When LSU and Tennessee met a little more than a year ago, everyone in Tiger Stadium and watching on TV was left scratching their heads.
How in the world did an apparent 14-10 Volunteers victory turn into a bizarre 16-14 Tigers win?
Chaos gripped the LSU offense as it tried to change personnel near the Tennessee goal line. The final 26 seconds ticked down as the dazed and confused Tigers couldn’t snap the ball until three seconds remained and then Tennessee smothered a fumble.
“We had a meltdown on the sideline,” wide receiver Russell Shepard recalled. “We didn’t do what we had done the whole week in preparation up to that game.”
But the equally confused Vols had too many men on the field, allowing for an untimed down on which Stevan Ridley ran 1 yard for a touchdown, and the transformation from devastating loss to gift-wrapped victory was complete.
Another dramatic transformation has taken place since then as well. The Tigers (6-0 and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference) roll into Neyland Stadium on Saturday as the No. 1 team in country. One of the keys to their success has been a finely tuned offense that looks nothing like the confused group Tennessee faced last season.
“We’re a very focused and motivated group right now,” senior quarterback Jarrett Lee said. “We’re doing lot of good things now. We still have a lot that we need to improve on, but we’ve grown up a lot from last year as a team.”
Miles said the transformation started in the immediate aftermath of one of the most disappointing victories in school history.
“You learn from mistakes,” wide receiver Kadron Boone said. “Those are mistakes that we had last year. Now we’re practicing it so that whatever the case may be in a game situation we know what we need to do. If we need to clock the ball, we’ll clock the ball.
“(The coaches) just put us in situations like the two-minute drill or the last plays of the game so they just put us in a situation that could be a game-time situation so when we’re in that predicament we already know what to do. It won’t be a big scramble not having the right personnel, not knowing what we were going to have, not knowing who was going to be out there, not knowing if we were going to clock it or run a play. We just learned from that mistake and just moved on from it.”
Tennessee (3-2, 0-2) is trying to move on from a series of injuries. The Volunteers, who already had lost top wide receiver Justin Hunter (knee) and linebacker Herman Lathers (ankle) for the season, saw standout quarterback Tyler Bray go down for the next month or so because of a broken thumb suffered in a 20-12 loss to Georgia last week. Additionally, top rusher Taurean Poole is questionable because of a hamstring injury.
It’s not a good situation to be in when you’re getting ready to play a team that has beaten four ranked opponents, three of them away from home, and hasn’t had a margin of victory fewer than 13 points.
“I don’t care how many guys we lose, we’re still Tennessee,” said Vols coach Derek Dooley, who was an assistant at LSU from 2000-04. “We fought them good last year. I know this: If we don’t come believing we can win and playing to our capacity, then they are going to embarrass you.
“You have to deal with the circumstances you are presented with and go after it the best you can. That is all you can do, and never lose faith in the end of the story.”
That sounds like the lesson LSU learned in the final seconds of last year’s meeting.
Shepard said momentum has been continually building during the transformation from the confused but fortunate group that beat the Vols last year to the group that faces the Vols this year as BCS championship contenders.
The Tigers emerged from the confusion of the Tennessee game to finish 11-2 after a 41-24 victory against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl in January.
“When you can finish that strong like we did in the Cotton Bowl and go into spring and build off that success it helps a lot,” Shepard said. “People don’t realize that a bowl game helps you going into the next season because you’re able to build off the success.
“So we saw that we could be a pretty good team going against a great A&M team last year and we really built off that success going into the spring. We had a great spring and it kind of went off into the summer and we had a great summer and now it’s kind of leading off into the season. When you can have great moments and prepare like a champion you can play like a champion, and that’s what we’re starting to see.”