Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas; the setting for Saturday's game between Oregon and LSU
In normal situations, controversy will help stir up interest and draw viewers. But that's not the case with the season-opening showdown between the Oregon Ducks and LSU Tigers at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The game is heavily-anticipated based on its own merits, and remains so in spite of the chaos that has surrounded both teams.
These supremely talented football teams have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. LSU has two players suspended indefinitely, including starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson, for their involvement in a recent bar brawl in Baton Rouge.
The Ducks, meanwhile, have their own issues in the wake of revelations of their involvement with alleged street agent Willie Lyles. As Bud Withers of The Seattle Times summed it up, "the only thing more breathtaking than the Oregon offense is (head coach Chip) Kelly's plea to Lyles last winter, begging him to ship scouting materials, when he knew media outlets were onto the $25,000 payment (that Oregon had made to him)."
Maybe that's why the media as dubbed this the "Wille Lyles Bowl".
Lyles himself predicts that Oregon will win 31-21. "And that's if LSU gets to 21," he says.
Let's take a look at the keys to the game.
LSU's Jarrett Lee will quarterback the Tigers on Saturday
LSU coach had high hopes heading into fall camp for his starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson. But that came crashing down when the soft-spoken Jefferson was involved in an ugly bar brawl with four of his teammates a few days into camp.
While police and prosecutors sort out the chaos, Coach Miles has suspended Jefferson and turned the offense over to senior Jarrett Lee.
Lee's career has not been a storybook one so far. As a redshirt freshman, he threw 16 interceptions and amazingly watched seven of those returned for touchdowns. In 2010, he showed enough improvement in spot duty that he threw the winning touchdown pass that beat Florida and led the game-winning drive to triumph over Tennessee.
LSU is as physically talented as any team in college football. At the least, Jarrett Lee just needs to be solid and not make costly mistakes if the Tigers are to beat Oregon and run the table.
Oregon running back LaMichael James
It's not too often that a sophomore finishes a season as a Heisman Trophy finalist, but that's what Oregon's LaMichael James did in 2010. He led the nation with 1,731 rushing yards and was a unanimous All-American. Along with quarterback Darron Thomas, James is a key figure in Oregon's hopes to return to a BCS bowl game.
James isn't bashful when asked of his team's prospects for the upcoming season. "We can get better," he says. "The sky's the limit for us."
Oregon coach Chip Kelly
Chip Kelly's high-tempo offense racked up points and yardage last season while wearing down opponents mercilessly. It was a no-huddle offense on steroids, so to speak. It severely limited the ability of defensive coordinators to substitute players and change schemes. Oregon also went for two-point conversions following their countless touchdowns and succeeded in those conversions with astonishingly high frequency.
But as the season rolled into November, opponents began finding little ways to slow down the Northwest juggernaut. The most hilarious was a healthy-looking Cal defensive lineman glancing to the sideline, receiving a coach's signal and collapsing in a heap while grasping frantically at his hamstring. It delayed the Duck offense and infuriated Kelly.
Those little nuances to slow the pace and helped humanize the Oregon offense. So much so, that by the time they played Auburn for the National Championship, they looked vulnerable and ordinary.
LSU benefits in their ability to have several months to prepare for Oregon. The key will be whether Kelly can continue to innovate and keep the Ducks one step ahead of the competition.
LSU coach Les Miles
In spite of his impressive 62-17 record at LSU, coach Les Miles might actually be underrated. It's hard to pinpoint why, but theories exist. The rumor mill annually churns with news of Miles' impending departure (usually to Michigan), which leads people to possibly lump Miles with the like of the vagabond Bobby Petrino. But in reality, Miles is the longest-tenured coach in the SEC.
There have also been many times where Miles rolls the dice and gambles big-time in big games and comes out with incredibly fortuitous results. People are naturally skeptical of someone who they deem as a riverboat gambler. The label detracts from what Miles has done: recruit the best talent in America and coach them to 62 wins in six seasons at Baton Rouge.
His presence and stability are positive factors in keeping his team focused and prepared for the Oregon game, despite the current controversy.
LSU safety Brandon Taylor (15) will wear #18 this season
Heading into the 2011 season, LSU coach Les Miles and a panel of former players have selected senior safety Brandon Taylor as the player who best represents what it means to be a Tiger both on and off the field.
As a result, Taylor will wear No. 18 this year as he steps out of the shadow of the legendary cornerback Patrick Peterson, who graduated to the NFL.
Taylor will represent one of the many strong suits for the LSU defense: their secondary. In his career, Taylor has accumulated 89 tackles, 10 pass breakups and two interceptions. His presence will be needed in the Tigers' attempt to stymie the Oregon offense.
Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit comprise the ESPN Gameday crew, who will be at the LSU-Oregon game in Arlington, Texas.
The ESPN Gameday crew has a new addition this season, with the fidgety but personable David Pollack joining the broadcast team. A Saturday in the fall never feels complete without seeing a least a few minutes of this lively combination of personalities go over the stats and nuances of impending games from around the country.
They will be in Arlington, Texas outside of Cowboy Stadium this Saturday to usher in the college football season with the great LSU-Oregon matchup.
Host Chris Fowler has expressed concern over the ability to draw a live crowd behind them for this broadcast, due to Arlington being far away from the campus of either of the featured teams. As Fowler says, "Our show doesn't work without the energy of a lively crowd right behind us."
But ESPN will likely ensure that traveling fans from the respective schools will be enticed to be bussed out early to the stadium and that things will raucous as usual.
And here's to betting that when co-host Lee Corso goes to make his prediction for the winning team, he will be donning a costume Tiger's head.
Derek Johnson is the author of three books including his latest, Bow Down to Willingham: How White Guilt Enabled a Secretly Malicious Coach to Destroy the Once-Mighty Washington Huskies. You can read a free excerpt at derekjohnsonbooks.com.