Wild week ends with SEC title, Miles returning to Baton Rouge
ATLANTA -- It's probably fitting that the craziness that was the Southeastern Conference race this season ended the way it did Saturday.
In a strange, surreal sort of way, it was almost like going to the movies, a carnival, maybe even the circus -- and just when you blink -- a football game breaks out.
But then, Les Miles and his LSU football team have kept us on the edge of our seats all season long.
Why should the SEC championship game and all the drama surrounding it be any different?
Miles started the day by holding an impromptu news conference to angrily refute an ESPN report that he was taking the Michigan coaching job. He ended the day by sitting in that same spot beaming about his first SEC championship at LSU and a program he plans to be coaching for a long time.
"You know, when you're a little kid, you think about winning championships, whatever league, whatever sport, whatever little baseball team, wherever you're at," Miles said. "Winning a championship in this conference is why you play. It's as great an honor to be a part of this team as anything I've done in my career."
The Tigers have had more convincing and more impressive victories than their 21-14 escape against Tennessee on Saturday in the Georgia Dome, but few have been as sweet.
At least, not under Miles.
The talk all week was that Miles was headed back to Michigan to coach his alma mater, then news broke that his defensive coordinator, Bo Pelini, was leaving to take the Nebraska head coaching job.
Starting quarterback Matt Flynn had a bum shoulder and didn't play, and the Tigers played the entire second half Saturday without ailing All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. Star receiver Early Doucet was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter.
Of course, all this came on the heels of LSU squandering its No. 1 perch in the BCS standings with a 50-48 triple-overtime loss at home to Arkansas a week earlier.
"We were coming here to win -- period," junior receiver Demetrius Byrd said. "All week, we were telling ourselves, 'Let's go out here and show them that last week was a fluke.'
"We were going to come in here and win. We were going to show Tennessee who we are, and we did that. We came out and fought to the end."
As it has so many times this season, the fourth quarter belonged to the Tigers.
Trailing 14-13 entering the final period, they turned to their defense to send the Vols packing -- a defense laden with future NFL players, but the same defense that had been exploited the past few weeks.
Senior cornerback Jonathan Zenon, who had been picked on more than a few times during that stretch, guessed right with just under 10 minutes to play and turned the entire game around. He read Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge's eyes and sat on a little stop route.
He darted inside would-be receiver Quintin Hancock, intercepted the pass and breezed in for an 18-yard touchdown. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, playing for injured Flynn, scooted in for the two-point conversion, and the Tigers were back in business.
"The defense had to step it up," Zenon said. "That's when you win games, in the fourth quarter. We've been doing that all year with the exception of those two triple-overtime games, and we got it done today. That's what this team is about heart, sticking together and making sure we have each other's backs.
"They came after me, and I made a play, a play we had to have. I'm glad for this team that I made it."
The Vols, who came back from the dead just to get to the SEC championship game, had every chance to win it. Their defense played some of its best football of the season in the second half, and they twice drove deep into Tigers territory after falling behind by a touchdown.
The first drive stalled at the LSU 21 when Tennessee went for it on fourth-and-4 and freshman Denarius Moore dropped a pass that would have been a first down.
The Vols got another chance a few minutes later when their defense held. Ainge hit Arian Foster out of the backfield for 47 yards down to the 14. But on the next play, LSU linebacker Darry Beckwith stepped in front of an ill-advised Ainge pass at the Tigers' 7 with 2:42 to play.
One of the strangest weeks in LSU football history was about to end, and the Tigers were about to walk away with their first SEC title since 2003 -- Nick Saban's next-to-last year in Baton Rouge.
"We're all about team at LSU," said Perrilloux, who was 20-of-30 for 243 yards and an interception and was named the game's MVP. "We're all about each other. Everything we do is about us. We don't let outside distractions get inside our family."
Perrilloux also didn't let a painful finger injury get inside his head. He had to take a few stitches after hitting his finger on the helmet of a Tennessee player and splitting it open. It came in the third quarter, on his only interception.
"Other than that interception, he let our team win the game and didn't try to do too much," LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton said. "That's good. It shows me that he's maturing as a quarterback."
Miles was adamant afterward that his future will be at LSU, and he said he has no plans to talk with Michigan officials about the Wolverines' vacancy.
"I love Michigan. I will always be a Michigan man. I will always root for the next head coach there," Miles said. "I will wear those colors when it comes down to the [Ohio State]-Michigan game. I'm going to root and pull for the Blue, and they will eventually win that game.
" I'd love to help them. But I'm not going there. It saddens me at times. I can't be at two places. I've got a great place. I'm at home."
LSU chancellor Sean O'Keefe cracked that Miles has his own "Big House" at LSU and said he has been confident for weeks that the coach wasn't going anywhere. Athletic director Skip Bertman said an agreement in principle for Miles to stay was reached Friday.
"We still need to do some tweaking, and we don't have a piece of paper," Bertman said. "But he's going to be at LSU."
Miles' contract calls for him to be one of the top three highest-paid coaches in the SEC if he wins the SEC title, and Bertman confirmed Saturday that Miles' new deal would approach the $3 million mark annually.
"People can talk about distractions all they want," LSU safety Craig Steltz said. "But no matter what, we knew he was running out that tunnel with us today. He was 100 percent behind us, and we were 100 percent behind him.
"The only thing on any of our minds was that SEC championship."
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at email@example.com.
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