- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Last season, LSU had quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. The Tigers had receivers Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis and free safety LaRon Landry, three more NFL first-round choices.
And the Tigers didn't even win the SEC West.
So as LSU begins the 2007 season ranked No. 2 in the polls heading into Thursday night's opener at Mississippi State (ESPN, 8 ET), Tigers coach Les Miles knows nothing is guaranteed. Even though LSU is an overwhelming favorite to win the SEC championship, as well as a popular choice to play in the BCS National Championship Game, it must first survive eight games in a conference that proved to be too tough in 2006.
"We're not going to play to expectations," Miles said. "We're going to play to be the best football team we can be. Hopefully, we'll meet expectations by the way we play."
Miles, who was hired from Oklahoma State to replace former Tigers coach Nick Saban after the 2004 season, is still trying to meet LSU's lofty expectations. He went 11-2 in each of his first two seasons at the school. Last season, the Tigers lost to Auburn and eventual national champion Florida before rallying to win their final seven games.
With a 22-4 record in two seasons, Miles seemingly picked up where Saban left off. Saban led LSU to the 2003 BCS championship and left for the Miami Dolphins after the next season. Despite becoming the first LSU coach to win 10 games in consecutive seasons, though, Miles has largely failed to win over the majority of Tigers fans.
It won't help that Saban is back in the SEC, coaching at Alabama after only two seasons with the Dolphins.
"I don't know that it's going to affect what we do at LSU," Miles said. "Alabama was going to have to hire a good coach and they got a guy who will do well and we'll look forward to competing against him."
LSU fans haven't complained as much about how often the Tigers lost on Miles' watch, but more so how they lost when they did. In Miles' first season, LSU squandered a three-touchdown lead against Tennessee and lost 30-27 in overtime in LSU's first home game after Hurricane Katrina. LSU won the SEC West in 2005, but the Tigers were bombed by Georgia 34-13 in the SEC championship.
Last season, the Tigers scored only 13 points combined in a 7-3 loss at Auburn and a 23-10 defeat at Florida.
LSU finished 6-2 in SEC play in 2006, one game behind Arkansas in the SEC West standings. The Tigers didn't play in the SEC championship, but blasted Notre Dame 41-14 in the Nokia Sugar Bowl. LSU finished the season ranked No. 3 in the country, the first time since 1958 and 1959 it was in the top five of the final AP Top 25 poll in consecutive seasons.
But without an SEC championship, LSU's season felt incomplete.
And leave it to South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier to say LSU had the most talent in the SEC last season, at least on paper.
"The best team doesn't always win the conference championship," Spurrier said. "LSU led the conference in almost every category: offense, defense, everything, just about. But they didn't play their best at Florida or at Auburn, and they didn't win their division, didn't win the conference."
The Tigers are the most talented team in the SEC again. Quarterback Matt Flynn was MVP of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl during the 2005 season, when he replaced the injured Russell in LSU's 40-3 victory over Miami. Wide receiver Early Doucet steps into the spotlight after Bowe and Davis left for the NFL, and three starters return on the offensive line.
Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher left for Florida State, and Miles replaced him with former BYU head coach Gary Crowton, who worked at Oregon last season.
LSU's defense, led by All-America tackle Glenn Dorsey, will be one of the toughest in the country. Junior defensive end Tyson Jackson figures to join Dorsey in the NFL after this season, and each of the three starting linebackers is back.
But Miles says it will take more than talent for LSU to win the SEC.
"You know, the most talented?" Miles said. "What happens in every season is the team that wins the championship, they're the team that answers some questions about their team. They answer between now and when they get to the back end. There's work to do for every one of us. We enjoy the compliment of being talented, but that doesn't necessarily make you a great team."
What happens in every season is the team that wins the championship, they're the team that answers some questions about their team. They answer between now and when they get to the back end. There's work to do for every one of us. We enjoy the compliment of being talented, but that doesn't necessarily make you a great team.
And talented players don't necessarily make a coach a great coach. Miles was a somewhat surprising choice to replace Saban. He had a 28-21 record in four seasons at Oklahoma State, but earned the reputation of a giant killer by upsetting nationally ranked Oklahoma two times. He played at Michigan and coached under Bo Schembechler and worked at Colorado under Bill McCartney.
While he was coaching at Oklahoma State, Cowboys fans figured Miles' next stop would be back in Ann Arbor. And with Lloyd Carr nearing the end of his career, it still might be.
But for now, at least, Miles has to try to win over LSU fans, many of whom believe he's like a crawfish out of water.
"The first thing they're going to want to ask is, 'Hey, you know, aren't you going to be the national champions, the SEC champions, certainly going to win the West, aren't you looking forward to beating this guy, that guy, this guy?'" Miles said. "The reality is, that's the cart way before the horse. We've got a long schedule of hard work, a lot to accomplish before we can talk about championships. The expectation is there. The hard work and the want is there. But you can't win a championship until you've won a bunch of games. And right now we're preparing to play our first. I understand [expectations] and enjoy them, but don't move too fast."
But Miles might have put the cart before the horse this summer when he suggested USC had a much easier road to the BCS Championship Game in New Orleans because the Trojans play in the Pac-10. Miles said his comments were exaggerated, but didn't back down from his opinion that the SEC is the toughest league in the country.
"It must have been the slow time of the year," Miles said. "It was no reflection on Southern Cal at all and no reflection on them playing an easy schedule. I just said that their strength of schedule might be to their benefit playing in a league without a postseason championship game. I was in no way suggesting they're not talented or deserving or a very quality football team."
No one is suggesting LSU isn't, either.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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