NASHVILLE – A year ago next week I covered the 2014 Under Armour All-America Game in St. Petersburg.
It was a bizarre experience on many levels, but maybe the oddest feeling, one that slapped you in the face from start to finish, was that the game itself and the outcome didn't matter. They weren't the story that night.
Nor this week does playing Notre Dame or competing in the 2014 Music City Bowl feel like the storyline for LSU football.
Don't get me wrong, the players seem focused and have said all the right things, dishing out the requisite amount of respect to the Irish that you're supposed to pay your a big-name opponent in a bowl game.
But the real story surrounding the purple and gold, the one bouncing around in conversations from fans to media and even players alike, is how the future of LSU football is shaping up.
For weeks since the team's Thanksgiving night win at Texas A&M that's been the discourse – who amongst the draft-eligible players (and the coaching staff, for that matter) will stick around for 2015, a season that has the potential to be promising for the Tigers.
That theme spilled over in a big way to player interviews Sunday afternoon at the Gaylord Opry Hotel, where LSU is staying in advance of Tuesday's game at LP Field (2 p.m., ESPN).
When asked about LSU's chances next season, junior safety Jalen Mills cemented a thought that's permeated the program lately.
“I feel like we’re going to win the national championship next year,” Mills proclaimed.
What's most interesting about that statement isn't the bravado – the Tigers will be in better position to contend next fall – it's the source. Mills is one of six LSU underclassmen eligible for the draft yet to commit one way or the other to his future.
That's why the talk will go on through the bowl game and likely up until Jan. 15, the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2015 NFL Draft. What Mills and the quintet who put in for draft grades (OG Vadal Alexander, OT Jerald Hawkins, DE Danielle Hunter, LB Kwon Alexander and CB Jalen Collins) opt to do will have a big say in the Tigers' playoff aspirations.
For what it's worth Mills and the players aren't alone in their belief that next year could be special.
"I think that this team has a chance to play in championships," head coach Les Miles told reporters on Dec. 15. "Should the juniors recognize how close we are to being in the tournament, frankly this could be a great team for quite some time."
And so, two days before going toe-to-toe with the the Golden Domers, that's why starting cornerback Jalen Collins was waxing on his professional future and the information he's received to this point.
“I did get a grade back (from the Draft Advisory Committee)," Collins said in response to a reporter's question. "This year I heard they’re doing first round, second round and stay in school (grades). Mine was stay in school."
He was the second Tiger in a span of five minutes to make that claim, as starting left guard Vadal Alexander echoed that his grade indicated he wouldn't be selected in the opening two rounds.
“I hadn’t really even thought about it that much. After the game," continued Collins on when he'll make a decision. "I’ve talked about it a couple times with my family, but I’m still on the fence about it.”
Collins, a redshirt junior, acknowledged he's come through LSU in an interesting era, a time when players often expect to be three-and-done.
“People do get conditioned to that, they kinda get that set in their mind that they want to do their three years and be done," Collins noted, "but everybody’s different.”
In fact many in Tiger Nation are wondering if the tide is starting to turn on the three-year-plan mentality that's flooded the program over the last half-decade.
On top of the success of a senior like left tackle La'el Collins, there are a number of additional positives, not the least of which is building on the last two regular seasons of 9-3 and 8-4, respectively.
“I feel like if everybody was to come back, I think it would be unreal," mused Mills. "I think we would probably be the team that everybody would look at, just from the simple fact of the players that we have now, most of the juniors, are starters. The maturity with us being veteran guys, knowing the ins and outs of the game, it’d be nasty.”
Mills did not put in for a draft grade, saying "it just wasn't something that was a priority." But, while he is weighing his options now, he's open-minded to the benefits a return might provide.
“(There are) all the good things about staying – being able to be a contender for the national championship, getting my degree, which I’ll probably be the first person in my house to have one," he explained. "Just things like that to say that all the hard work I put in has paid off.”
As for how teammates of these six are handling the situation, well, let's just say there's been a mixed bag of approaches.
“It’s not trying to sell us at all. Guys are up front with us," Mills said on advice from La'el Collins. "Of course La’el told us how he came back and he benefited from it. It’s just something you’ve got to look forward to.”
Others have come with an agenda, including a player whose communication skills were once in question this season.
“All the time. All the time," said sophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith with a laugh on making his pitch. "I always mess with them and tell them to make sure they stay because this is what we can do, this is what we can be. I’m always messing with the guys about that.”
With such important matters at hand, like how LSU can climb back to the top of the NCAA mountain a year from now, Notre Dame never had a chance.
Not in the game, mind you (although I don't favor the Fighting Rudy Ruettigers there either). But in the headlines and in the minds of the people.
The hunt is on for bigger game, which in this case for LSU means keeping what you've got.
Story of LSU bowl season isn't playing Irish
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