Bigger fish to fry

The last time the Tigers welcomed a No. 1 team to Death Valley was more than 10 years ago. The Oct. 11, 1997 matchup with the Florida Gators seems long gone. Roaming the sidelines for the Bayou Bengals was head coach Gerry Dinardo, who had taken over the program in 1995.

It was a program in turmoil, and Dinardo helped to right the ship. After suffering six straight losing seasons, Dinardo was beginning to turn things around.


His signature win in his inaugural season came in Death Valley on Sept. 16, when the Tigers topped No. 6-ranked Auburn 12-6. The season finished out with a trip to the Independence Bowl, where LSU conquered Nick Saban and Michigan State 45-26.


After multiple bowl berths, the Tiger program seemed it was heading in the right direction. Climbing to No. 6 early in the 1998 season, a Southeastern Conference championship seemed within reach.


When the Tigers dropped back-to-back conference games against Florida and Georgia in October, however, things seemed shaky again down on the bayou. Then when the Tigers dropped 13 of their next 17 contests, it became evident that a change in regime was needed.


On Nov. 15, 1999, two days after the Tigers lost to unranked Houston in Tiger Stadium, LSU chancellor Mark Emmert fired Dinardo with one game remaining in the season. While Hal Hunter coached the Tigers to a 35-10 victory over Arkansas, Emmert was on the road finding the coach who could sustain the pride and success in Tiger football.


Saban, who had lit a spark into the Michigan State football program, took over the program in December. While his first season was marred by unexplainable blowouts and upsets, including a 13-10 home loss to UAB, the Tigers remained confident in Saban's future with the program.


The next season, Tiger fans got what they had been hoping for. After wrapping up a 10-3 season, including wins in the SEC Championship game and Sugar Bowl, the Tigers could finally lay claim to their first outright conference title since 1986. Add that it was the first Sugar Bowl victory for the Bayou Bengals since 1968, and it seemed that Emmert had reeled in the perfect fish. Saban was leading LSU to the top of the SEC.


The 2002 season was not the follow up that Saban had hoped for, losing quarterback Matt Mauck to injury midseason and finishing 8-5.


The 2003 season, however, was one Tiger fans would not soon forget. The Tigers roared out of the gates, winning their first five games, including a home win over the undefeated Georgia Bulldogs.


While LSU dropped a home contest to Florida, Saban's boys would not taste another loss on the season. Finishing 13-1, the Tigers defeated the Bulldogs in Atlanta before traveling to New Orleans for the BCS title game, where they handled Oklahoma 21-14.


It was the first national championship for the Tigers since Paul Dietzel beat Clemson in the 1958 Sugar Bowl. Forty five years later, the glory had been restored.


The next season, the defending National Champions dropped just two regular season games, finishing 9-3 after a last-second loss to Iowa in the Capital One Bowl.


A week before that loss though, Saban announced he was leaving Baton Rouge to become the head coach for the NFL's Miami Dolphins. In five years with the program, he amassed 48 wins and just 16 losses (.750), but Tiger fans’ worst fear came to life as Saban made the jump to the professional level.


In January 2005, the Tigers lured Les Miles away from Oklahoma State, a coach who had both a proven record of success and a track record of solid recruiting.


Despite the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Miles was able to focus the Tigers and reach a 10-1 regular season record and secure an SEC West championship, dropping only the Tennessee bout, the first game in Tiger Stadium after the hurricane.


While LSU dropped the ball in the SEC Championship game against Georgia, it seemed that Miles would be able to steer the ship along the same successful path that Saban had set it on. The Tigers closed the 2005 season with a 40-3 rout of No. 9 Miami in the Peach Bowl.


In 2006, Miles led the Tigers to an 11-2 season, including a 41-14 blowout win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. While the Bayou Bengals were unable to lock up a division title, the 2007 season would bring a more coveted prize back to Baton Rouge.


In closing out a 12-2 season, the Tigers returned to New Orleans for their bowl game. This time, it was for all the marbles. When Miles and the Tigers topped Ohio State 38-24, LSU had become the only team to win two national championships during the BCS era.


In a season filled with rollercoaster-like play calls and triple overtime losses, Miles had shaken the shadow that had loomed over him from the Saban era. Miles had now matched Saban's successes by bringing the title back to Baton Rouge.


Fast forward to the 2008 season, the Tigers find themselves in a position that they have not experienced in some time. With inexperience at quarterback and the defense playing well only in spurts, the Tigers have dropped two conference games and find themselves needing a lot of help if they are going to contend for the conference championship.


Now, LSU must play host to the top ranked team in the land in Alabama with a familiar face roaming the other sideline.


Of course, Saban's return to the SEC has been covered by negative press and ill feelings from Tiger fans across the map.


Defensive tackle Marlon Favorite, who was recruited by Saban in 2005, says that the Alabama coach's return to Tiger Stadium is something he has thought about, but there are bigger fish to fry than Saban.


"It's very hard to avoid all of that," Favorite said. "But the main thing we're focused on this week is just going out and preparing and taking it one step at a time and not buy into the hype of the game. It's going to be a great game on Saturday and something we're all looking forward to playing in. You come to schools like this to play in games like this."


As for Saban's impact on the game, Favorite said that he is turning as much of it as he can into motivation for the team.


"You look at fights, big boxing matches and there is a lot of hype before you get into the fight," Favorite said. "There's a lot of words and stuff like that. But the main focus is for those guys to focus on the fight and do the best they can. That's how you have to approach things."


Defensive lineman Kirston Pittman, who won a BCS title under both Saban and Miles, says that he has pushed the billing of the battle between the coaches completely aside.


"That doesn't concern us," Pittman said. "We have to get in between the lines and play the game. A lot of things are being said about playing against coach Saban, and coach Saban coming here, and coach Miles going against coach Saban. It's not about that. This game is going to show who is the best in the West and that's really what this is going to decide.


"I've gotten a few phone calls already talking about coach Saban versus coach Miles but it's something you can't get tuned into," Pittman added. “You have to tune those kinds of things out. It can be a distraction but we have a lot of veteran guys and mature players, and coach Miles won't let it get to us."


Demetrius Byrd, who was recruited by Miles, says that the team's only focus is getting the victory.


"Basically, its game in the West that we want to win so we can try and get a little say-so in the west," Byrd said. "It's really not about Nick Saban and him coming back here. It's about us playing a game and going out to try and get a victory.”


While the Tigers dropped the ball against both Florida and Georgia, Byrd said that a win over the nation's top ranked team would help overshadow the team's missteps. 


"We'd like that a lot," Byrd said. "When we were No. 1 everyone was trying to knock us off so why not return the favor."


Offensive lineman Brett Helms, also recruited during Saban's tenure but redshirted in his final year in Baton Rouge, said that the bottom line remains the same.


"It's really about us and Alabama," Helms said. "I think it's been blown up a little bigger than it should be. We're not playing against coach Saban. We're playing against those 11 guys and that's who we have to beat.


"Coach Miles does what he does and that's go out and win ballgames," Helms said. "Coach Saban was our coach but he's not anymore."

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