Not only do LSU and Texas A&M match up well physically, but both teams also play quick, aggressive defense, and both feel they have something to prove.
The Bayou Bengals are carrying chips the size of lumber yards on their shoulders. No team with two national championships in the past seven years has been more consistently overlooked and more readily dismissed than LSU. And the Tigers know it.
They were the “oh, by the way” underdog in the SEC West for most of the year, sitting third chair behind Auburn and Alabama, even after beating the No. 5-ranked Tide. They remained a quiet part of the conversation, but more out of polite respect than actual belief. After the Tigers ran headlong into the Cam Newton buzz-saw in late September, nobody saw them as a serious contender for the title game. A season-ending loss to Arkansas in a 31-23 shootout sealed it. LSU was not making the BCS.
Texas A&M went down early, dropping three straight to Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Missouri, but the Aggies won out after mid-October, beating Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor, Nebraska and Texas to capture a share of the Big 12 South title. By Thanksgiving, the Aggies were as hot and worthy as anybody. Unfortunately, the computers chewed up the numbers and spit out a tasteless result for A&M fans. The Aggies also were out of the BCS mix.
So we have the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, a home game for both teams, and a game that will showcase the stark differences between SEC and Big 12 football.
Ask any expert about an SEC style of play, and the conversation won’t get far before a running back is mentioned. Then the defense will come up. Depending on the team, it might take two or three minutes before talk turns to the quarterback, and only then if he is a dual threat to run and pass.
The Big 12 is quarterback-centered, spread-‘em-wide-and-throw-it-long football. Everything centers on the passing game and putting a lot of points on the board.
On that front, the Aggies will not disappoint. After their three-game losing streak, Coach Mike Sherman saw the writing on the wall and moved receiver Ryan Tannehill to the quarterback spot. In the final six games the 6-foot-4 junior threw for 1,434 yards and 11 TDs, leading A&M to upset wins over Oklahoma and Nebraska and earning them a co-champion title in the Big 12 South.
“He's been decisive with his reads and he makes good decisions," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said of Tannehill. “He plays really well.”
LSU’s also will rely on its quarterback, just not his arm. Jordan Jefferson passed for 200 yards in only one game, and that was against a very bad Ole Miss secondary. Most of his great passes have come on roll-out options in which he was a master at freezing cornerbacks with his quickness.
Jefferson was the second-leading rusher for the Tigers with 383 yards, behind tailback Stevan Ridley, who rushed for 1,042 on 225 carries. That backfield tandem is LSU’s offense. And it is a perfect illustration of SEC ground-control football.
Ridley also packed some extra motivation for this trip to Dallas. He just was reinstated by the NCAA on Monday after a two-week suspension for “academic dishonesty.”
“I feel I carry myself in the way I should as a responsible person,” Ridley said when answering questions about the dishonesty portion of his suspension. “I'm not saying I'm perfect. This was my issue, but to see how my teammates were concerned about me says that we have a special bond on this team.”
He also left no doubt about his readiness. “Any time you play a team outside your conference, especially a team the caliber of Texas A&M, it gets you fired up,” he said.
Jefferson , Ridley and the LSU defense will provide the perfect contrast to Tennehill and Coach Sherman’s gun-slinging style. And the Cotton Bowl is the perfect, low-pressure venue for that kind of show.
“I’ve been here before as a head coach so I know firsthand what a first-class bowl this is,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “The atmosphere is no different than if you were playing in the national championship game.”
That last line was a stretch, but no one could fault Miles’ enthusiasm. He and his team can’t wait for kickoff.
“Texas A&M has an outstanding program,” Miles said. “We are looking forward to renewing our long-standing rivalry with them.”
The rest of us will be looking forward to a hard-hitting, air vs. ground, SEC vs. Big 12 show.
May the best style win.