. 27. Should the Tigers win out, they would go 11-1 in a regular season for the first time since 2003, when they won a national championship.
Miles went on to predict that the SEC’s recent dominance of college football “at some point in time will be very significant when it comes to picking who plays in the (BCS title) game.”
Senior left tackle Joseph Barksdale said the Tigers understand they must not get distracted from the games at hand by BCS scenarios, but conceded that, “in the back of our minds,” they still consider themselves contenders.
Even if it jumped ahead of Auburn, LSU also would have to pass at least two other currently undefeated teams ranked ahead of them.
No. 1 Oregon has two games left against No. 23 Arizona and Oregon State. No. 3 Boise State has three games left, including one at No. 19 Nevada. No. 4 TCU has only one game left against New Mexico (1-9).
There’s also the matter of whether an 11-1 LSU team, by virtue of its schedule, could jump over unbeaten TCU and Boise State squads.
“Those other teams are just coasting through their schedule,” LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson said. “They play a few teams that probably can give them a challenge but … no comparison with what we play every week.”
Miles draws on his own experience in 2007 when explaining why he won’t count the Tigers out yet. That’s when two-loss LSU beat Tennessee in for SEC championship, then found out on the plane ride home about Missouri’s loss in the Big 12 title game and Pittsburgh’s shocking upset of West Virginia — results that allowed the Tigers to play — and defeat — Ohio State for the national title.
“There’s a number of ways this thing finishes and I think it’s way too early to predict,” Miles said. “I would never have been able to tell you that before we played Tennessee in the (2007) SEC championship game that we would have had an opportunity to play in a national championship. I couldn’t see it the night before.”
Barksdale recalled that he, too, believed that the Tigers had lost their shot at a BCS title when they fell to Arkansas in their last regular season game of 2007.
“That was a pretty big blow to everybody,” Barksdale said. “But I remember on the way back from the SEC championship game, when the pilot announced that the teams that needed to lose lost, it was crazy.”
LSU also had help getting into the BCS title game against Oklahoma in 2003. That season, the Tigers were in a tight race with Southern California, but USC’s strength of schedule dropped on Dec. 6 when Syracuse beat Notre Dame and Boise State beat Hawaii.
Few could have guessed when the 2003 season began that LSU’s title hopes would hinge on those games.
Miles said he won’t be surprised if arguments about strength of schedule heat up again in final weeks of this season. He can only hopes that LSU will be part of the debate.
“Great teams can come from any conference, there isn’t any question, but it’s that team that can prove over a length of schedule that they have played the best (that deserves) the opportunity to then represent all of college football in that game,” Miles said. “I’m certain it will create great opinion and great conversation as we go forward. I hope to be very interested in that opinion and conversation.”