No. 3 Oregon v. No. 4 LSU quite a showcase opener
ARLINGTON, TEXAS (AP) - The showcase matchup of college football’s opening weekend _ No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 4 LSU _ offers some of the best things college football has to offer, a high-stakes battle of teams loaded with speedy players from marquee conferences, distinctive mascots and whatever you might think of Oregon’s latest uniform color scheme.
There are juicy subplots like the grudge Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas holds against LSU coach Les Miles, and his teammate LaMichael James looking to kick off his Heisman Trophy campaign by become the school’s career rushing leader.
There’s even a little history, with Saturday night’s game from Cowboys Stadium being the first opener between top-5 teams since 1984, when Jimmy Johnson won his debut as coach of Miami against an Auburn squad featuring Bo Jackson a year before he won the Heisman Trophy.
Unfortunately, broken laws and NCAA rules violations have led to suspensions of key players on both teams, there are questions of more violations involving a man linked to both schools and the inevitable talk of the BCS ramifications for whichever potential power goes home 0-1.
“I think for everybody outside the Oregon football team and the LSU football team, it’s gonna be huge,” said Oregon running back Kenjon Barner. “But for both teams, our focus is football. They’re focused on us and we’re focused on them.”
The scandals are impossible to ignore because of the big-time players left in their wake _ quarterback Jordan Jefferson and receiver Russell Shepard for LSU, cornerback-punt returner Cliff Harris for Oregon.
Jefferson was suspended indefinitely, as was reserve linebacker Josh Johns, because they are facing felony charges of second degree battery stemming from a bar fight near campus. Jefferson was connected in part by shoeprints, and when police searched his apartment, they found 49 pairs of shoes, which may prompt an inquiry by NCAA investigators, too.
Shepard was suspended for at least this game because he discussed another NCAA inquiry with a teammate. Losing his production _ he was third in receiving, fourth in rushing for LSU last season _ could hurt the Tigers more than having to replace Jefferson.
“We’re definitely going to miss those guys,” cornerback Tyrann Mathieu said. “Those guys are a big part of our team. I wouldn’t lie to you. But it’s other guys that have to step up now and I think the leadership on the offensive side of the ball has prepared those guys for what’s about to come Saturday.”
They still think of him as the kid who seemed as likely to throw a touchdown pass for the other team as for the Tigers. That stems from his freshman year, 2008, when seven of his 16 interceptions were returned for touchdowns.
Jefferson ended up taking the job away and Lee has started only once since. However, he’s also grown up a lot, filling in for Jefferson late in several important games last season and coming through each time.
“He showed poise,” Miles said. “I think there is an every-play responsibility at the quarterback position, and it is one that he is talking about. Going into his senior campaign as the new starter, he is looking forward to having a complete year.”
While this is technically a neutral site, expect plenty of purple and gold. About 50,000 seats were bought by LSU fans. The Tigers should feel plenty comfortable here since after a lopsided win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl back in January.
Oregon’s last game was the national championship, which it narrowly lost to another SEC team, Auburn.
The Ducks have spent the entire offseason trying to get over that, with this game a perfect chance to bounce back strong. For Thomas, this game is “bigger than the national championship” because he wants to show Miles what a mistake he made by not promising to let him play quarterback.
Miles was hesitant because Shepard was coming in, too, and was considered a better quarterback prospect. So Thomas went west, which may have been a better choice for him anyway because of how well he’s fit in coach Chip Kelly’s more diverse offense, throwing 30 touchdowns last season.
The Ducks led the nation with 47 points per game last season, powered mostly by James, another Texas native.
As a sophomore, he ran for a school-record 1,731 yards. Auburn held him to a season-low 49 yards with the national championship on the line.
“You can always be better,” he said. “It just depends on how hard you work.”
Oregon’s defense and special teams won’t be the same without Harris, who can be found on most preseason All-America teams. He was suspended in June after police caught him driving 118 mph, and for doing so while having a suspended license.
In addition to both teams holding legitimate national title hopes, the other tie that binds is ongoing NCAA investigations into their dealings with Willie Lyles, who ran a Houston-based service that provided scouting reports of high school players.
Oregon paid Lyles and Houston-based Complete Scouting Services $25,000 early in 2010. When Oregon released the information it said Lyles provided, purportedly for potential recruits that year, it was outdated.
LSU’s involvement with Lyles was part of the inquiry that led to Shepard’s suspension, a source familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. The person spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because LSU had not announced what the inquiry entailed.
So there’s been a lot surrounding these programs, good and bad.
On Saturday night, it’ll finally be about nothing but offense and defense.
AP Sports Writers Anne M. Peterson in Eugene, Ore., and Bret Martel in Baton Rouge, La., contributed.