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What It Means to Be No. 1, No Matter What

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There are two kinds of crystal balls in college football: the much-promulgated variety at the beginning of the year and the more distinct, elusive one at the end. Like so:

One of them means, literally, nothing; it doesn't physically exist and exerts little to no bearing on reality. The other means everything, and each annual incarnation of its grandeur is created equal. For LSU, it means everything. In 2003, the crystal ball is all that separated the Tigers from poll champion USC, and last year was one of two pieces of hardware (the SEC championship trophy being the other) that distinguished the mighty 2007 edition from its two-loss, bowl-winning predecessors in 2005 and 2006. In terms of onfield performance, legions of Les Miles doubters were essentially right when they pegged his from-the-gut style as one with an inherent "loss margin of around two a year" - if his twice-beaten teams in 2005 and 2006 were something less than the full realization of their overwhelming talent, as frequently suggested, what was his twice-beaten team in 2007? An outfit that didn't face rolling Georgia in the conference championship (2005) or play alongside another team that locked down the division title with a 7-0 conference start (2006) and that did get a wildly improbable combination of breaks (Missouri and West Virginia losing, to Pitt) on the final Saturday of the regular season. Under the unprecedented circumstances, it was also the first two-loss team in history to compete for a mythical national championship in a bowl game - a fate considered borderline impossible as late as the afternoon of the SEC Championship, when Miles went off on the media - circumstance from which at least 32 undefeated or once-beaten teams from the SEC, Big Ten, Big Eight/Twelve, Pac Ten, ACC and Big East since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992 did not benefit (but presumably would have, if top-ranked teams  had fallen at such an alarming rate in those years).

For LSU, the crystal ball erases the circumstantial; it is, in and of itself, complete validation.

Take the Baton Rouge Advocate's Scott Rabalais, for example, in a two-week-old column titled, "No matter what, LSU is still No. 1," and in today's column about the fear LSU strikes in its opponents. Hard to write about a twice-beaten Peach Bowl champion. Hard to write about a twice-beaten team that finished second in its division. But a twice-beaten team that brought home the crystal ball? Baby, let the river flow:

As LSU moves forward into 2008 and beyond, trying to build on the success of what so far has been a purple and gilded decade, "fear" should be a word to remember.
[...]
LSU football, throughout its rises and falls over the years, has typically lacked a couple of things: 1) An opponent for whom LSU is its biggest rival above all others, 2) A true identity.

The first thing LSU can do nothing about. Alabama and Auburn have each other, Florida has Florida State, etc. The second is taking shape as the Tigers pile one impressive season upon another.
It's become a familiar and apparently true trend in recent years that teams often lose or don't play well after playing LSU. They tend to get physically beat up, knocked out of round, rarely able to perform at the same level again.
[...]
Being physical and dominating in football takes two things: talent and confidence. The Tigers appear to have both in growing abundance, the knowledge that they will take their talent and use it as a blunt weapon against you.

Football, for all its nostalgic trappings and colorful traditions, is at its heart a brutal game. It's conquer or be conquered. Why do you think so many games that seem close on paper talent-wise turn into routs on the field? One team has taken the other's heart away, usually by being more physical and being more tough.

This you have to think suits the Miles' mantra. He likes, tough, hard-nosed, blue collar. Speed is one thing, and perhaps the most overrated thing in the SEC. The ability to knock the other guy on his backside firing off the ball is something else.
[...]
Of course, those teams will have to play LSU as well. A team that if nothing else has earned respect -- and built a reputation to be feared.

- - -


1,969 snaps later, all you need to know.
- - -
What is the difference between "victory," on a conventional level, and "conquering," removing the heart, so as to induce fear? A team that was outgained overall and held to its season low in total offense could generally be said to have won the game by some combination of strategy, execution and a bounce (or dropped pass, or roughing the punter) or two, but Rabalais insists here the Tigers "waxed" the Buckeyes as an inevitable result of their irresistable essence. Is there a standard, or is it, like, two plays he happens to remember that align with his narrative of overwhelming, inherently fearsome Tiger force?
Two images for LSU to take heart in and that can strike fear into other teams watching tape of the Tigers going into this season ...

1. Ricky Jean-Francois blowing up Ohio State guard Ben Person, knocking him backward AND blocking a field goal attempt by the Buckeyes' Ryan Pretorius with a plan that turned the momentum permanently in LSU's favor.

2. Ali Highsmith delivering a fourth-down forearm shiver right under the chin of Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman, forcing a fumble that ruined the Buckeyes' last best chance at getting back into the game.
- - -

A blocked kick and a big hit: behold the dominance of these two snaps and quake in fear of your conquerers, conference that has produced zero repeat champions in the last nine seasons. Heed not the thousands of plays that make up the whole, do not contemplate that whole's place in history, ignore similarly "dominant" images by Ohio State (I can think of three off the top of my head, the obvious one by Chris Wells and a couple others by Vernon Gholston, which do not count) and especially those made by Arkansas and Kentucky, or any others that fail to align with the omnipotent wisdom of the result. There is only the result, and the result is not simple victory but dominance.

Rabalais and his less balance-restrained LSU partisans get to say these things because LSU has the crystal ball (indeed, it earned the crystal ball), and the crystal ball is a wrecking ball of doubt, an obliterator of nuance. It carries in its finely-honed ridges the embodiment of ultimate truth, "bragging rights," and silences haters on sight. The ends rout the means. The crystal ball is carte blanche to draft any narrative you please. I guess that's what it means to be Number 1.