ARLINGTON, Texas – Finally, it’s time for football.
No more questions about bar fights or arrests or driving 118 mph or unsavory street agents.
Just football and fun and 80,000 fans in a Taj Mahal of football stadiums for 3-plus hours.
Football between two of the best teams in the country, two teams that have legitimate aspirations of finishing their seasons in a game of equally monumental proportions in early January at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Finally, welcome to the 2011 season.
The fourth-ranked Tigers and No. 3-ranked Ducks rev their new campaigns up at 7 p.m. Saturday at Cowboys Stadium – only the third time in college football history that a pair of to-five ranked teams have clashed at a neutral site in a season opener.
LSU went through a rocky final stretch of pre-season camp, losing veteran receiver Russell Shepard to an NCAA suspension, two-year starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson after he was arrested and left guard Josh Dworaczyk to a nagging knee injury that could cost him the entire season.
Oregon’s offseason was tumultuous as well. The Ducks will be without star cornerback and punt returner Cliff Harris because of his habitual lead foot on the roadways. And the specter of alleged street agent Will Lyles hovers over Eugene more than any other place tainted by his now infamous name.
It’s time for football now, though.
“We haven’t really sat around and thought about it too much,” Tigers senior linebacker Ryan Baker said. “(LSU coach Les Miles) has done a great job of maintaining a level of focus for us. We have a job at hand and we’re going to have distractions.
“All we want to do is win.”
Which will be a major chore against the Ducks, who despite the Lyles cloud, remain one of the premier program in college football.
Oregon reached unprecedented heights last season by playing in the BCS National Championship and nearly putting a chink in the SEC’s armor before falling to Auburn 22-19.
The two sparkplugs from the best offense in the country are back for the Ducks, quarterback Darron Thomas (3,367 yards of total offense) and lightning-fast tailback LaMichael James (1,731 yards rushing, 21 TDs).
LSU’s defense could potentially be one of the best in the country this season and will get its first – and maybe toughest – test right off the bat.
The Ducks’ rapid-fire approach is geared toward snapping the ball as quickly as possible and forcing the defense to try and keep up. The results last season were mind-boggling: 530.7 total yards and 47 points a game – both best in the country.
“It’s more of a mental approach,” Baker said of keeping pace with the Ducks. “Their tempo is really upbeat, but from a physical standpoint we should be able to match their intensity.”
So are Baker and his defensive mates daunted by the Oregon challenge?
“I’m inviting it,” Baker said. “I can’t wait.”
Those last three words certainly apply to the Tigers’ new starting quarterback as well.
Fifth-year senior Jarrett Lee goes back to the future, taking the reins of the LSU offense again after two years as Jefferson’s backup.
Playing in his home state, Lee will get the keys to a Tigers’ offense with a lot of new faces but plenty of talent at the skill positions and a veteran offensive line to set the tone.
With Lee at the controls, the LSU offense will change a bit because he’s not the mobile dual threat Jefferson presents. But the Tigers’ bread will be buttered the same way.
“Obviously our preparation has changed slightly, because (Jefferson and Lee) are a little bit different players, but LSU isn’t going to change their entire offense,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said.
That offense will feature a power running game anchored by sophomore tailback Spencer Ware that is designed to do two things:
1.Chew up yards and control the clock, leaving Thomas, James and the rest of the Ducks’ offense cooling their heels on the sidelines.
2. Set up the play-action pass, which should allow Lee time to scan the field and pick out which receiver is his best option against an Oregon defense that lost a ton of veteran players from last season.
“I’m a different quarterback than Jordan, but our goal is always to get the ball to our playmakers and let them do what they can,” Lee said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can do that.”
Added right guard Will Blackwell, “We’re going to come out and do what we want to do every week – establish the run so we can throw the ball.”
The biggest key for Lee will be to avoid a spate of turnovers, a bug that bit him often when he was the starter as a redshirt freshman in 2008.
A perfect scenario would be Lee steering the Tigers on some early time-consuming drives that both wear Oregon down and give LSU a lead and turn the game over to the defense.
There’s no shortage of confidence on that side of the ball for the Tigers, who lost four starters who were taken in the NFL Draft, but could put the most talented and deepest defense on the field that Miles has had since he arrived in Baton Rouge seven seasons ago.
Kelly has definitely noticed.
“There’s really not many holes from an athletic standpoint or a football player standpoint in LSU’s lineup,” Kelly said.
After leading the SEC in pass defense (allowing only 169.8 yards a game) last season, the LSU secondary is poised to be as good as any in the country. And like the defense as a whole, the Tigers’ DBs will have to prove as much against the Ducks.
“I think we’ll look a lot like we did last season,” cornerback/nickel back Tyrann Mathieu said. “It will be real important to keep them in front of us.
“We feel like we’ve prepared long enough and now it’s time to go out and play.”
Yes it is. Finally.
LSU-Oregon analysis LSU-Oregon: Who has the edge? Tiger Sports Digest season preview package