Monday, August 27, 2007

Tigers & Saints Both Looking for Banner Years

The LSU Tigers are entering their 114th season. The New Orleans Saints, their 41st.

Two teams. One college, one pro. Both united by the unbreakable bonds of a state that loves its football.

Going on five decades now, the Tigers and Saints have given fans their share of incredible highs and crushing lows, surprisingly potent contenders and impotent pretenders.

But in all that time there has never been a season like this. Not going in, anyway.

If expectations are built on the foundation of recent past performances, there is plenty of reason for all the excitement from Nicholson Drive to Poydras Street.

“At LSU we have high expectations coming into every season,” said Saints and former Tigers wide receiver Devery Henderson. “But it’s kind of funny, we’re like that here now with the Saints and it’s good to be part of both of those.”

LSU is coming off an 11-2 record, a No. 3 final national ranking, and a 41-14 stomping of Notre Dame in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Saints went 10-6 last season, winning the NFC South and advancing to the club’s first NFC Championship game before falling to the Chicago Bears.

The Tigers aren’t rated as the team to beat — just the team to get there — which is for all practical purposes just as good. Most preseason polls have LSU at No. 2, its highest preseason ranking since opening at No. 1 in 1959. That projects the Tigers into the BCS National Championship Game, just down the road on Jan. 7 in the Superdome.

That could be about the time the Saints launch their run at the NFC title and a long-awaited trip to their first Super Bowl, which this season will be played Feb. 3 in Glendale, Ariz.

Both LSU coach Les Miles and Saints coach Sean Payton know they have good teams.

Still, neither coach is letting his team get too comfortable.

“The first thing (people are) going to want to ask is, ‘Hey, aren’t you going to be the national champions, the SEC champions,’ ” Miles said.

“The reality is, that’s (putting the) cart before the horse. We’ve got a long schedule of hard work, a lot to accomplish before we can talk about championships. The expectation is there. The hard work and the want is there. But you can’t win a championship until you’ve won a bunch of games.”

Winning games in bunches hasn’t historically been the Saints’ forte. Counting last year’s 10-6 regular-season mark, the Saints have won just 10 or more games six times and enjoyed only eight winning seasons overall. Only twice in their history have the Saints enjoyed back-to-back winning campaigns.

“What has happened in previous years isn’t necessarily a predictor of what will happen this season,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “I think we have smart enough players to understand that this is a different team and a different season. Our strength of schedule is going to be tough right off the bat. We are playing the best team in our league from a year ago in game one (Indianapolis). We will have to be sharp right from the beginning and I think they understand that.

“They also understand the areas we need to improve in to be a better team. It’s kind of a ‘show me’ league, and this year we will have to start all over again.”

Despite losing a school-record four first-round draft picks, the Tigers' reputation is based on a nucleus of returning players like defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, linebacker Ali Highsmith and wide receiver/kick returner Early Doucet. The Saints bring back the engine of their high-powered offense, led by quarterback Drew Brees, running back Deuce McAllister and Mr. Everything Reggie Bush.

“I look at both teams and I like their makeup,” said former LSU and New Orleans running back Hokie Gajan, now a fixture on Saints radio broadcasts. “Especially LSU with the great defense and the talent on offense.”

Amid all the rampant and giddy optimism, you can bring LSU and Saints fans back to earth by reminding them of two seasons where the balloon burst on an epic scale.

At LSU, it was 1989. In New Orleans, 1980.

In 1989, a No. 7 preseason ranking and talk of national championship followed LSU to College Station for a season-opening showdown with Texas A&M. LSU’s national championship hopes lasted as long as it took the Aggies’ Larry Horton to race 92 yards for a touchdown with the game’s first kickoff.

“I look back at the guys we lost and the guys we replaced them with and we just weren’t as good,” said Tommy Hodson, LSU’s senior quarterback that season. “We just weren’t as good as we were in ’86 and ’87.”

In 1980, the Saints were coming off an 8-8 season that represented their best record ever to date. Expectations were for the Saints to make that long-awaited playoff run the next season, exemplified by a preseason series on WBRZ called “The Contenders.”

Turned out the Saints were pretenders. Loss after numbing loss mounted until New Orleans wound up 1-15. It wouldn’t be until 1987 before the Saints would finally make the playoffs.

“It’s never automatic,” Hodson said.
Neither will be replacing four No. 1 draft picks for LSU.

“I hope we (LSU) can be as good as we were (last season) or better,” Hodson said. “But it’s hard to replace those guys. You’ve got to have depth, and I think we do.”

Injuries have often torpedoed potential, reminds Gajan.

“Injuries excluded, they both have a chance to line up and play for a championship,” Gajan said.

“But injuries play a part. If that happens, all bets are off.”

For now, the certain bet is that expectations for the Tigers and Saints are as high as they’ve ever been.

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