A neutral-site matchup of top-four teams LSU and Oregon, both of which have BCS title hopes, has been overshadowed by incidents involving both teams’ top quarterbacks.
The problems are much worse from the Tigers’ perspective.
Most offshore sports books monitored by the SportsOptions odds product opened the visiting Ducks as three-point favorites, with the total set at 55 points.
Coach Les Miles has named Jarrett Lee his starter for Saturday night’s marquee opener when his No. 4 Tigers face the third-ranked Ducks at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
LSU will be without projected starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson along with reserve linebacker Josh Johns. Both have been suspended indefinitely after being arrested on felony second-degree battery charges stemming from an Aug. 19 melee outside Shady’s Bar in Baton Rouge.
“There’s a heartfelt loss, if you will, of missing two players,” Miles said. “That being said, it’s just all about (looking) forward and pulling together and going with a little different cast of characters. There are some things we can control and some things we can’t, and right now there are two who aren’t in the huddle and we’ll line up and play in their absence.”
Lee will be the man in the spotlight. He’s thrown 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in his three seasons with the Tigers, who went 11-2 last season and were considered among the favorites to win the SEC in 2011 before the arrests.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, how it’s all played out,” Lee said. “But I feel like the best thing to do is fill in, because I know that’s what Jordan would do.”
Oregon starter Darron Thomas, who threw 30 touchdowns last season to rank second in the Pac-10, was also involved in an offseason incident but will play Saturday. Thomas claims he was asleep in the car when cornerback Cliff Harris was pulled over for driving 118 mph this summer.
Thomas also denies he was smoking marijuana. A police dashboard camera video revealed that the officer who pulled Harris over thought he smelled the odor of marijuana coming from the car.
Harris, a consensus All-American, was cited for speeding and driving on a suspended license and has been suspended for this contest. Thomas was not disciplined by coach Chip Kelly, who said, “I’m not punishing someone for being a passenger.”
Thomas, a Houston native who was set on going to LSU before committing to Oregon, will be under center for the first time since the 22-19 loss to Auburn in last season’s BCS title game. That defeat prevented a perfect season for the Ducks, the favorites to win the Pac-12 in the revamped conference’s first season.
“It’s nice to be picked to win,” Kelly said. “It’s nice to be picked top-five in the country, but it doesn’t mean anything until you go out and play the game, so that mindset won’t change. Hopefully, our motivation comes from within.”
This contest could kick off a run at the Heisman Trophy for Oregon tailback LaMichael James, who led the nation with 144.3 rushing yards per game and 24 total touchdowns a season ago.
James caught two TD passes from Thomas in the BCS title game, but was limited to a season-low 49 yards on the ground. He’s eager to get the new season started.
“We can get better,” said James, who needs 20 rushing yards to break Derek Loville’s school record of 3,296. “The sky’s the limit for us.”
Oregon topped the country by averaging 530.7 yards of offense in 2010.
LSU could be hard-pressed to keep up due to offensive problems besides the loss of Jefferson. Russell Shepard, tied for second on the team with 33 receptions last year, has been suspended for an NCAA rules violation.
“Russell, as we know, he’s a great athlete,” Lee said. “He brings a lot to this team. He will be missed for sure, but we’ve got some young guys who can come in and do a good job for us as they’ve done all of fall camp.”
In addition, offensive line coach Greg Studrawa was promoted to offensive coordinator. Former Tulsa and Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe was hired to serve in that role, but was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and will be the Tigers’ quarterbacks coach.
LSU leads the series with Oregon 2-1. The Tigers, who won 56-17 in the last meeting in 1977, are anxious to put the offseason behind them.
“I think our guys understand fully the mistakes that we made,” Miles said. “It is a very interesting one when you describe what can happen, and you do so repeatedly, so that the lesson can be learned. That being said, I think all of us are looking forward to football.”