Game of the Week: Oregon battles LSU in rare top-five showdown
Matchup of No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 4 LSU has Heisman and national-title implications
Both teams have suffered through distractions, but suspensions will hurt LSU more
Even if Oregon's offense struggles against LSU's d-line, Ducks will outscore Tigers
The ugly excesses of college football will be on full display in the highest-profile game of Week 1. Top-five teams LSU and Oregon will take the field far from home in a billion-dollar stadium, and it's such a hot ticket that standing room only spots were going for $159 on StubHub Wednesday. But one team's quarterback was suspended after being arrested for felony second-degree battery, and the other's was a passenger in a car that smelled of marijuana and was being driven 118-mph by a teammate. Both schools are on the NCAA's radar for payments made to dubious scouting service provider Willie Lyles.
College football fans, however, have little trouble separating off-field incidents from on-field brilliance, which is what we should see in Arlington on Saturday night. Inside the lines, Heisman Trophy and national championship storylines will begin to be written after being forced aside during a tumultuous offseason.
1. Jarrett Lee, the stage is yours. With the suspension of starter Jordan Jefferson, senior Jarrett Lee has another chance to win back the LSU faithful as he takes control of the Tigers' maligned offense. Lee started eight games as a redshirt freshman before an ankle injury knocked him out. As a sophomore and junior, Lee could not beat out Jefferson despite LSU's struggles in the passing game (97th nationally in 2009, 107th in 2010). In his first start against a big-time opponent since 2008, Lee must try to keep pace with one of the scariest offenses in the country. Lee has experienced the highs of four fourth-quarter comebacks and the lows of being booed in his home stadium. Saturday, he has a chance to write another chapter in his up-and-down career.
2. Oregon, the stage is yours. The Ducks have emerged as one of the best programs in the nation, but they've come up short in some of their highest profile games under Chip Kelly. The highly anticipated season-opener against Boise State in 2009 saw the Ducks sputter in a 19-8 loss that was punctuated by LeGarrette Blount punching Boise State's Byron Hout. At the Rose Bowl later that season, Oregon had trouble with Terrelle Pryor and Ohio State and lost 26-17. And last year in the national title game, Oregon's 49 points-per-game offense was held in check in a 22-19 loss to Auburn. Oregon has won big games in recent years, but in the very biggest games the Ducks have failed to play to their full potential. Saturday offers another opportunity.
3. Who will feel the player suspensions more? Oregon will be missing Cliff Harris, an All-America punt returner and shutdown corner. LSU will be without Jefferson and wide receiver Russell Shepard, a big-play threat who started nine games last year and was pegged to emerge as one of the offense's playmakers this season. (Maybe Jefferson could try throwing balls to Shepard while Harris covers him in the Jerry World parking lot?) Harris is a big loss, but Kelly hinted this week that Kenjon Barner should be able to make up for the absence in the return game. But with Jefferson and Shepard out, LSU is not as much of a threat to stretch the field. Lee has been prone to interceptions in his career and will be missing one of his top wideouts (freshman Odell Beckham will get a lot of Shepard's reps). The Ducks should come out ahead in the suspension department.
Oregon enters the game as a three-point favorite. Oregon is 3-7 in its last 10 games against the spread away from home, including two neutral-site bowl game losses. LSU is 8-4 against the spread versus nonconference BCS opponents under Les Miles and 23-0 straight up under Miles in nonconference regular-season games.
Oregon had 25 scoring drives that took less than one minute in 2010.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
DE Lavar Edwards, LSU: With Shepard on the sidelines, Edwards rates as LSU's top NFL prospect in this game. The junior is a terrific athlete who displays skill rushing the passer or pursuing the action from the backside. Edwards has a frame that should expand over time and offers nice potential. Grade: Third-round prospect.
RB LaMichael James, Oregon: The elusive James reminds many of former USC star Reggie Bush. James is a creative ballhandler who makes several defenders miss over the course of a single run. The versatile junior projects as a situational runner in the NFL who can be used as a ballcarrier, pass-catcher and return specialist. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.
G Carson York, Oregon: One of the top guards in the nation, York combines fundamentals, athleticism and smarts to dominate his opponents. He moves incredibly well and is getting long looks from zone blocking NFL teams. Grade: Third-round prospect.
LB Karnell Hatcher, LSU: The underrated senior is a tough run defender with good range and the ability to get outside the numbers in coverage. Hatcher lacks elite athleticism yet plays smart, tough football. Grade: Sixth-round prospect.
It appears the Ducks are in prime position to run away with this game. Quarterback Darron Thomas and James are two of the most explosive players in the nation, and LSU appears to be in turmoil after the bar fight that got Jefferson and others in trouble. The biggest issue, however, is whether the Ducks' offensive line can handle LSU's defensive line. Auburn won the battle up front in January and slowed Oregon; if LSU can do the same, it will be a close game. Still, Oregon's offense should break through too many times for Lee and LSU to keep up. OREGON 32, LSU 17