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January 8, 2008

Wild season can't tame Tigers

NEW ORLEANS Often controversial and almost always colorful, LSU coach Les Miles was uncharacteristically sedate in the early moments after he officially became coach of a national championship team.

"I couldn't be more proud of this team and (I'm) so fortunate to be the coach here," Miles said in an even tone after the Tigers' 38-24 victory over Ohio State on Monday night. "(I'm) so fortunate to represent LSU and excuse me wahoo !!!!!"

Miles let out a celebratory scream that was comical, startling and deserved - because he no doubt suppressed urges to scream for other reasons throughout an up-and-down season full of emotional peaks and valleys.

The Tigers were supposed to be national championship contenders all along, but that status constantly was threatened by overtime, upsets, injuries, suspensions, double-digit deficits and employment opportunities.

But LSU overcame two triple-overtime losses that threatened to knock them out of championship contention, injuries to key starters, the regular-season suspension of defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois and the threat of losing Miles and other coaches.

So, was there any doubt the Tigers could recover from an early 10-point deficit against Ohio State?

"The truth of the matter is they busted a couple of plays early in some unbalanced formation," Miles said. "We just needed to settle down, relax and play football.''

They did.

Even after giving up a 65-yard touchdown run to Chris Wells and a long pass to backup tailback Brandon Saine that led to a field goal, there was no panic on LSU's sideline. There was no anxiety. There was no doubt.

"We've battled adversity all year," said All-American strong safety Craig Steltz, who was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury in the first half. "These are special guys that keep fighting to the end.

"If we were down at Alabama, or wherever, the guys just kept fighting back. We never had a doubt we would come back."

Coaches always talk about overcoming adversity, but this experienced, poised and talented LSU team took the message to heart. And then broke Ohio State's.

"We had been down in big games before," LSU offensive tackle Ciron Black said. "Coach just says to play through adversity, withstand the surge, play like it's zero-to-zero and keep your composure."

The Tigers did that when they trailed Florida by 10 points in the fourth quarter and rallied for a game-winning touchdown with just over a minute to play.

They did it when they trailed Alabama by 10 points with three minutes left and came back to win.

They did that when trailing Auburn 17-7 at halftime, and won that game on a touchdown pass with one second remaining.

And that's what they did against the Buckeyes.

"That was just like another day in the SEC," Black said as purple-and-gold confetti rained down on him and euphoric LSU fans chanted "S-E-C, S-E-C."

"It's unbelievable how much talent is in the SEC. It does nothing but get us better. I can't help but thank the SEC."

Yet even in the rugged SEC, double-digit deficits were the least of the Tigers' worries this season.

Consider they lost four players from their 2006 roster that were first-round draft picks, and that included quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who was the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Then, during the season, defensive end Charles Alexander was lost for the season after the third game with a knee injury. Star wide receiver Early Doucet missed five games with a pulled groin. Starting quarterback Matt Flynn missed the SEC Championship Game because of a sore shoulder. All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey was slowed by a knee injury. Jean-Francois was suspended for the first 12 games because of off-field problems.

You want problems? Consider that LSU twice lost in three overtimes this season, including to Arkansas on Nov. 23. No two-loss team had won a national championship since Minnesota in 1960, and that was when champions were crowned before the bowls.

Further complicating matters, the Tigers had to deal with reports that Miles was leaving for Michigan and that defensive coordinator Bo Pelini was leaving for Nebraska. Distractions like that can cause a team to lose focus.

Not LSU. While most teams might have fallen apart, everything instead fell into place for the Tigers. Missouri lost in the Big 12 Championship Game to Oklahoma for the second time and West Virginia was dealt a second loss when it fell at home to Pittsburgh. Suddenly, LSU was back in the championship hunt.

Miles rejected Michigan, his alma mater, and elected to stay in Baton Rouge. And while Pelini did take the coaching job at Nebraska, he was allowed to remain with LSU until after the championship game.

The long layoff before the title game enabled Doucet, Flynn and Dorsey to regain their full health. Flynn threw four touchdown passes against Ohio State, including one to Doucet, and Dorsey was his old dominating self.

Also, Jean-Francois earned defensive MVP honors by posting six tackles, a sack, a quarterback hurry and a field-goal block against Ohio State.

By halftime Monday night, LSU had turned its 10-point deficit into a two-touchdown lead. The margin never got lower than that.

"We've been down 10 before," Miles said. "We understand how to play. This football team just finds a way and keeps on.

"If we would have been down 13, it wouldn't have made a difference. We would have got back in the game."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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