Also better than he showed on Saturday is Lee's Oregon counterpart, Darron Thomas, another Duck whose Heisman candidacy blew a tire against LSU. In one of this Classic's tasty subplots, Thomas actually committed to the Tigers as a junior at Aldine High in Houston. But even after getting him in the fold, Miles kept recruiting quarterbacks. Before long, Thomas noticed that his position on recruiting websites had changed from quarterback to athlete. When Kelly assured him that Oregon wanted him under center, Thomas rescinded his commitment to LSU and headed for Eugene.
His high school coach, Bob Jones, had spoken to Thomas two days before the opener. The quarterback was stressed about getting tickets for his family. It seemed clear that Thomas was putting a little extra pressure on himself to play well in his first college game in his native state, against the team that wouldn't guarantee him a chance to play quarterback. "It's extra special to me," he told reporters leading up to Saturday. "It's bigger than the national championship to me and to most of the team."
Thomas was jittery and out of sync with his receivers for most of the first half. The Ducks, whose 47.0 points per game led the nation last season, eked out two first quarter field goals. Thomas's line on the night was deceptive: 31 of 54 attempts for 240 yards, a touchdown and an interception. But half of his passing output came in the fourth quarter. By then, the game had been decided. The Tigers' offensive line had worn Oregon down.
"I could see it in their eyes when I was lining up there before the snap," reported LSU running back Spencer Ware, whose 99 rushing yards were complemented by the 96 from Michael Ford, whom Ware describes as the "lightning" to his "thunder." The Tigers' final touchdown, a 16-yard blast by Ford, triggered predictable chants of "S! E! C!" from the predominantly purple-and-gold crowd.
Predictable and justifiable. SEC teams have won the national title five years running. The conference's dominance raises an interesting point. While one of its teams could suffer an early-season loss and still fight its way to the BCS title game, the same can't necessarily be said for a squad from Oregon's Pac-12. The West may one day rise again—reports last week said Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are seriously considering joining the conference and may bring along Texas and Texas Tech with them—but only two of the Pac-12's teams are in the Top 20. For now, the Ducks will need a lot of help to get back to the Big Game this season.
Equally implausible, it seems, is the notion of LSU's remaining perfect in the loaded SEC West with its unproven quarterback. Considering that second-degree battery is a felony punishable by a maximum of five years in jail, Tigers fans might have to resign themselves to Jefferson's prolonged absence—and persuade themselves to embrace Lee.
Of course, if the defense plays all season the way it played against the Ducks, "we're gonna be in a lot of games," Miles predicted. And Lee has plenty of room for improvement. He kept mentioning after the game that there were "a few plays I'd like to have back."
Lee is a likable, modest fellow with much to be modest about, but his teammates have his back. When he struggled early against Oregon, Ware got in his ear several times. "I just kept patting him on the back, telling him, 'It's gonna be all right. We got this.'"
With the game finally in hand, Lee delighted his mates with a modest prank. After LSU took over with 12 seconds left, Lee jogged to the huddle with instructions to call the game-ending kneel-down play. Instead, Lee called a running play. "We all kind of went, What?" said Will Blackwell, the right guard. "Then we saw that he had a big smile on his face. It was good to see a guy who's been through so much really relish this experience."
So did Lee, eventually, call the kneel-down formation?