Tigers players, coaches reflect on 10-win season

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLINGLSU guard Josh Dworaczyk congratulates defensive end Sam Montgomery (99) after the LSU-Mississippi State game at Tiger Stadium earlier this season. LSU won 37-17.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLINGLSU guard Josh Dworaczyk congratulates defensive end Sam Montgomery (99) after the LSU-Mississippi State game at Tiger Stadium earlier this season. LSU won 37-17.

BY LES EAST

Advocate sportswriter

The LSU football team is in the midst of a two-week break from practice as the players finish their academic business.

By Sunday night, the Tigers will know their postseason destination — presumably Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando or Tampa.

In the meantime, they can heal up from the last three months and reflect on their 10-2 season. Even though there’s no trip to Atlanta this week to defend their Southeastern Conference championship or a chance to play in a BCS bowl game, a third straight 10-win season stands out on the bowl résumé of the ninth-ranked team in the country.

“I hope all the guys understand how special the things we’ve been able to accomplish here on a consistent basis are,” senior offensive lineman Josh Dworaczyk said. “Having double-digit victories is special.”

Dworaczyk has the rare perspective gained from a six-year career. He redshirted during the Tigers’ BCS Championship season in 2007, which was followed by an 8-5 season that ended in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

After LSU went 9-4 and played in the Capital One Bowl after the 2009 season, it began its string of double-digit winning seasons with an 11-2 record and trip to the Cotton Bowl, followed by the historic 13-0 regular season SEC Championship and trip to the BCS title game last season, when Dworaczyk was sidelined by a preseason knee injury.

During the Tigers’ three-year run of 10-victory seasons, they have the best SEC record — 20-4 — and the best overall record among SEC teams — 34-5.

“You look at some of these other teams in the SEC, and they’ve been successful and then they have a year like a couple of them have had this year and you think, ‘man what’s going on in their locker room?’” Dworaczyk said “What’s the reasoning behind that? Because for us, it seems like we’ve been so consistent in being able to win.

“So having another season where you get 10 wins in the regular season is something special. We’d like to have had 12.”

Arkansas, which was 11-2 and 6-2 last season, finished 4-8 and 2-6 after a 20-13 loss to LSU in the regular-season finale last Friday in Fayetteville, Ark. Now the Razorbacks are looking for their third head coach in less than a year.

Bobby Petrino was abruptly dismissed after last season when his extra-marital affair came to light, and John L. Smith was hired on an interim basis for this season.

Auburn is also looking for a new coach, having fired Gene Chizik after going winless in the SEC, just two years removed from an undefeated BCS Championship season.

The Tigers, meanwhile, have had six 10-win records in coach Les Miles’ eight seasons.

Dworaczyk pointed to LSU’s ability to win close games as a key factor in the consistent level of winning in recent seasons. The victory against Arkansas was a prime example as the Tigers didn’t put away a heavy underdog until Razorback quarterback Tyler Wilson’s final pass sailed out of the LSU end zone on the game’s final play.

“Coach (Les) Miles talks a lot about this being our culture,” Dworaczyk said, “and it’s kind of hard to understand for someone from the outside looking in, but in our team room, I think everyone understands that you fight for victory, and as cliché as it sounds, it’s something this team has always done, and you see it in these games where it’s close and we end up pulling it off where it should have been a blowout but we still get the win.

“At the end of the day, no matter what’s gone wrong and how many things aren’t going your way, whether it’s calls or things you didn’t practice for, in the fourth quarter, when it counts and you’ve got to make sure that you get the ‘W’, we do that, and that’s what puts us in these top few teams that can call themselves elite teams.”

In some ways the Tigers’ 10-2 record, including a 6-2 SEC mark, is a disappointment. The team was the preseason No. 1 team in the coaches poll and hoped to play for the BCS Championship.

But an eight-point loss to Florida and a four-point loss to Alabama took LSU out of the title picture.

“It’s definitely not the record we wanted at the beginning of the year,” safety Eric Reid said. “We wanted to have another undefeated season.”

The loss of eight starters for various reasons since the start of preseason camp changed the look of the team.

“I think it’s been a great regular season,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “Everybody always gives us their best shot.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of adversity, lost a lot of guys this year due to injuries and other things, but to still come out and get 10 wins this year is a huge deal.”

The Tigers have a month to get ready for their bowl game. By now the 14 first-time starters this season, including five true freshmen, are veterans. LSU has played 15 true freshmen — second-most in college football.

“For this football team to play as many freshmen as we have,” Miles said, “to achieve 10 wins is an awfully salty year.”

LSU could get some injured players back in time for the bowl game. Freshman linebacker Kwon Alexander, who hasn’t played since breaking an ankle against Florida on Oct. 6, dressed for the game against Arkansas but did not play. He’s expected to be ready well before the bowl game.

Linebacker Luke Muncie (stomach illness) and guard Josh Williford (concussion) might also be ready for the bowl game.

“Just having everybody back and healed up, it’s going to be a great feeling to see what this team can be,” linebacker Lamin Barrow said. “It’ll give us a little outlook on next year.”