The LSU football team joined its fellow students in reporting for the first day of classes Monday, learning what would be expected of them to start the semester.
But footballwise, the players have long known that they would be facing a challenging assignment right from the start as they voted a year ago to accept an invitation to play TCU in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas.
The Tigers have spent the offseason and preseason looking forward to the Horned Frogs, who are ranked No. 20 in the preseason polls, much as they looked forward to opening against preseason No. 3 Oregon in the same venue two years ago.
“Any ranked team in the opener is a big deal,” running back Alfred Blue said Monday.
“You’re still trying to work out a lot of bugs and kinks on offense and defense, so playing a ranked team in the beginning is tough.
“So we’re taking it real serious.”
LSU obviously took the Ducks really seriously two years ago as it came away with an impressive 40-27 victory that was the launching point for a 13-0 regular season.
Last season was much different as LSU’s first opponent, North Texas, didn’t have nearly the same gravitas as Oregon, and Hurricane Isaac disrupted the Tigers’ preparations. The result was a sloppy, though decisive, 41-14 victory.
But this year’s opener isn’t on the players’ minds as much as last season’s finale — a last-minute 25-24 loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“It’s exciting because we know at the end of the week we get a chance to play against somebody,” wide receiver Jarvis Landry said, “especially coming off a bitter, bitter bowl game.”
Defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said the team’s mood is more subdued than it was a year ago when many players’ mantra was “Mission Miami” — a reference to hopefully returning to the BCS Championship Game in South Florida a year after losing to Alabama in the title game.
“A lot of guys looked at it as redemption,” Johnson said. “But at the end of the day, the leadership on this team is letting guys know that the only way that we can go to our destination is one game at a time. All the young guys and all the leaders understand that we have to play every game like it’s our last.”
Johnson said coach Les Miles has taken it easier on the team in preseason camp this year.
“It’s more laid back,” Johnson said. “The last couple of years, we’ve been practicing 100 percent, full-go all the time. Everybody’s body has been banged up. But coach Miles has taken care of us a lot more, and we’re more focused mentally than ever.”
The Horned Frogs are the lowest-ranked of the five ranked teams on the Tigers schedule — challenging LSU to play at a high level right away and prepare it for presumably greater challenges down the road.
“You look at our season, and you recognize that we have a very, very ambitious schedule in front of us. And for us not to really start fast would be a mistake,” Miles said. “It’s really an ideal style of opponent.
“We’re going to have to play well to do the things that we want to do against TCU, and hopefully we catch a speed, if you will, in execution that will allow us to be prepared as we go into the meat of the SEC schedule. A quality opponent should sharpen us pretty well.”
This is the fourth time in Miles’ nine seasons that the Tigers have played a ranked team in their opener. In Miles’ first game, they beat preseason No. 15 Arizona State 35-31 in a game that was hurriedly moved from Tiger Stadium to Tempe, Ariz., in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. LSU went on to finish 11-2.
In 2010, the Tigers opened the season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta and prevailed 30-24 against No. 18 North Carolina, though the Tar Heels were weakened by the suspension of several players for the game. LSU finished 11-2 that season as well.
“I think as a program, we’re used to taking these challenges on,” Miles said. “I think there’s some excitement that builds. I think we enjoy playing in an environment that will be kind of charged and ready. And even though there will be some young guys and a first-time experience, the people that have worn those uniforms, they know how to operate in that. And if they look around, they’ll see some very calm heads looking forward to playing.
“I think there’s reason to believe this team will respond as LSU teams in the past have.”
Miles said the Tigers finished preseason preparations relatively injury free and have demonstrated that an inexperienced defense and an offense operating in a new system are poised to handle the challenging schedule.
“Any time you take the field in an opener, there is uncertainty,” Miles said. “Every team has a personality, and it’s a developing one. Certainly the youth of a team allows, in my opinion, for the continued improvement. ... I think it’s a great team that has the potential to step forward and improve.
“But any time you start a season, in your first game, I think that there’s always that enjoyment of seeing, ‘Let’s see how good they are.’”