Twelve months ago, the matchup
between LSU and Ole Miss had national title implications, with the Tigers
needing a win to stay alive in the hunt for a Sugar Bowl berth. CBS was out in
full force to cover the battle in Oxford, Miss.,
as red-hot son-of-a/brother-of-a-legend Eli Manning took on a rampant LSU team
that had laid waste to opponents all season long.
The result was an old fashioned
knock down, drag out fight that left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone
involved. The Tigers eeked out a 17-14 win that finished with Manning being
knocked over by an offensive lineman pushed into him by a charging LSU blitz,
ending any hope of the upset Rebel fans and television analysts had been crowing
about all week leading up to the game. For their part in the victory, the Tigers
were pelted with insults and hurled objects as they boarded the team bus after
the game, prompting head coach Nick Saban to make a rare criticism of an
opposing team’s fans during his Monday press conference two days
Now Ole Miss is heading to
Baton Rouge for
a rematch, but without any trace of the spitfire and venom that surrounded the
LSU is 7-2 and eyeing a Cotton Bowl
berth, knowing any chance of a BCS bowl game went out the window when they were
thrashed 45-16 by Georgia in
October. The Rebels are a wreck at 3-6, with their three victories coming in
overtime against Vanderbilt, by seven points on Homecoming against Arkansas State, and then by three points one week later against South Carolina.
Two of their losses are to
Memphis and Wyoming.
How much have things changed in the
last 12 months? When the game kicks off in Death
Valley at 7 p.m. on November 20, the only television cameras in the
stadium will be the ones broadcasting the game on TigerVision, LSU’s own
ESPN passed on the game. ESPN2
passed on the game. CBS passed on the game. Even Jefferson Pilot passed on the
The times, they are a-changing,
Sophomore quarterback Ethan Flatt
leads the Rebels into Tiger Stadium for their matchup with LSU, one of three
quarterbacks Tiger fans are likely to see on the night. Flatt is ranked among
the top quarterbacks in the SEC, passing for over 170 yards per game, but his
impact is limited by a rotation that features Michael Spurlock and former LSU
commitment Robert Lane.
Lane, Tiger fans will remember,
verbally committed to the Tigers but backed out and signed with Ole Miss when
the purple and gold added JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn to the roster. Lane
left, if you listen to the rampant rumors, because he did not want to battle
Russell and Flynn for a starting job. Now, with the matchup between the two SEC
West rivals looming, Russell is the only one of the three to earn a start, but
like Lane has hardly set the world on fire with his performance on the
The only other member of the red,
white, and blue to make any impact on offense in 2004, aside from Flatt, has
been junior running back Vashon Person, who averages better than 80 yards per
game on the ground for an offensive unit that ranks in the bottom third of every
statistical category in the conference.
The defense is not much better,
either, also ranking in the bottom third of every statistical category in the
SEC, pointing to a teamwide problem that has led to several blowout losses for
the Rebels. Sophomore defensive back Charles Clark is the only member of the
defensive unit to rank in the top ten in the conference in tackles, while junior
lineman McKinley Boykin is the only defenseman to rank in tackles for
In fact, the only positive for Ole
Miss this season has been placekicker Jonathon Nichols, who once again ranks
among the nations elite and is tops in the SEC with an eight points-per-game
average, comfortably ahead of LSU’s kicking dup of Ryan Gaudet and Chris Jackson.
While the Rebels have redefined
‘fall from grace’ in 2004, going from an appearance in the Cotton Bowl to a
season in which they will finish ineligible for any postseason play whatsoever,
their Tiger counterparts have not been the dominant force they were predicted to
be before the season began either.
A quarterback rotation featuring a
redshirt signal-caller and a fifth-year senior has led to critical
inconsistencies on offense, and top receiver Craig Davis spends more time wide
open on the field but being ignored than he does being thrown to in tight
The running game, a staple of LSU’s
offense during their run to the national championship last season, has been
hit-and-miss this year, and was never more obvious than when the team rushed for
58 yards against Troy State, and then picked up 233 yards on the ground
against Alabama, the nation’s top-rated
On defense, while the line has been
able to get penetration and hurry opposing quarterbacks on nearly every down,
the unit as a whole has had trouble with running backs ripping off large gains
and is prone to giving up big plays. The best friend of opposing quarterbacks
this season has often been LSU defensive backs Corey Webster and Travis Daniels,
who have taken their preseason awards and thrown them out of the window as they
have often found themselves beaten on deep balls hurled downfield by otherwise
pedestrian signal callers.
The two teams, among the best in
the nation in 2003, are struggling to find an identity in 2004 as the weight of
expectations has at times threatened to crush anything the athletes have
achieved on the field.
The Tigers, 7-2 on the season and
sixty minutes shy of completing a home sweep, have been booed in their own
stadium at times this season as the young offense has struggled to find a steady
rhythm under the glare of the national spotlight.
The Rebels, who would love to be in
LSU’s position, are coming to the full realization that Eli Manning, now with
the New York Giants, covered up more deficiencies than they originally
November 20 will see little of the
blood and hatred that surrounded the clash in 2003, and little of the
trash-talking between the teams leading up to the game.
Right about now, the Rebels and the
Tigers would both just like to see another win.