Senior safety Craig Steltz will have a different vantage point of the game on Jan. 7 than he did in 2004 in the Superdome. 'I had the opportunity my senior year (at Archbishop Rummel High School) to watch (older brother and LSU fullback) Kevin win a national championship from the stands, and I never thought we'd have the opportunity to switch spots and go add another one," Steltz says.
Ah yes, the unexpected.
If there's a unifying theme about this college football season, it's that the improbable, the outlandish and the surreal are all possible, nay, probable for LSU. Thus will top-ranked Ohio State, Big Ten Conference champions, and No. 2 LSU, winners of the Southeastern Conference Championship, meet in the Bowl Championship Series National Championship game in the Superdome next Monday. Both teams saw their respective title shots dashed " and then resurrected " late in the season.
During the season, LSU suffered a pair of heart-rending, triple-overtime losses to Kentucky and Arkansas. The Tigers entered the final weekend of the regular season ranked seventh in the BCS standings.
In its penultimate regular season game, undefeated Ohio State was upset by unranked Illinois, seemingly derailing the Buckeyes' national championship aspirations.
But the national rankings, which had been churned like a batch of buttermilk throughout the season, were stirred up one final, fateful time when No. 1 Missouri lost to Oklahoma, and Pittsburgh stunned No. 2 West Virginia on the final afternoon of college play.
The Byzantine formula that determines which two teams play for the BCS championship spat out Ohio State and LSU, inciting a public spat about other teams' title game-worthiness that is likely to simmer until this time next year.
'Very surprised," is how Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman describes the Buckeyes' reversal of fortunes. 'When we lost, we thought our chances were down the drain. But it's been a crazy season. You've just got to keep on hoping, and we did."
If Ohio State was a long shot to qualify for the national championship, many believed LSU had no shot at all.
'The impossible happened," says LSU senior defensive end Kirston Pittman. 'We were able to get in the game and I think we really deserve to be in the game, being that the things we went through as a team the entire year, the injuries and the close calls that we've had, and the games that we were able to pull out."
It's fitting that the Tigers' bowl fate was such a close call. White-knuckle, last-second finishes have become something of a calling card for this Les Miles-coached team. Six times this season, the outcome of an LSU game was decided late in the fourth quarter or in overtime.
The LSU offense, which rolled up more than 500 points for the first time in school history, is led by quarterback Matt Flynn, for whom patience has been a constant companion during his collegiate career. After backing up JaMarcus Russell (the first overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft), Flynn finally got his shot to start as a senior. While hampered by an ankle injury for a significant part of the season, Flynn proved to be a capable passer and runner as well as a gritty performer in the clutch.
This season he completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,233 yards and 17 touchdowns. He's also the fifth-leading rusher on the team.
Flynn, who earns high marks from his teammates for his poise, waited his entire career to lead his team to an SEC championship. When it came time to play the title game in Atlanta, a shoulder injury sidelined him.
Fortunately for the Tigers, former National High School Player of the Year Ryan Perrilloux was ready to step in. Making only his second career start, the vaunted sophomore led the Tigers to a 21-14 victory against Tennessee and was named the game's Most Valuable Player.
Flynn is expected to start against Ohio State, but Perrilloux will almost certainly find his way onto the field.
'If Matt's healthy, we'd definitely love to have his leadership out on the field, but if Ryan's called upon, we know he can do it," says senior running back Jacob Hester.
While some teams employ a committee of running backs, the Tigers utilize an entire congress. They have five backs that each average at least 5 yards per carry.
Leading the charge is Hester, a blunt object of a player who bludgeoned his way to 1,017 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
Speedy sophomore Keiland Williams provides an effective change of pace to Hester and boasts a defense-gouging 6.7 yards per carry. Sophomore Charles Scott and freshman Richard Murphy are talented understudies who could start for most teams in the nation.
And then there's sophomore Trindon Holliday. The 5-foot-5-inch drop of quicksilver lines up as running back, receiver and kick returner. The runner-up in the 100-meter dash at the 2007 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships is one of the fastest humans on the planet " and always the most dangerous player on the field no matter what position he's lined up to play.
LSU's best offensive player is senior wide receiver Early Doucet, who led the team with 50 receptions despite missing nearly five full games with a hamstring injury. He headlines a group of young and improving receivers.
Sophomore Brandon LaFell, who was afflicted earlier in the season with a case of the drops, leads the Tigers with 641 receiving yards.
Mr. Big Play is junior Demetrius Byrd, a junior college transfer who has made an immediate impact. Of the 33 passes he's caught, seven were for touchdowns, including the now-fabled game-winning grab against Auburn with one second remaining on the clock.
Sophomore tight end Richard Dickson is the Tigers' most sure-handed tight end. He has caught 28 passes this year and gives LSU its best pass-catching threat at the position since New Orleans native Robert Royal departed for the NFL in 2002.
LSU's offensive line is led by center Brett Helms, First Team All-SEC left guard Herman Johnson and left tackle Ciron Black, all of whom have at least 20 career starts.
The Tigers' defense may not be as dominant as it was in the first half of the season " when it allowed a total of 32 points in the first five games " but it's still ranked third in the nation in yards allowed per game. And it's plenty opportunistic " LSU's 33 takeaways make the Tigers rank fourth best in the nation.
Senior defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey is the most feared and revered defender in college football. Dorsey spent a large chunk of December on the banquet circuit, collecting enough trophies to fill up the Tigers' training room hot tub. The two-time First Team Associated Press All-American racked up 64 tackles and six sacks even though he routinely faced double teams and was slowed by leg and back injuries the second half of the season.
'He deserves all the awards that he got," says Ohio State senior fullback Tyler Whaley. 'He's the man on that defense. He's the leader up front. He's the real deal and he's going to be tough to deal with, but we're going to do our best " and we're going to get after him."
Senior Ali Highsmith started every game this season at weakside linebacker. The Second Team AP All-American has terrific sideline-to-sideline speed and is second on the team in tackles.
The Tigers' cornerbacks pack plenty of big game experience as well. Seniors Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon have 56 career starts between them. The duo also has intercepted seven passes this season.
First Team AP All-American safety Craig Steltz leads the team in tackles (97) and interceptions (seven). He's a wrecking ball of a defender with a penchant for spectacular collisions and game-changing plays.
The national championship will represent a curtain call for LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who was recently named the new head coach at Nebraska. Pelini, who is, coincidentally, an Ohio State graduate, agreed to coach against the Buckeyes.
LSU's kicking game is on solid footing. First Team All-SEC kicker Colt David made a school-record 25 field goals this season and ranked first in the conference in points. First Team All-SEC punter Patrick Fisher led the conference with a 43.9-yard average.
No examination of Ohio State can begin without addressing its asphyxiating defense. Head coach Jim Tressel's Buckeyes led the nation in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense. They allowed only 11 touchdowns all season.
The unit is led by junior middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, a two-time First Team AP All-American. Inflicting pain on other athletes is in Laurinaitis' genetic code. His father, Joseph Laurinaitis ('Animal" of the Legion of Doom), and two uncles were professional wrestlers.
The ubiquitous Laurinaitis tallied a team-best 103 tackles and five sacks. LSU's Glenn Dorsey was just about the only thing standing between Laurinaitis and every major defensive post-season award.
'I watched Laurinaitis' highlights, and no guy should be allowed to have that many highlights," says LSU coach Les Miles. 'He is one of the finest players in college football. He is very representative of their coaching philosophy. They have an aggressive style of play and are a very talented defense."
LSU's offensive line will be tested by the pass rush artistry of junior defensive end Vernon Gholston. Playing the same 'drop end" position as former Buckeye and current Saints star Will Smith, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year had 13 sacks.
In the secondary, junior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins is an All-Big Ten first team selection. The three-year starter has blazing speed and a knack for playmaking. He leads the team with three interceptions.
Maybe the most impressive statistic about Ohio State's defense is the fact that it has allowed only two rushing touchdowns all season. 'They're pretty stingy on the ground," LSU tailback Jacob Hester says. 'They're fast and they flow to the ball really well. It's going to be tough to run the ball on them, but we're going to have to establish a running game if we want to have a chance to win."
The area in which Ohio State might foresee its biggest advantage is when it runs the ball. The Buckeyes have a mammoth offensive line featuring towering tackles Kirk Barton (6 feet 6 inches, 300 lbs.) and Alex Boone (6 feet 8 inches, 313 lbs.) who clear the way for sophomore running back Chris 'Beanie" Wells.
Wells, who rolled up 1,463 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns this season, is capable of humiliating opposing defenses. Exhibit A: 222 yards versus Michigan. Exhibit B: 221 yards versus Michigan State
In his first year as the starting quarterback, junior Todd Boeckman exhibited few growing pains. At 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds, he strikes a formidable presence in the pocket and is the model of efficiency. Boeckman completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,171 yards and 23 touchdowns this year.
His favorite target is junior Brian Robiskie, son of former LSU star Terry Robiskie. He leads the team with 50 catches for 885 yards and 10 touchdowns. Sophomore Brian Hartline, who also returns punts, caught 46 balls.
Junior kicker Ryan Pretorious, a former rugby-playing South African, connected on 17 of 21 field goal attempts with a long of 50 yards.
The Buckeyes reject the stereotype that as a Big Ten team they are simply too slow to keep up with an athletic SEC opponent. 'We definitely want to go down there and make a statement for Big Ten football," says sophomore defensive tackle Todd Denlinger. 'Everyone talks about SEC speed, but we have a lot of quickness up north here, too. We just have to execute our game plan and do what we do."
Ohio State's most vivid motivational tool is the film of last year's BCS National Championship Game. The undefeated and heavily favored Buckeyes were trounced by SEC champion Florida 41-14.
'Last year we did get complacent," James Laurinaitis says. 'We felt we were invincible. We have a lot of guys on this team that know what it takes to get it done. This is a great opportunity for us."
One of the reasons the Buckeyes will be slight underdogs this time around is the perceived strength of both the Big Ten and the SEC. LSU played seven teams ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll this season; Ohio State played two " Purdue and Penn State, neither of which is currently ranked.
An obvious factor favoring the Tigers is the game's location. Few college teams have played for a national championship 80 miles down the road from their home field, let alone in that team's second home. LSU is 12-4 all-time in games played in the Superdome, and it's not just because of fan support. The Superdome holds an almost mystical appeal to players who grew up in Louisiana, so much so that it just feels like home.
'I can remember going to watch Saints games as a kid and saying, "I wish I was out there one day,'" says junior defensive tackle Marlon Favorite, who graduated from West Jefferson High School. 'So before you even go to the NFL, to have this opportunity in the Superdome on a big stage like this for the national championship, it's going to be great."
The Buckeyes know what it's like to be favored in the national title game and be humbled. They hope a role reversal will yield different results this time around.
'I like being the underdog. Over the course of the season, we have played as the underdog," says Ohio State receiver Brian Hartline. 'We have played well away from home, which is good because this will basically be a home game for LSU."