by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It was road trip time for us last weekend, down deep into SEC country when traveling to Baton Rouge for last Saturday’s Vanderbilt-LSU tilt...

Those familiar with our recurring travelogue segments know that our tastes in college football venues tend to veer from the mainstream. We’ve been to enough big-time settings in the past to know that we don’t want to return to most of them if we can help it; indeed, if anyone can show us a more uncomfortable experience than watching a Southern Cal game at the L.A. Coliseum, with countless insufferable sorts disguised as Trojan fans roaming the premises (excepting our friend and TGS scout Rick Manoogian), we’d like to see it. Instead, we’ve been more apt to sample dishes from less-obtrusive stops on the college football menu. Navy, Duke, Northwestern, Nevada, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Miami-Ohio have been the types of off-the-beaten-track locales we’ve been more likely to visit in recent years, all providing more charming and endearing (and comfortable) experiences than one might find at a USC, Notre Dame, or Michigan game.

But game days in the SEC are something else entirely. Color and pageantry are second to none. There is tradition galore in most of the SEC football palaces, almost all of which have been upgraded to super-stadium status in recent years. We were awe-struck by the continuing expansion we saw this summer at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, which now rivals the biggest and best college football theaters in the land. Even the smaller SEC venues we saw along our journeys, such as Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford and Mississippi State’s Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field in Starkville, have been upgraded to awfully nice status. And if there is a campus anywhere that’s nicer than Ole Miss, we’ve yet to see it.

But the best thing about football in the SEC? It’s the southern folk who attend the games. Partisans, to be sure, but also unfailingly friendly and gracious. We noticed as much at the SEC Basketball Tourney in Atlanta last year, when, before the festivities were moved a few miles away to Georgia Tech due to a tornado that blew through narrow space between the Georgia Dome and Atlanta World Congress Convention Center, a conviviality reigned in the confines of the big dome that we didn’t feel the day before at the Big Ten Tourney in Indianapolis, when the venom between various fans (especially those from Illinois) was palpable. Don’t get us wrong, fans “hate” plenty in the SEC, too. It’s just that southern folks seem to be a bit more pleasant about their dislike than those from other parts of the land.

And so it was that we made our way to Baton Rouge last Thursday. Our trip began as always at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, where we flew Southwest nonstop to New Orleans. Flights are also available into Baton Rouge’s smaller regional airport, but they are far fewer in frequency. Moreover, from McCarran they require one or two connections, and the price is a bit steeper. With little time to waste during TGS publishing season, the quickest and most-economical routes are always going to be our first choices. And since the New Orleans Airport is west of downtown, in Kenner on the way to Baton Rouge, it was an easy call to fly into New Orleans, then motor an hour to Baton Rouge, instead.

Much of Louisiana, especially the southern portions of it, bear little resemblance to the rest of the country. What strikes most about the New Orleans metro area, and makes the problems associated with Hurricane Katrina four years ago so much easier to understand, is the presence of water all around the region. Not only does the mighty Mississippi River snake its way into New Orleans from the northwest, but the massive Lake Ponchartrain sits just north of town. Indeed, flying into New Orleans over the lake is almost like coming into Chicago over Lake Michigan. Water, water everywhere. To the west of the airport lie marshes and swamps not suitable for human habitation, and once just a few miles west of the airport en route to Baton Rouge on I-10, the highway elevates into a causeway above the marshy, swampy landscape for 10 or 12 miles until more solid ground appears on the drive west.

As mentioned, it didn’t take long to get into the Baton Rouge metro area, which, unlike New Orleans post-Katrina, is growing in an orderly fashion. Indeed, much of the business and commerce of the state seems to be gravitating toward the capital instead of relocating back into New Orleans. Unlike the Big Easy, Baton Rouge more resembles what most would classify as a “normal” place (of which New Orleans isn’t), albeit with its own unique trappings that add to its charm.

As is often the case on these quick, “ninja”-like journeys during our publishing season, I’m doing a lot of things on the fly when on the road. Such as the various radio guest spots, one of which required me to pull off of I-10 just east of Baton Rouge when heading into town and camping in a Waffle House parking lot to talk to Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton for his show on 1090 AM in San Diego. Once finished with the Hamilton segment, we were contacted by our “unofficial” host for the trip down south, Jimmy Ott, on whose Baton Rouge radio show I have guested for several years and would be doing live with him the following morning at Hollingsworth-Richard Ford. Ott suggested we dine at a real gem of the Baton Rouge culinary scene, Louisiana Lagniappe, on Perkins Road just off Bluebonnet Highway, for some outstanding local seafood. Although my tastes usually run a bit more down-to-earth (after all, isn’t Buffalo Wild Wings a treat for everyone?), we decided to go for the local delicacies at the Lagniappe. Afterwards a variety of sports-themed eateries off Bluebonnet and adjacent to the Mall of Louisiana, where we stayed at a very comfy Hyatt Place, would be perfect venues to catch most of the NFL Thursday night opener between the Titans and Steelers, as well as ESPN’s Thursday night college battle featuring Clemson and Georgia Tech.

Jimmy Ott certainly nailed the recommendation on Louisiana Lagniappe, where the local giant gulf shrimp (I tried the barbequed variety) puts to shame the smaller varieties of the crustacean available elsewhere in the country. Moreover, service was disarmingly friendly, another pleasant byproduct of Baton Rouge and the south and a notable difference from similar establishments in places elsewhere in the country.

The weather, however, was threatening throughout our stay in Louisiana, and even though no hurricanes were scheduled to blow into the area, conditions were generally stormy. Although, after spending the past several months in the dry and very hot desert conditions of Las Vegas, a little humidity was almost a relief. With the stormy skies as a backdrop, we made it to a local Waffle House for a quick breakfast stop (and we mean quick; my buttermilk waffle and “covered and chunked” hash browns were out quicker than my food was served at a recent stop at McDonald’s). Then, after missing the Florida Blvd. turnoff, we scampered back to Hollingsworth-Richards Ford just in time to join Jimmy Ott live on air for his 9 AM-12 noon “Lock of the Week” Friday slot on 1210 AM.

Ott, one of the best in the business, keeps the show moving at a brisk pace on Fridays while inviting callers to give their own “locks” for weekend college football action. We were amazed at the amount of interest Notre Dame was drawing from the Baton Rouge callers; indeed, more were offering predictions on the Fighting Irish (with most of those forecasting defeat for Notre Dame the following day at Michigan) than for local LSU, which would be entertaining Vanderbilt the next night. Which made for some interesting radio in the half hour I stepped away from Ott’s show at 9:30 AM to do my weekly spot on Dave Woloshin and Brett Nordsworthy’s show on AM 560 in Memphis, because Ott summoned TGS scout and Northern Virginia resident Daniel M. Gray, accompanying me on the trip and a Vandy alum, to the guest chair for a detailed breakdown of the Commodores and Dan’s own “lock” of the week (which also happened to be Michigan). The fun continued for the next two hours with Ott before we were finished at 12 noon and followed Ott to the Acme Oyster House, a famed New Orleans eatery with a location nearby at 3535 Perkins Road. A lunch of raw oysters and po’ boys followed, along with jovial conversation with the many LSU sorts who know Ott and also frequent the Acme on Fridays for lunch.

After lunch, Ott outdid himself in his host role when taking us over to the LSU Athletic Museum (Andonie Museum), located on a decidedly picturesque part of campus just off of the water and adjacent to the nicest collection of sorority and fraternity residences I have ever seen. Greeting us was museum director Bud Johnson, a longtime LSU man for over 50 years who served with distinction as the Tigers’ SID and authored the definitive recap of LSU’s 1958 national title campaign, appropriately entitled Perfect Season. Johnson’s time as SID coincided with the Pete Maravich era at LSU, and Bud was more than glad to share a few stories about the good ’ol days with Pete and his dad Press, who coached those Tiger teams long ago. Ott, whose dad Al was a member of the 1958 football title team, was also part of a fascinating chat that continued for more than an hour as we browsed the many LSU-flavored exhibits at the museum. Included are big displays of the 2003 and 2007 LSU football BCS title teams, although we found it a bit curious how Nick Saban’s image was cleverly hidden behind the trophy display for 2003 winners. When we asked Bud if that was just an accident that Saban was so hard to locate in the photo collage, he gave us a little smile and wink.

A tour of the LSU campus would of course not be complete without taking a look at the breathtaking athletic facilities. Tiger Stadium is of course the highlight, an imposing structure on the northeast end of campus. Unlike some of the other football venues we saw during the summer (when I was able to walk onto the field at places like Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Middle Tennessee, Vandy, Georgia Tech, Purdue, Indiana, and Wisconsin), Tiger Stadium is guarded like the Pentagon, with 24-hour security monitoring the premises. No matter, there’s plenty to see at the complex, including the rather remarkable zoo (or habitat) recently constructed for LSU mascot Mike The Tiger, whose own personal 15,000-square foot wonderland and playground sits adjacent to the stadium and the Maravich Center, home of Tiger hoops. Indeed, Mike VI might have been the highlight of a remarkable day, prancing and playing and putting on a show for onlookers. At one point, Mike even decided to take a leap into his swimming pool, just on the other side of the glass separating us from the big cat. Having been to zoos for almost a half century and never recalling lions or tigers doing much other than sleep or lounge, it was quite a treat to see Mike put on this show for us (not to mention making my heart leap into my mouth, glass partition between us or not). It was no wonder Mike VI was in a good mood, however, because his trainers had come by and Mike VI had apparently recognized them standing beside me. They informed me that Mike VI was a 4-year old and unfailingly friendly, although they were trying to figure out a way to get him into the contraption that would take him into Tiger Stadium the next night, if, that is, the rain didn’t make the short journey a complete washout. As nice as Mike VI might be, no one is going to argue with him if he doesn’t want to be loaded into a trailer.

As tight as security was around Tiger Stadium, the doors to the Maravich Center were wide open, and we went inside to see the big arena, which was being prepared for a reunion that night of former football coach Charlie McClendon’s great teams between 1962-79, all of whom would be honored at the Vandy game the next evening.

With a bit of daylight still left, we made a quick drive downtown to check out the Louisiana state capitol building. It would have been nice to say hi to Governor Jindal, but we don’t think he was expecting us, and besides, by the time we got there the work day was complete and the capitol building complex almost deserted. It is a different looking capitol building, not with a traditional dome like in Washington, D.C., instead styled more like a scaled-down version of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower. In front of the capitol building lies an attractive grass mall, sort of a scaled-down version of the D.C. mall, only this one has a huge monument and the gravesite of former governor and senator Huey Long, gunned down by an assassin almost 74 years ago to the day on the sixth floor of the adjacent capitol building, right in the middle of it.

Being at LSU for the weekend, we thought it appropriate to pay our respects to the Kingfish, who aside from his remarkable (and eventually tragic) political career was hugely influential in the history of LSU. Indeed, part of the colorful history of the university includes Long’s diehard support and involvement, which, among many other things, also included him writing the words for some of the school fight songs. During his tenure in office, Long had so desired a proper football stadium to be built for his beloved LSU Tigers that when funds could only be appropriated for new dormitories, he had the new dorms designed in the shape of a football stadium...hence the infamous dorms as part of Death Valley. That unique element of Tiger Stadium, which we have long thought was just another quirky LSU thing, actually has a fascinating tale!

Game day at Tiger Stadium is truly unique, although things were admittedly a bit muted by the wet weather and the presence of Vanderbilt, which doesn’t quite work the Tigers fans into the sort of lather that Ole Miss, Alabama, or Florida usually do. The wet weather is also something of a downer for the many coeds and southern belles who love to dress up and attend the games; rain is a big no-no for women who like to fix their hair and don their makeup. Still, the revelry was exciting and the mood upbeat, especially when the Golden Band from Tigerland, accompanied by the Golden Girls, marched down the hill from the Journalism Building and Huey Long Fieldhouse and into the cavernous stadium.

For such a big place, ingress and egress are not too bad inside of Tiger Stadium, which has undergone many renovations, expansions, and upgrades since Huey Long’s days and now seats better than 90,000. A series of ramps moves fans between the levels, although we suspect it would be quite a hike to get to the upper decks of the facility. Fortunately, we didn’t have to climb that high, as we were seated in the bowl section at section 211, right about on the goal line. Sightlines were surprisingly good for such a big venue. Another TGS scout, Dr. Dan Roth, flew in from Philadelphia to join us at the game, and prompted one of the more-curious comments we heard all night from the LSU fans, one of whom mistook Dr. Dan’s maroon Virginia Tech t-shirt for an Alabama variety and made reference to the Tide as a future LSU victim. Which humored the good-natured Dr. Dan, who joked that the Tiger fan who heckled him didn’t even seem to be inebriated just yet.

There were not many Vanderbilt fans in attendance, and the old place rocked when the Tigers were introduced and the action kicked off. Soon, however, the rains came, and by midway in the second quarter it had become so wet that many of the fans decided that it might not be worth sticking around for the second half, even though the Tigers led by just a 13-7 count at intermission. Many folks left at halftime for a dryer place to watch the game, although the rains mostly subsided and ended in the second half.

Those Tigers fans that did stay were mostly nervous for much of the second half as the Commodores lurked within striking distance. LSU was having a bit easier time moving the ball but was unable to capitalize in the red zone, opting for three shorter-range field goals by late in the third quarter, when the Tiger lead stood at 16-7. A poor snap over LSU punter Derek Helton’s head late in the third quarter, however, resulted in a safety and pulled Vandy to within 16-9, and the mood became more serious as the Commodores put together a possible tying or go-ahead drive following the safety and into the 4th quarter. On a third down at the Tiger 23, however, Vandy QB Larry Smith’s pass bounced off the hands of receiver Alex Washington and was picked off by Tiger safety Brandon Taylor. The Dores never threatened again, failing to get past their own 38-yard line, and LSU finally wrapped up matters later in the 4th quarter when RB Keiland Williams scored on a 14-yard run with six minutes to play.

The final score of 23-9 was met with mixed reaction from LSU folk who wanted to see a bit more from their Tigers, who again failed to cover a pointspread for the 20th time in their last 25 games. On the plus side was a better performance from d.c. John Chavis’ stop unit than the week before at Washington, when the Huskies controlled much of the stats and time of possession in Seattle. But more than a few fans were a bit miffed at HC Les Miles’ very conservative play-calling and strategy when settling for the field goals. By us, we thought there was reason for encouragement on both sides, especially the patient game-management skills of Tiger QB Jordan Jefferson, who looked poised and polished, if not spectacular, on the evening. As for Vandy, we think the best player on the field (for either team) might have been RS soph LB Chris Marve, a big-time talent, and the Dores are far beyond the days when they would be completely outmanned by most SEC foes (after all, Vandy was a bowl winner last season). The offense still needs a bit more bite, although Smith looks a more polished performer than last year’s starter Mackenzi Adams, now the backup. We envision the Dores returning to another minor bowl this season for HC Bobby Johnson, who has done a remarkable job resurrecting the Vandy program. That should not be lost on the LSU faithful who were expecting a bigger win on Saturday night, although we suspect the Tigers will be just fine this year. They’ll have a shot in the competitive SEC West, and if they don’t make the BCS we envision them in one of the Florida bowls on New Year’s Day or perhaps back to the Chick Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, where they destroyed Georgia Tech last New Year’s Eve.

But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, because there’s a full season left to play. And for us, whatever happens the rest of the way in 2009, it will be hard to top our LSU/Baton Rouge experience last week!


Brief highlights, lowlights, and comments from last week’s action.

1) Joe McKnight is the man at Southern Cal. Who knows, maybe Kanye West will show up on ESPN Game Day next Saturday and straighten everyone out about the real hero of the Trojans’ win over the Buckeyes. While most of the media continues to gush over SC’s true frosh QB Matt Barkley, anyone who watched the Trojans’ 18-15 comeback win at Ohio State knows that the best thing Barkley did down the stretch in Columbus was get the ball to McKnight, the man who really bailed out the Trojans at the big horseshoe. Spare the comparisons to John Elway or the early canonization of Barkley, although he admittedly showed plenty of spunk when hanging in there with a bruised shoulder and displaying plenty of moxie when at the controls for the game-winning drive. For most of the night, however, Barkley was decidedly ineffective, and after two games we still don’t know if Barkley can throw a deep ball (so where do the Elway comparisons come from, anyway?) because he hasn’t yet been allowed to air it out. Of course, he’s only a true freshman with two starts under his belt, and maybe he’s destined to win a Heisman. Right now, however, we instead think SC’s upcoming opponents are probably feeling a little better about their chances against the Trojans this year. That close call against an Ohio State team that barely escaped Navy in its opener was perhaps more an indicator of potential SC vulnerability than a precursor to a BCS title.

2) What is going on with Sam Bradford at Oklahoma? Perhaps Bob Stoops is borrowing a page from Bill Belichick’s how-to-fluster-the-media manual. But the shroud of secrecy surrounding Bradford’s shoulder injury has become almost laughable. Perhaps Stoops would be better advised to move his stop-the-info-leaks act to Washington, D.C., where government sorts could use somebody to make sure sensitive info never gets into the wrong hands (or the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, the Sooners’ foe this week).

3) Oklahoma State still can’t play defense. The stop unit was OSU’s Waterloo last season, disappearing in big games vs. Texas Tech (allowing 59 points), Oklahoma (allowing 62), and Oregon in the Holiday Bowl (allowing 42). Now, after an offseason with boosters swearing that the “D” was going to be better by leaps and bounds over last year’s platoon because of the return of defensive coordinator Bill Young from Miami, and an opening week win over Georgia, most thought the concerns about the Cowboy defense were old news. Until Houston’s Case Keenum, who passed for almost 400 yards against OSU last season, bullet-riddled the Cowboys once more, torching them for another 366 yards through the air and three TDP in the Cougars’ rousing 45-35 upset win last Saturday, one of the biggest in recent memory from the much-maligned Conference USA. The Cougs are now ranked for the first time since David Klinger’s days at QB in the early ‘90s, while any talk about OSU being “this year’s Texas Tech” are being replaced by the OSU being this year’s...OSU.

4) Under-the-radar watch: Auburn...It only took one down season on the Plains, and the forced resignation of HC Tommy Tuberville, for the Tigers to disappear from the national discussion. Before continuing to do so, however, it’s worth noting how dangerous Auburn was as recently as 2007, and the Tigers now appear like a different team from ‘08 under new HC Gene “Bill Cowher” Chizik, who looks like a death row inmate who’s just gotten a reprieve from the governor after escaping the football dungeon of Iowa State for the familiar turf of Jordan-Hare Stadium, where he worked with some distinction as Tuberville’s d.c. earlier in the decade. It’s only been two wins over La Tech and Mississippi State, but already the offense has a more-Auburn look, with RBs Ben Tate (159 YR) and Onterio McCalebb (120 YR) each cracking century mark last week vs. the Maroon, while former staring QB Kodi Burns had a hand in four TD plays from the newly-installed Wildcat formation courtesy new o.c. Gus Malzahn, who had added lots of octane to Tulsa’s prolific offense in the same role the last two years. The new diversified Auburn attack piled up 589 yards vs. MSU, with the defense and special teams each contributing a TD in the 49-24 romp over a better-than-advertised MSU. The biggest test of the Tigers’ 4-game homestand to open the season comes this week vs. West Virginia. If Auburn gets over that hump, the Tigers will have plenty of momentum for their next SEC game, October 3 at Tennessee.

5) Back to earth: Lane Kiffin...We’ve already learned a few things about new Tennessee HC Lane Kiffin. First, he can be ruthless, as he appeared when blatantly running up that 63-7 score on outmanned Western Kentucky in the opener. Second, he’s probably still not ready for primetime, as the Vols went limp in the next game when stepping up in class vs. UCLA, losing 19-15 at home to the Bruins. For UT, it looked a lot like last year when generally-good defensive play was undermined by brutal QB play that cost HC Phil Fulmer his job. Jonathon Crompton, so encouraging against the Hilltoppers, reverted back to last year’s form against UCLA when responsible for four turnovers as the UT attack could only muster 208 yards worth of offense. The bad news for Kiffin is that the schedule gets a lot tougher than UCLA in the coming weeks, starting with Florida this Saturday, then Auburn, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina all showing up on the slate in October. Hard to imagine Vol fans staying home during bowl season for two straight years, but that’s where we think things are headed in Knoxville.

6) Charlie Weis watch. After his Fighting Irish team lost in brutal fashion last week at Michigan, we think Weis is arriving at a crossroads in his Notre Dame career earlier than he imagined for this season. The next two weeks vs. Michigan State and Purdue could determine a lot about Weis’ eventual fate; anything less than a sweep will be cause for concern for a rapidly impatient group of Domers. A split vs. the Spartans and Boilermakers would probably indicate more losses later in the season and make Weis an unofficial lame duck. Losses to both MSU & Purdue would make Weis an official lame duck. And don’t think getting swept can’t happen, especially vs. an MSU side that invades South Bend this week having won six straight times at Notre Dame Stadium. Overlooking the Spartans because of their last-second loss vs. Central Michigan (which might be able to do the same vs. the Irish) would be foolish, although MSU is still in an adjustment phase with new QBs Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol splitting time. Purdue could be even more dangerous, as the Boilermaker “O” has displayed a lot of unexpected pop under new HC Danny Hope, scoring 44 ppg in its first two and boasting the nation’s leading rusher in Ralph Bolden.

7) Time to hang ’em up, Bobby? We suspect the decision has basically been made at Florida State, although it's not yet been made official. But sometime before the season ends, don’t be surprised if Bobby Bowden announces his retirement, effective at the end of this campaign (which would set up quite an emotional farewell in the regular-season finale vs. Florida). Preordained successor Jimbo Fisher is due a cool $5 million if he isn’t promoted to the top spot by 2011, but we don’t think the Nole Nation is going to hold on that long, not after FSU waited until the final minute before scoring a pair of TDs to finally subdue LSU transfer QB Ryan Perriloux and FCS Jacksonville State by a 19-9 count and thereby avoiding what could have been the Noles’ most-embarrassing loss in history. The last time FSU lost to lower-division team was 40 years ago, when a William & Mary team coached by a 32-year-old guy named Lou Holtz beat a less-accomplished Bill Peterson Nole team by a 9-0 count.

SURPRISE TEAM OF THE WEEK: Louisiana-Lafayette...The Ragin’ Cajuns, expected to be a Sun Belt also-ran after the graduation of offensive stalwarts such as QB Michael Desormeaux and RB Tyrell Fenroy, moved to 2-0 with a 17-15 upset win over Kansas State at Cajun Field, arguably the biggest-ever win in ULL (nee SW Louisiana) history. And hats off to PK Tyler Albrecht, who nailed his first-ever career FG attempt, a 48-yarder with just 32 seconds to play, to give ULL its winning points. The other related story in that game is what Bill Snyder must be thinking just two games into his much-ballyhooed comeback year for the Wildcats, barely surviving vs. lower-division UMass before getting beat by the Ragin’ Cajuns. And Big XII play hasn’t even begun yet for KSU.

DISAPPOINTING TEAM OF THE WEEK: Colorado...We’re not going to say that just because the Buffs lost to Toledo that CU qualifies for this category. After all, CU was only a slight favorite, and we’re long beyond the point where it should come as a surprise if MAC teams beat BCS non-conference foes. But it was the manner of the Buffs’ unraveling that was so disturbing, with an incredible array of missed assignments defensively leading to numerous breakdowns and the 54-point explosion by the Rockets. The team looked sloppy and poorly coached, and Buff fans, who were fully expecting a 2-0 start after facing a rebuilding Colorado State and Toledo, now must be asking themselves if the time has come to pull the plug on Dan Hawkins’ underachieving regime that has gained absolutely no traction since 2006 in Boulder.

POINTSPREAD WATCH...Teams that have covered their first two games on the board in 2009: Auburn, Boise State, Bowling Green, BYU,, Central Michigan, Clemson, UConn, Idaho, Michigan, Navy, Nebraska, North Texas, Purdue, Syracuse, Tulsa. Teams that have lost vs. the spread their first two games on the board in 2009: Colorado, Georgia, La Tech, LSU, Memphis, Miami-Ohio, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Penn State, Rice, South Carolina, Texas, Troy, Tulane, Utah, UTEP, Washington State, Western Michigan, Wisconsin.

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