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THE REBRANDING took place before our very eyes. Going into his team's gutsy 28-24 comeback victory over a talented, desperate Florida squad last Saturday night, LSU coach Les Miles was seen, truth be told, as a highly paid caretaker. He was better than competent—witness the 5--0 start in 2007; examine his identical 11--2 records in '05 and '06. But Miles was also fortunate, as South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier recently reminded the world, to have had so much talent bequeathed to him by his predecessor, Nick Saban. � Even as Miles delivered top 10 finishes in his first two seasons in Baton Rouge, the Tigers' faithful could not bring themselves to forgive him for the big ones that got away: a come-from-ahead overtime loss to Tennessee in 2005 and a loss to Florida last year, in which a freshman named Tim Tebow, in a supporting role, outshined JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 pick in the '07 NFL draft.
Now Miles will be known for his nerve—although that wasn't the noun of choice on Saturday night at Tiger Stadium. Tigers running back Jacob Hester put it this way: "He's definitely got some serious, you know...." As one admiring blogger put it, Miles has "huge onions." For the game's most remarkable statistic wasn't Florida's 156 rushing yards against the nation's top-ranked defense, which had yielded 195 yards on the ground all season. It was LSU's going for it on fourth down five times—and making it on all five.
When it was over, Miles sounded like someone who'd had a good night at the casino. Explaining why he felt compelled to roll the dice on all those fourth downs—twice on the team's game-winning touchdown drive—Miles spoke of "a feeling" and "a hankering" that his serial gambles would pay off. Hester would convert two of those fourth downs, finishing with 106 yards on 23 carries and the winning score. At least someone was representing the Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La., on Saturday night.
THAT'S WHERE Hester played his high school ball—where he took handoffs and caught passes from his friend John David Booty. While Hester was softening up Florida's front seven, Booty was two time zones away at the L.A. Coliseum, turning in the worst game of his USC career. After throwing two interceptions in a narrow escape at Washington on Sept. 29, he uncorked four more picks in dragging his team to a mind-boggling, 24--23 loss to Stanford.
True, the Trojans could still contend for the national title (although they will most likely be underdogs at No. 2 Cal on Nov. 10). For now USC must cope with the lingering bitterness of an upset that ranks with Appalachian State over Michigan. Having been outscored 141--51 in its previous three Pac-10 games, the Cardinal was a 41-point underdog, playing without its injured starting quarterback, facing the No. 1 team in the coaches' poll, going into the stadium where USC had won 35 straight, doing battle with a juggernaut whose coach was disinclined to show mercy. That's because Pete Carroll judged Jim Harbaugh, Stanford's first-year coach, impertinent last March when he offered that Carroll would soon return to the NFL, and later said that the Trojans might be the most talented squad in the history of college football.
Even before Saturday's catastrophe USC had fallen far short of Harbaugh's assessment. As became apparent during lackluster wins over Idaho and Washington, the Trojans had major issues. Yes, they had suffered a plague of injuries, but so have many programs. Wideout Patrick Turner, who has been the opposite of sure-handed this season, dropped another three balls on Saturday. Booty, once a Heisman candidate, has regressed. The senior fractured a finger in his throwing hand during the Stanford game; Carroll left him in the fray. While backup Mark Sanchez may not have dissected the visitors, it's unlikely he would have handed them the game.
The Trojans are out of sync, undisciplined (16 penalties at Washington) and far from special on special teams: A missed extra point proved costly beyond measure against the Cardinal. The program that two seasons ago came within 19 seconds of clinching a third straight AP national crown has now dropped three of its last seven in the Pac-10. This Southern California team is far less than the sum of its five-star parts. And that comes back to coaching.
The fall of Troy consolidated LSU's claim to college football's top spot. (While the Tigers had leapfrogged USC in the AP poll a week earlier, they had remained No. 2 in the coaches' poll; they now rule both.) It also delighted Tigers fans still rankled at being forced to share the 2003 national title with the Trojans. (LSU finished first in the coaches' poll; USC topped the AP poll). Tiger Nation has taken pleasure, ever since, in USC's pain. Call it SChadenfreude.
BEFORE LSU could rule both polls, there remained the small matter of beating the defending national champions, who played close to a perfect game for the first 30 minutes. Coming off a sloppy, 20--17 loss to unranked Auburn, the Gators had promised a return to the discipline and focus upon which coach Urban Meyer had built his program since he arrived in 2005. This focus would be evident, Tebow said early last week, "in everything we do, on the field and off the field.... We're going to be the team that does everything right, giving everything for one another."
Florida came out aggressively on offense with a quick-passing game. Fully aware that his guys didn't match up well against a line anchored by Glenn Dorsey, LSU's marauding All-America defensive tackle, Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen spread the Tigers out, lining up with five wideouts on 75% of their plays. The result: Against a unit giving up 174.6 yards and 6.4 points per game, Tebow led the Gators to 172 yards and 17 points in the first half, which, frankly, he owned.