After his team dispatched West Virginia 47-21 Saturday night, the latest piece of an impressive résumé that led LSU to this week’s No. 1 ranking in the AP poll, LSU football coach Les Miles said he didn’t think his team was the best in the country at this point.
But like he did after his 2007 team won the BCS national championship, savoring the moment by carrying the BCS crystal football to a Bourbon Street balcony for LSU’s fans to see up close, Miles seems to be warming to the idea.
“We take it as a compliment to our program and to our team,” Miles said Monday at his weekly media luncheon. “Being No. 1 is no burden. There’s no extra target on our back.”
Tyrann Mathieu, arguably the most dynamic player on the nation’s No. 1 team, said LSU opponents are already aiming for them.
“We have a target on our back,” the sophomore cornerback said. “We always did.”
But being No. 1 does tend to sharpen the accuracy of your opponent, even if the team you’re playing is a downtrodden one like Kentucky.
The Wildcats come into Saturday’s game in Tiger Stadium (11:21 a.m., SEC Network) coming off a blowout 48-10 loss at home to Florida. UK has lost two in a row - also falling to rival Louisville 24-17 - after scraping past Western Kentucky 14-3 and Central Michigan 27-13 to open the season.
“We definitely would like to have more leaders on this team,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said Monday at his weekly news conference.
“There’s not a lot of guys playing at a high level to be able to step up.”
That doesn’t mean they won’t on Saturday, warned LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee, in part because of where the Tigers sit in the AP poll.
“When you play No. 1, you look forward to playing those teams because they’re the best in the country,” Lee said. “They’re going to bring their ?A’ game, and we’ve got to be prepared for it.
“We know they can ruin our season very easily.”
As if to provide support to Lee’s assertion was this quote from Phillips when he cut off a series of questions Monday about the SEC adding Texas A&M:
“I’ve got a game to play. I’ve got a dragon to slay.”
Players from both teams recalled on Monday the last time these two schools met, when Kentucky played the role of dragon slayer to the hilt.
It was Oct. 13, 2007, and an LSU team ranked No. 1 for just the second week that season traveled to play at No. 17 Kentucky.
The Tigers led 27-14 late in the third quarter before the Wildcats rallied to win in triple overtime 43-37.
“The one thing I remember about that game is those guys believed they could win,” said UK right tackle Billy Joe Murphy, a redshirt freshman in 2007.
“Coach Miles mentioned after practice that the last time we were No. 1, they beat us,” LSU strong safety Brandon Taylor said.
“You can’t overlook anyone in the SEC,” wide receiver Rueben Randle said. “We have to go out and play dominant football whoever you’re playing.”
The Tigers played opportunistic if not always dominant football at West Virginia.
The Mountaineers outgained LSU 533-366, primarily on the strength of a WVU school record 463 yards passing from Geno Smith.
LSU had a 4-0 advantage in the all-important turnover category, however, with Mathieu returning a Smith interception to the WVU 1 to set up the touchdown that gave the Tigers a 27-7 halftime lead.
After the Mountaineers cut the deficit to 27-21 late in the third quarter, Morris Claiborne responded with a 99-yard kickoff return, LSU’s longest since Eric Martin’s 100-yard return against Kentucky here in 1981. WVU never threatened again as the Tigers tacked on a pair of fourth-quarter insurance touchdowns.
The win was LSU’s third double-digit victory over a ranked opponent this season, all on the road. It’s a big reason why the Tigers vaulted past preseason No. 1 Oklahoma (3-0) into the AP’s top spot on Sunday.
“I heard a coach say, ?What is the reason that your football team is a good road team?’” Miles said.
“They are a damn good football team, that’s what makes them a good road team. I think our team is confident.”
Miles expressed his own confidence in having several injured players available for Saturday.
Right tackle Alex Hurst is probable after leaving the game with a blow to the head, as is safety Craig Loston after he suffered a similar injury tackling WVU’s Tavon Austin on a kickoff return.
Defensive tackle Michael Brockers left the game twice with unspecified injuries but will likely return by the end of the week. Miles said offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert (concussion) is day-to-day.
The Tigers will play their own version of day-to-day the next two weeks, as CBS announced Monday that it will televise next Saturday’s LSU-Florida game in its 2:30 p.m. time slot from Tiger Stadium.
Despite this Saturday’s early start - the earliest in Tiger Stadium since the 2008 opener with Appalachian State was moved up to 10 a.m. in advance of Hurricane Gustav - Lee said he expects a big crowd.
“I think the fans will still be excited,” Lee said.
Kentucky’s Phillips agreed.
“They won’t be as lubricated,” Phillips said. “But they will be lubricated.”