This prizefight on September 3rd is the first playoff game in the 2011 college football season. The winner moves forward with a top three ranking; the loser is out of the running for the national championship, probably. Louisiana State University distributed a record 37,000 tickets as of January 2011, NINE MONTHS early. By the time LSU’s countdown clock expires, Cowboys Stadium will be filled for the national television audience beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.
In one corner is Oregon, coming off a closely contested national championship game. As a team, Oregon returns only 8 starters. Leading Oregon are Heisman candidate LaMichael James at running back and starting quarterback, Darron Thomas. Against Auburn in the national championship game, Thomas threw for 363 yards and two touchdowns. In high school, Thomas turned down LSU’s scholarship offer after Coach Miles referred to him as an “athlete,” which is code for, “I don’t want you at quarterback.” Thomas is motivated, and he led the team during the off season workouts.
Last year, quarterback Thomas benefited from an experienced offensive line. Three of five linemen graduated, including the center. We’ll see if Oregon can run its complicated offense against a big, strong LSU defense in a hostile environment. This will be the key to the game. Thomas also had great receivers, but the best graduated. As of this writing, Oregon is scrambling for receiver help. Most recently, Josh Huff (1,086 all-purpose yards) is nursing an injury, and Oregon moved speedster Dior Mathis from defense to receiver.
In the other corner, LSU returns a lot of talent from its 11-2 team, including its quarterback, Jordan Jefferson and 4 out of 5 offensive linemen, who average 6’5” and 315 pounds. Jefferson will throw to experienced receivers. If LSU’s new offensive coordinator can squeeze just little more from an offense that ranked only 45th in points scored last season, LSU will have a very good season. Football pundits say either LSU or Alabama will win the SEC, which often means a shot at the national title.
On Defense Oregon lost a lot of leaders, including two playmakers at linebacker and all starting linemen except defensive end Terrell Turner. However, because Oregon played a deep defensive rotation last year, the lack of experience will not be as painful as on the offensive side. Josh Kaddu and Bo Lokombo should perform well at linebacker. Unfortunately, the national audience will not see the electric Cliff Harris, Oregon’s returning all-American cornerback and punt returner. Known for his speed and recklessness on the field, Harris was suspended for his speed and recklessness off the field: driving 118 mph on the Interstate.
LSU’s Jordan Jefferson is under investigation for criminal battery, kicking a marine into the hospital. Boosters call it a “bar fight.” Coach Miles is punishing the team with extra running and waiting for the the police, (hoping the Police will not complete their investigation before the game).
LSU returns its best defensive player, linebacker Ryan Baker. Like Oregon, LSU must retool its defensive line. LSU has the manpower, but not the experience. However, defensive linemen need less experience. Their job is to blow up plays, and their size might be enough to disrupt Oregon. Also, having months to prepare for Oregon’s hyper-fast offense takes away that edge Oregon normally has over teams who have only one week to prepare.
On special teams, Oregon returns its place kicker and punter, while LSU will break in new guys.
Both coaches find ways to win. Over the past two seasons, Coach Miles was 20-6 and Oregon’s Coach Kelly was 22-4. Oregon’s four losses, however, provide the key to this matchup. Oregon lost its first game in 2009 when Boise State befuddled Oregon’s inexperienced offensive line and won. Stanford’s 2009 offensive line pushed forward to give Toby Gearhart a 223-yard rushing day and the win. Oregon lost the to the bigger Ohio State in 2010 Rose Bowl and couldn’t quite beat bigger Auburn last year. Auburn’s defensive wall of humanity held LaMichael James to only 49 yards.
LSU will win if it relies on its linemen. On offense, it must pound the ball forward. If LSU tries to rely on Jefferson’s arm, look out. On defense, LSU must disrupt the Oregon’s inexperienced line.
Oregon will win if it learned from its loss to Auburn. How can Oregon make its own offensive line less relevant? Look for some creative plays to free up Oregon’s speedsters. Can Oregon spread the field even thinner and play faster?
Expect both defenses to outplay the offenses. My prediction: Oregon 23; LSU 19.