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.

Seth Adams Named Starting Rebel QB

The competition to find out which Ole Miss quarterback will start the Memphis game is over.

Rebel coach Ed Orgeron said senior Seth Adams, a Holly Springs native, will start the Sept. 1 game against Memphis in the Liberty Bowl. Adams has been taking snaps with the first team during preseason camp.

Despite Adams being the No. 1 starter coming out of the spring, Orgeron said there would be an open competition for the quarterback spot held in preseason camp between Adams, 2006 starter senior Brent Schaeffer and redshirt freshman Michael Herrick.

“Since we opened the quarterback position in the spring, Seth has been the most consistent, both in the spring and in fall camp,” Orgeron said in a statement released this morning. “Our quarterback position will be treated like any other position on the team. You have to earn your starting spot on a daily basis. We are expecting Seth to make progress as a quarterback in our offense.”

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Adams came to Ole Miss in January 2006 as a walk-on from Hinds Community College, where had transferred from Delta State. Adams, who has since earned a scholarship, will be the first former walk-on to start at quarterback under Ole Miss offensive coordinator Dan Werner, who has also coached at several schools including Miami, Louisiana Tech, Murray State and James Madison.

Adams appeared in six games last season as Schaeffer’s backup and completed 17 of 31 passes for 177 yards. He did not throw a touchdown or an interception. Adams logged extensive playing time against LSU and Mississippi State when he replaced Schaeffer in the second half.

The first action for Adams during the 2006 season came against Wake Forest when he completed eight of 11 passes for 84 yards and a long of 19 yards and was named Rebel QB Club Offensive Player of the Week. He also saw limited playing time against Vanderbilt and Arkansas.

In 2005 at Hinds, Adams ranked third in individual passing in MACJC, averaging 214.3 yards per game while completing 102 of 202 passes for 1,500 yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

His 125.2 pass efficency rating ranked fifth in the Region 23 standings. He also rushed for one touchdown in a season cut short by Hurricane Katrina. The Bulldogs finished the 2005 campaign 3-4 overall under Adams’ direction.

BoSox Sweep ChiSox

CHICAGO -- John Blake, the Red Sox media relations director, looked up from his laptop computer at the end of the fifth inning, right after Julian Tavarez had struck out the side for the first time this season, and casually announced to those within earshot, "Yankees lose."

As if the Red Sox needed anything else to go their way on a day they completed a historic four-game sweep of the White Sox, 11-1, to take a 7 1/2-game lead over the Bombers with five weeks and 31 games to play.

Even before the Sox won -- scoring double-digit runs in four straight games for the first time since 1950 -- and the Yankees lost in Detroit yesterday, Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus, simulating the rest of the season a million times, had the Red Sox making it to the playoffs 99.6 percent of the time, with their chances of winning the division at 95.8 percent. Those numbers only got better on the eve of what had once loomed as a showdown series starting tomorrow night in the Bronx, with the Yankees still having to play the Tigers again tonight.

Feel good to have that kind of lead -- not to mention those odds -- heading into Yankee Stadium?

"It feels better playing the way we're playing," said Mike Lowell, who had 10 hits in the series and knocked in seven runs. "We're playing really well. We're getting great pitching performances, we're swinging the bats really well, and playing good defense. That combination, with our talent, is tough to beat . . . If we play this way in New York, we'll be fine."

The Sox, to a man, shied away from talking about the possibility of putting away the Yankees this week.

"Got to keep playing," said David Ortiz, whose two-run homer after Dustin Pedroia's two-run single off Javier Vazquez in the fifth broke open a 1-1 game. "We've got a month still, right? Anything can happen."

Maybe it is too early to be talking about a magic number -- at the moment it's 25, meaning any combination of Sox wins and Yankee losses totaling 25, and Boston is a division winner for the first time since 1995. But consider the improbable ways in which the Red Sox rolled over Chicago yesterday, while becoming just the fourth team since 1900 to score 10 or more runs four straight times in a series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

J.D. Drew homered for the first time in more than two months (51 games and 166 at-bats). Newcomer Bobby Kielty, filling in for sore-backed Manny Ramírez, started a rally with a bunt, then homered for the first time in almost a year. Ortiz hit his third first-pitch home run in three days. And Tavarez made the Sox look brilliant for giving him the start originally scheduled to go to Jon Lester.

The Red Sox outscored the White Sox in the series, 46-7, almost matching the 46-10 beating the Bears laid on the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Does that warrant a "Wow?"

"I don't know if I'm a big 'Wow' guy," manager Terry Francona said. "Maybe at the end of the year. But I'll tell you what, we did a good job. It's gratifying. Fourth game [of a series]? Not an easy one to win."

The Sox completed their first four-game sweep here since Aug. 3-5, 1968, at old Comiskey Park, when Hawk Harrelson was wearing Nehru jackets and batting cleanup for Boston, instead of biting his tongue and broadcasting for the bad-beyond-belief White Sox.

"I think if you tried," Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen said, "you can't be playing on the level we are."

Guillen wasn't exactly humbled by the outcome, however, cheekily bringing up the White Sox' three-game sweep of the Red Sox in the 2005 Division Series on their way to winning the World Series. "They swept us this time," he said. "I swept them in the big one. That's when it counts."

When this trip began, the Sox were four games ahead of the Bombers, matching the narrowest lead they've held over the Yankees since April 24. By taking six of seven from the Devil Rays and White Sox, with Jonathan Papelbon striking out the side to end yesterday's game, the Sox have tacked on 3 1/2 games, giving them their biggest bulge since Aug. 2, when they led by eight.

Tavarez made a spot start Aug. 19 -- his first in 18 days -- to allow Francona to line up his rotation the way he wanted, and gave up just two hits in six innings to the Angels in a 3-1 loss. Given the start yesterday because the Sox preferred to send Lester down in order to have a second lefty (Javier Lopez) in the bullpen, Tavarez gave up a solo home run in the second inning to Jermaine Dye, matching the home run Drew hit off Vazquez in the top of the inning, but gave up just one more hit and did not allow another runner beyond first base in his six innings of work.

"He has the rare ability to do stuff like that," Francona said. "There are not many guys who can sit in the bullpen for a long time, then give you a chance for six innings. I'm proud of him. He should be proud of himself."

Kielty followed his four-RBI performance Saturday by dropping a bunt that curled inside the third base line for a hit with one out in the fifth. Coco Crisp followed with a base hit, and though Julio Lugo then forced Crisp, Lugo subsequently stole second and scored when Pedroia lined a full-count pitch to center for two runs. Ortiz hit Vazquez's next offering into the center-field seats, and it was 5-1.

Drew walked to open the sixth and two outs later, Kielty, hitting from the left side, slugged his first home run since last Sept. 19, when he was with Oakland, and a four-run eighth, fueled by two White Sox errors, had the Sox making history while leaving the White Sox bewitched, bothered, and bewildered.

The confusion extended to at least one member of Chicago's electronic media, who addressed Francona as "Tony."

Francona answered the question, then pushed away from his desk. "Tony's done," he announced.

But are the Yankees?

"They're still in it," Lowell said, in an indirect allusion to the wild card. "If you can guarantee me that winning the division gets you to the World Series, I want to win the division. I want to be the team that gets to the playoffs and is playing hot."