Many thanks to the guys at top-notch blogs And the Valley Shook and Tiger Smack for taking the time to swap words about LSU and this weekend's game. We talk about night games in Death Valley, competing revenge factors for Saturday, and Les Miles' hat, among other things. These are excellent blogs, so head on over and check them out. Be sure to read my As to And the Valley Shook's Qs to make sure I haven't embarassed any of us. Answers to Tiger Smack will likely go up over there sometime later today.
1. First things first. What's your best memory of a night game in Baton Rouge? Is it everything they say it is?
And the Valley Shook: That's the first question everyone has, and for good reason - after all, the whole Earthquake thing never gets old (and why else would I have named my blog after it?). Alas, I can't say I've ever been to a memorable night game in Baton Rouge, as far as the game itself was concerned (the tailgating, though, is another thing entirely). I've witnessed plenty of romps over the likes of Ole Miss or South Carolina or Kentucky or - gasp! - Western Illinois . I was only fortunate enough to get access to Tiger tickets about five years ago, and seeing as we've actually been a pretty decent team over that span, both Florida games I've traveled back to Louisiana for have been moved to the 2:30 kickoffs. THAT SAID, the experience of any night game down in BR leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. I've tailgated at many NFL venues, at Washington Husky games, at USC games, UCLA games, the Michigan-Ohio State game in Ann Arbor in '03, and absolutely nothing compares to a Saturday night in Death Valley. What's more, I think to an outsider our fight songs can seem pretty weak; I always thought so until I went to my first game. I don't think anyone who hasn't been to a game at Tiger Stadium can really appreciate our fight songs until they've heard the crowd absolutely explode as soon as the band plays the first few notes of the Pregame Touchdown Song. Plus, cajuns who've been drinking for eight hours in humid 95 degree weather, just about the most gorgeous women you'll find anywhere, and it's a recipe for success.
Tiger Smack: Probably a 3-way toss-up between beating Florida State to get to the Orange Bowl in 1982, beating #1 Florida in 97, and that wild overtime win over Tennessee in 2000. That one was classic because there was some obnoxious drunken hillbilly chick wearing a bright orange boa seated near us, taunting all the fans and just generally being an a**. When it was over, a few dozen LSU fans gathered around her and really let her have it, and she started bawling.
When it's a good game against a quality opponent, then yes, Tiger Stadium at night is truly everything they say it is. But it's not like that every Saturday. In fact, this entire season the place has been strikingly subdued. Even the tailgating, while still better than anywhere else in the country, has been a bit ho-hum. I've attended almost every LSU home game for over 30 years, and I've never experienced such a painfully boring, uninteresting home schedule. So far, we've massacred ULL, Arizona, Tulane, Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Fresno State. We're all praying that some how, some way, Bama will give us one home game worth getting excited about this year.
Having said that, if you haven't ever been to a night game in Baton Rouge, and you get the opportunity, you should definitely take it.
Thankfully, next year promises to be much, much more entertaining, with Auburn, Florida, VA Tech, South Carolina, and Arkansas at home.
2. What match ups do you think most favor the Tigers over the Vols? The Vols over the Tigers?
And the Valley Shook: I think the matchup that most favors us is our defensive line versus your offensive line. As you mention, Vols fans are crossing your fingers with your offensive line; for us, the one unit above all else that lets us breathe easy is our defensive line. It's funny, going into this season the D line was undoubtedly one of the biggest of myriad question marks surrounding the team - how many teams can rebound from losing the likes of Kyle Williams, Mel Oliver, AND Claude Wroten? Yet somehow, behind the rock star performance of guys like Glenn Dorsey, the group has been the hallmark of the team. The pressure they've created on opposing quarterbacks, to say nothing of the containment they've shown against the run (with plenty of help from our surprisingly solid linebacking crew), has actually sprung debate about whether this squad is better than the 2003 national championship team's defense. Dorsey is playing at an All-American level, and it's probably a coin flip among most Tigers fans as to whether he or quarterback JaMarcus Russell is our MVP to this point.
I think the matchup that most favors the Vols is absolutely, unquestionably, without a doubt, the special teams game. Saying our special teams has been garbage is an NC-17 level insult to garbage. I don't know how else to say it. In experimenting with a funky two-level punt formation which allegedly is the best use of our personnel, we've gone from one of the nation's best units in net punting average to one of its worst, while Tiger Nation's collective heart skips a beat every time we watch a punt eke out over the outstretched hand of some linebacker trying to jump over the 2 nd level of protection. The Florida game alone was highlight-reel-from-hell quality blooper footage for Tiger fans - one muffed punt, one punt we had blocked, and one kick return misplayed, fumbled, and fallen on in the endzone for a safety. We've changed punt returners from Chevis Jackson to Buster Davis, and he took one to the house against Fresno, so there may be light at the end of the return game's tunnel, but I'd be lying to you if I said I wouldn't feel more comfortable if we just went for it on every 4 th and 10 or less anywhere outside our own 20.
Tiger Smack: This one warrants a longer answer but I spent all my time on #4 and the haiku and my wife is giving me the "you spend too much time on the internet" look. So I guess I'll be brief. Defensively, we hold the advantage across the board. If the defense comes ready to play, they'll shut Tennessee down like they did Auburn. The determining factor will be whether the LSU offense can score on Tennessee. We can't run the ball, but our receivers are too much for the Tennessee defense, and we should be able to give Russell time to find them. Tennessee's only hope of shutting down the LSU passing game is to come after Russell hard and force him to make bad throws. We hold no advantages over Tennessee (or anyone else for that matter) on special teams. We are especially bad at lining up to punt without getting either an illegal formation penalty or having the punt blocked or very close to blocked.
3. There are two "something to prove" motivational elements at play this week: Ainge had a laughably bad performance vs. the Tigers last year, but the entire LSU team suffered a humiliating collapse and choke, at home and on national t.v. Which will be the bigger factor this week, or will they cancel each other out?
And the Valley Shook: Honestly, I don't think many folks outside of Knoxville remember Ainge's first half performance. Even many Tiger fans have forgotten that part. For those who weren't completely hammered by the start of the 3 rd quarter with our holding a 21-0 lead, I think all that's remembered is thanking the Lord there was good football to watch in Louisiana (as opposed to the surprisingly close-call game vs Arizona State the prior week), and then Clausen nickel-and-dimed us to death for the entire half in one of the most impressive comebacks I've seen (given the circumstances, which as you mentioned was very much a "Tennessee against the world" atmosphere). As I'm sure you recall, that comeback in and of itself was a "something to prove" element for former Tiger Rick Clausen, so I have to say that the gut-punch feeling we've got coming into this one outweighs Ainge's by just a bit - after all, we're the ones with the big fat L on the schedule!
Tiger Smack: My gut feeling is that the Tigers will be a bit more bent on revenge than Ainge is bent on proving himself. Not only are they embarrassed about the choke last year, but they're pretty pissed about your guys rubbing it in by planting the Tennessee flag on our midfield logo after the game. Look for the LSU defense to dish out some pretty viscious hits early in the game.
4. Okay, so what's the deal with Les Miles? Why is he already so reviled by Tiger fans? And could you explain for the folks on Rocky Top just how the whole joke about his hat got started?
And the Valley Shook: It is interesting, isn't it? That Miles could go 11-2 in his opening season and top it off with a 40-3 annihilation of the #9 Miami Hurricanes in the Peach Bowl, and still have all these questions surrounding him. Part of it is I think characteristic of any team coming off a national title - a bit of spoiled brat-ness among the fan base. There's a lot of "We're used to Nick Saban's excellence," but Saban's first LSU team in 2000 actually lost to Alabama-Birmingham on homecoming! Granted, Miles came in with far more talent at his disposal than Saban, but the cupboard certainly wasn't bare for Nick either - Rohan Davey, Trev Faulk, Bradie James, Josh Reed, Domanick Davis, and Ryan Clark all had at least a year under their belts.
So getting back to your question - part of it is definitely the burden of heightened expectations. And last year, the Tigers never really put a complete game together until the Peach Bowl. First of all, the ridiculous frantic timeout request after we picked off a Clausen pass with less than a minute to go said to Tiger fans that this coach was just not ready for a big time football program. The failure to adjust in the game against your Vols to the second half game plan of short passes just killed Les in the Tiger fans' collective conscious. The defense got shredded the first two games of the year, and then picked it up the rest of the way. But the offense, with an unbelievable amount of talent and speed, just never really seemed to put it all together. There was no question the Tigers were one of the fastest teams in the nation - in fact, WR Xavier Carter (who wasn't our 1 st or 2nd option at WR, admittedly) wound up becoming the first athlete since Jesse Owens in 1936 to win four titles in an NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship. Yet for whatever reason, we never really exploited the team speed by using the length of the field. Our receivers had the dropsies, the playcalling was a bit stale - and Les got a lot of blame for that. Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher had the reins during Saban's tenure, so evidently the guy is talented; consequently there was plenty of noise being made in Baton Rouge that Les was trying to exert too much of his own influence into the playcalling. Take that for whatever you will, but it's definitely resurfaced this year in the big games at Auburn and at Florida, with our putting up a paltry one touchdown total in the two games. This is a HUGE game for the offense to establish any shred of credibility this season. We cannot just trounce the likes of Arizona and ULL forever and expect to compete with the big dogs.
The hat thing is pretty amusing - just look at the way it sits on his head! Plenty of harmless discussion occurred after the first appearance of The Hat, then TigerSmack went and took it all platinum with his weekly Miles Hat Mondays, and it's never been the same since.
Tiger Smack: I think a lot of fans felt like the search for a replacement for Nick Saban was handled poorly (and there is some evidence to suggest that's true). To be fair, expectations were entirely unreasonable-- watching some of the names being tossed around and the absurd rumors being spread by people who claimed to have "sources", man that was high comedy. Still, most of us expected Skip Bertman to come back with a "bigger name" and a better track record than Les Miles. On top of that, the Oklahoma State fans were almost unanimous in NOT being upset that Miles was leaving, and Big 12 fans in general laughed, as though LSU had been royally duped. Naturally, this raised more red flags. Add to that the horrid defense LSU played in Miles' first game vs ASU, and the choke vs Tennessee in his 2nd game (and home opener), and it's not hard to see why Miles has a fairly large legion of detractors.
It's sort of gotten out of hand though, but I think that may be a reflection of the way people handle differences of opinion lately. It mirrors modern day American politics quite closely. Take George Bush, for example. To many of the people who support him, he can do absolutely no wrong, and anyone who dares criticize him even a little bit is labeled an unpatriotic, anti-American, radical leftist kook. Likewise, for many, perhaps most, of the people who don't support him, the hatred has become extreme and irrational; to hear some people talk, the President of the United States is at once the least intelligent individual on the planet and the personification of evil, a sinister, demented manaic bent on taking over the world by force. Absolutely everything he says or does is wrong. Such is the case with most (not all) of the LSU fan base and Les Miles. You question or criticize anything about the guy, then you're not a real fan and you don't support the team.
For disclosure purposes, I'll be the first to admit I don't really think Miles was the best person for the job, that I don't think he'll be here more than five years, and that frankly, I just don't like the guy (as a football coach; I'm sure he's a fine person). Don't know what it is, exactly; he just doesn't seem to have "it". When Saban was here, even when we had a 7 or 8 win season, I was always felt "this guy has his sh*t together and he's going to get us where we need to be". I don't get that vibe from Les Miles, even when we're winning a lot of games. Instead, I get "ok, we're winning now, but this guy's a dufus and something smells like DiNardo in here." Still, I don't go overboard with bashing and criticism like some folks do, or act as though nothing he does is right. Nor do I want to see the guy fired, as a lot of people do. Yep, the guy wins 11 games last year and will probably win 9 or 10 this year, and people want to fire him. That's absurd. I think it's possible to not be a huge fan of the guy and still give him a chance, hope that he does well, and hope that he'll grow into the kind of coach we need here. It could happen, and if it did, I'd be positively elated to say I was wrong.
And then there's the hat. It's not exactly Bryant-esque, is it? Something so gobsmackingly goofy looking certainly doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in an already skeptical fan base. So the joke got started pretty much the first time Miles wore the thing in front of people, and continued on from there. I've attached some un-altered photos as evidence; how can you NOT make fun of that?
5. JaMarcus Russell threw an interception to Jonathan Hefney last year that converted into a touchdown and made the UT Rally in the Valley possible. He fumbled a snap at the goal line against Florida. What gifts will he bear on Rocky Top?
And the Valley Shook: I hate to break it to you, but I wouldn't count on much! JaMarcus had a forgettable game against the Gators, sure. A couple of his picks were debatable as to who was at fault (one certainly wasn't his), but for the most part he has played brilliant football this year. He's absolutely cemented his hold on the #1 spot at a position that was yet another huge question mark entering the season. One could say that maybe he just reverts to Aaron Brooks style on the road, but he actually fared pretty well at Auburn, so I can't really nail down any consistent weakness for the guy.
Tiger Smack: Hopefully his generousity in that regard has maxed out, but you never know. The fumble, I think, was an isolated thing. He shouldn't have been lined up under center in that situation anyway; he's much better and more consistent from the gun. He does still throw ill-advised passes from time to time when he's under pressure and trying to make something happen, although not nearly as much as he did last season. Two, arguably three, of the picks vs. Florida really weren't his fault, and other than that he's looked pretty solid.
6. Man, your defense looks wicked on paper. First in the nation in total defense (seventh in rushing defense and fifth in pass defense) and second nationally in scoring defense. Is it that good, or is it a reflection of the fact that you've only beaten teams that would have lost to the St. Mary's School for Unwed Mothers? Could Tennessee beat St. Mary's?
And the Valley Shook: Given that you beat the Georgia Bulldogs by 18, I'll go ahead and say you guys would lay about 10 points (but no more than 17!) to St. Mary's. In all seriousness, though, our defense is legit without question. The fundamentals are solid, the holes close quickly, blown assignments are few and far between (ahem, Tim Tebow knows about that), and the generally stupid play that you'd see out of, say, a Pac-10 defense (heh, just kidding) (well, no not really) tend to be pretty minimal. I will say this much though: the short passing game might give us fits. Florida opened with it against us and it worked flawlessly. A fumble killed that opening drive for them and the Gators inexplicably never really went back to it en masse, or they wouldn't have needed our five turnovers to roll us. I give Bo Pelini all the credit in the world for crafting such a dominating unit, but that's definitely an area where my nerves are on edge.
Tiger Smack: The truth here is somewhere in the middle. Yes, the defense has run up some amazing stats, and yes, it's been mostly against rent-a-wins and really bad teams like Moo State and Kentucky. But they did shut Auburn down. And but for some really stupid turnovers, Florida probably wouldn't have hung more than 14 on us. I think the Tiger D is definitely for real.
7. How about leaving us with a Tennessee-LSU Hail Mary Haiku?
Talent's but a ruse;
With Miles roaming our sideline,
Your chances? Damn good!
Tiger Smack: Yikes, I don't do Haiku very well. If you have a football dirty limerick contest or a photoshop contest, count me in. But I guess I'll give it a try.
"Tiger D" is to "Ainge" as
"Phil" is to "Donuts"
Thanks, guys! It's been fun. Go Vols!