OHIO STATE'S dreaded 51-day layoff before the BCS title game has been useful to the Buckeyes in at least one way: It took them almost that long to decide what to wear. Not until the week before Christmas did they finally settle on their scarlet jerseys instead of the white ones they wore in last season's title game, when they absorbed a 41--14 whipping from Florida. The uniform switch seems wise. After last year's disaster, it would be hard to blame the Buckeyes for doing everything, even small things, differently this time.
Even so, coach Jim Tressel hasn't made drastic changes in Ohio State's preparation—with one significant exception. Instead of arriving in town 10 days before the game, as the Buckeyes did last season, they will travel to New Orleans only five days beforehand, to avoid the possibility of getting stale. "After 10 days last year we were tired of being down there," says cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. "This time it will feel like a normal game week, just like in the regular season."
But there are some things the Buckeyes cannot change, like the seven weeks and two days without a game—exactly the same stretch they endured before facing Florida—and more important, the opponent. The Tigers, who will have had a 36-day layoff by game time, fit the same profile that the Gators did a year ago—with speed at nearly every position, a steady senior at quarterback (with LSU's Matt Flynn as this year's Chris Leak) and the self-assurance that comes with having emerged from the daunting weekly challenges of the toughest league in the nation, the Southeastern Conference. Although the notion of plodding Big Ten teams being flummoxed by SEC speed is mostly outdated, Ohio State hasn't done much to disprove the stereotype, with an 0--8 record in bowl games against teams from the conference.
Despite any lessons the Buckeyes may have learned from the debacle against the Gators, there isn't much reason to think they will break that streak against LSU, not with all the factors that are lined up in the Tigers' favor, including the advantage offered by New Orleans (80 miles from their Baton Rouge campus) being far from a neutral site. LSU has won seven straight games at the Superdome and hasn't lost there since 1987. The layoff also stands to benefit LSU more than Ohio State because the Tigers were particularly nicked up at season's end. Although defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey won the Nagurski Award as the nation's best defensive player, he didn't play like it during the latter part of the season due to knee and back problems. He should be fully healthy by the time he lines up against the Buckeyes. "It's going to be fun to see everybody flying around at 100 percent," says Flynn, who played through an ankle injury for much of the season and missed the SEC championship game with a shoulder injury. "People might not realize how good this team can be when we're totally healthy."
On the contrary, everyone knows exactly how good an LSU team at full strength can be, which is why the Tigers were a popular preseason pick to get to New Orleans and why they will go into the game as the favorite even though the Buckeyes are ranked No. 1. LSU has a variety of options on offense, including at quarterback, where strong-armed sophomore Ryan Perrilloux (eight touchdown passes and two interceptions) will probably relieve Flynn on occasion, which is not unlike how Florida used Tim Tebow as a change of pace from Leak against Ohio State last season. While the Tigers lack a game-breaking receiver, that can make them difficult to defend because they spread the ball to several capable ones. Brandon LaFell (641 receiving yards) and Demetrius Byrd (593) were the most productive pass catchers for LSU, largely because the Tigers' most dangerous wideout, Early Doucet, was limited by a groin injury for most of the season. Doucet is healthy again, and he will be the top priority for Jenkins and the rest of the Ohio State secondary.
LSU is just as capable of moving the ball on the ground with running back Jacob Hester (1,017 yards), who has been the offense's most consistent player. The Tigers, who scored 40 points or more seven times this season and were held under 28 only once, have enough firepower that a high-scoring affair would be to their liking. If they reach the 30-point mark, it's hard to imagine Ohio State being able to keep up.
A year ago the Florida defense completely disrupted Ohio State with relentless pressure on quarterback Troy Smith, but the LSU defense, which ranks third in the nation, will probably be more concerned with stopping the Buckeyes' ground game, led by tailback Chris (Beanie) Wells. Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman throws the deep ball well and has an impressive set of receivers led by Brian Robiskie, but he cooled off late in the season, and if the Tigers stuff the Ohio State running attack, it's doubtful that Boeckman can beat them through the air.
Defense is the one area in which this Buckeyes team is superior to last season's. Ohio State is the nation's top-ranked unit in points allowed (10.7 per game), with linebacker James Laurinaitis, who finished second to Dorsey in the balloting for the Nagurski Award, and defensive end Vernon Gholston causing havoc up front. The Buckeyes' chances of controlling the LSU offense may hinge on whether they can contain Hester, who is as dangerous as a receiver as he is as a runner. That responsibility may fall largely on Laurinaitis.
"Last year we got complacent," Laurinaitis says. "We thought we were invincible." Having been cast in the role of plucky underdog, Ohio State won't have that problem this time, nor will it be as stunned by its opponents' team speed as it was a year ago. The Buckeyes won't go home embarrassed again, but they won't return to Columbus with a championship trophy either. LSU 30, Ohio State 17.
JOHN DAVID MERCER/US PRESSWIRE
POINT MAN Back at full strength, the devastating Dorsey is the fulcrum of the nation's third-ranked defense.
PLAYMAKER As versatile as he is reliable, Hester is LSU's top rusher, but he is just as dangerous as a receiver.