Winning close ones kept LSU's BCS chances alive
LSU linebacker Kelvin Sheppard is thinking about keepsakes he could collect when the fifth-ranked Tigers wrap up what - surprisingly - could go down as one of the finest seasons in the program's 108 years.
The Tigers were picked in the Southeastern Conference's 2010 preseason poll to finish fourth the league's Western Division. Since then, LSU (10-1, 6-1 SEC) has won six games by seven or fewer points, including one game in which they held on by breaking up a last-second pass in the end zone, and three games in which they didn't take their final lead until less than a minute remained.
''I'm definitely going to keep the poster of whatever we end up doing this season on the wall,'' Sheppard said, referring to a promotional poster that has LSU's schedule on it with a place to write in final scores. ''You really got to look at the wins and how we won them and the environments we won them in, against all those Top 20 teams that we played. This is probably one of the biggest seasons ever in LSU history.''
LSU has gone 4-1 against ranked opponents and has one regular season game left this Saturday in Little Rock, Ark., against high-scoring, 12th-ranked Arkansas (9-2, 5-2) and its prolific quarterback, Ryan Mallett. If the Tigers can pull out another win in a rivalry that has had its share of last-minute drama in recent years, they'll reach 11 wins for only the sixth time ever and the fourth time since coach Les Miles took over in 2005.
It would also mark only the second time in school history that LSU finished a regular campaign at 11-1, with their BCS championship season of 2003 being the other. And such a finish would likely result in a BCS bowl bid.
''I like the position that we're in,'' Miles said. ''As we get to the back end of the season we have a lot to play for and that's a wonderful thing.''
Speaking before practice on Monday, several LSU players asserted that the chance to improve to 11-1 matters regardless of whether that mark winds up being good enough for them to sneak into the BCS title game - an unlikely possibility that could happen only if a couple of the four unbeaten teams ranked above the Tigers stumble.
An 11-1 mark ''would mean so much not only to me, but for coach Miles as well,'' LSU star cornerback Patrick Peterson said. ''We know that he's taken a lot of heat. ... It was tough, but this team, we kept fighting.
''This season right here was more about pride,'' Peterson continued. ''We wanted to get that pride and respect back.''
Although Miles is 61-16 at LSU, averaging better than 10 victories a season, and although he has won four bowl games including two BCS bowls and one national title, he's been under a lot of scrutiny. LSU finished with fewer than 10 wins in 2008 and 2009 and lost key rivalry games to Florida, Alabama and Mississippi both years.
Early this season, dissatisfaction with Miles raged on call-in shows after LSU nearly blew a big halftime lead and held on in the final seconds against a North Carolina team that sat out 13 players because of an NCAA probe into improper contact between players and agents and academic violations.
Four weeks later, it got worse when LSU appeared to have lost to underdog Tennessee in Tiger Stadium on a botched, time-wasting final play near the Volunteers goal line. LSU got a reprieve when Tennessee had too many defenders on the field, allowed the Tigers to run one more play with no time left and escape with the win.
The next week at Florida, Miles called a risky fake field goal to set up winning TD with six seconds left.
Against Alabama, a reverse toss play to a tight end on fourth-and-short proved pivotal in a 24-21 win over Alabama. Then last weekend, LSU didn't take its final lead on upset-minded Ole Miss until 44 seconds remained.
''We've been showing up in fourth quarters this year; we seem to buckle down and throw it into overdrive,'' offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert said. ''It's a good feeling after some rough losses the last couple years ... A lot of games could have gone the other way, but I think it's a testament to this team's will to win and just how hard we all fight.''