In the SEC, Drama Comes Courtesy of LSU

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The New York Sun

Whatever one thinks of the SEC’s place atop the college football landscape, there is little doubt the league — and particularly LSU — has the market cornered on drama.

Such was the case Saturday night as LSU and Auburn engaged in the kind of back-and-forth struggle that will be remembered for many years. It’s also the kind of game LSU has made a habit of playing, and winning, the last few years. This game had everything a fan could want: great defense, huge hits, spectacular plays, risky calls, and late lead changes. In the end, LSU stood on top, 26-21, thanks to the latest in a series of bold decisions by coach Les Miles that have come to define his tenure in Baton Rouge. Miles opted to remain aggressive, when the book he so routinely ignores would have suggested otherwise, ultimately proving decisive for LSU in the annual Tiger tussle.

The win gave LSU an enormous leg up in the SEC West, where Alabama appears to be the only serious obstacle, and the Tigers get the Tide at home in November. Auburn will need a repeat of LSU’s two losses of a year ago in order to win the division, and therefore have an opportunity to win the conference title and contend for the national title.

That is exactly what it appears LSU will do after this win. The defending Bowl Championship Series winners were noticeably absent from the preseason national-title speculation, mostly because of their quarterback situation. Once gifted-but-troubled Ryan Perrilloux — last year’s backup who earned MVP honors in the SEC championship game — was dismissed from the team, it looked as if a weakness at the most important position might relegate LSU to second-tier status in the SEC.

Instead it appears LSU may have found its quarterback, by both accident and necessity, amid the chaos at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.

The plan entering the season was to have redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee share time with junior Andrew Hatch, a transfer from Harvard (yes, you read that correctly) until one — Lee, given that he was heavily recruited — seized the job outright.

Early on against Auburn, it didn’t appear Lee was ready. He threw a horrendous second-quarter interception on a screen pass, gifting a touchdown and a 14-3 lead to Auburn, then took a seat on the bench. It was only when Hatch suffered a concussion on a quarterback keeper midway through the third quarter that Lee returned to the field.

When he did, he looked nothing like the skittish player that had thrown the near-crippling interception. Lee completed his first pass, a strike down the middle for 16 yards, and two plays later hung in the pocket until the last possible instant to deliver a 39-yard touchdown to Chris Mitchell, pulling LSU to within 14-10.

Miles followed that touchdown with a successful onside kick, but the LSU drive fizzled. LSU eventually took the lead on another Miles special: a halfback-option pass on the final play of the third quarter. Auburn seized the advantage right back at 21-20 midway through the fourth, setting the stage for another bold Miles finish.

Taking over with four minutes remaining — on the road, in an impossibly loud venue, with a quarterback just two quarters removed from one of the ugliest interceptions in recent memory — Miles did what he always does: He went for the jugular. Three runs and three Lee completions had LSU comfortably in field-goal range at the Auburn 18 with just over a minute remaining. With an excellent kicker in Colt David, most coaches would bleed the clock, force Auburn to use its time-outs, and look to win the game on a field goal.

But Miles is not like most coaches. On first down, he had Lee pass into the right flat. It’s the kind of play that can go for a touchdown — for either team. The call caught Auburn by surprise — hard to imagine, given Miles’s track record of aggressiveness — and Brandon LaFell snared Lee’s pass, and turned upfield and into the end zone.

Last year against Auburn, Miles opted to throw into the end zone rather than attempt a winning field goal. That play worked, too, leaving just one second on the clock and branding Miles with the reputation of a riverboat gambler.

This time, the risk was more calculated. Though Miles’s call left Auburn with time to come back, it also put the game into the hands of his team’s strength — its defense — with an entire field to defend. Auburn never threatened, coming up short on a 4th-and-25 after an LSU sack.

A second-straight crushing defeat of Auburn puts LSU very much in the national-title picture, but the bigger news was the emergence of Lee. He began the game 0-of-5 with an interception, but finished it on an 11-of-17 tear for 183 yards and two touchdowns. If he can play close to that second-half level, the SEC may have a new favorite, ahead of even the Florida-Georgia winner in the East.

It’s too early to assume much in the SEC — except that when LSU’s involved, take the “over” on drama.

Mr. Levine is a writer for

The New York Sun

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