East: Tigers up to opening challenges

ARLINGTON, Texas — The palace formerly known as Jerry’s World could reasonably be called Mike’s World, as in Mike the Tiger.

Though it’s now called AT&T Stadium, the building once known as Cowboys Stadium and more familiarly as Jerry’s World after its creator — Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — has been the site of three LSU victories against ranked teams in as many games over the past 32 months.

The latest was the 37-27 win Saturday against preseason No. 20 TCU, which was playing about 15 minutes from its campus but surrounded by more Tigers fans than friendly faces.

That performance inevitably conjured up memories of the 40-27 win against Oregon in LSU’s last appearance in the Cowboys Classic two years ago: Tigers invade Dallas to open the season against a ranked opponent and come away with an impressive victory.

But there are differences worth examining.

First of all, with all due respect to coach Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs — a good team from a very good program — this TCU team did not present as stiff a football challenge as those third-ranked Ducks did two years ago.

But in total, this trip to the Cowboys Classic might have presented a stiffer challenge than the last one. At least it was a different one.

Remember, that game against Oregon came on the heels of the Tigers’ debut in Jerry’s World — a 41-24 victory against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl eight months earlier.

That victory featured eye-catching performances from talented young players such as Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne, Eric Reid, Spencer Ware and Tharold Simon and capped an 11-2 season that earned LSU a No. 8 ranking in the final poll.

The momentum from that game carried over into the Tigers’ offseason work as the players eagerly anticipated the opportunity to face Oregon in the opener.

Contrast that with the context of this opener.

Last season ended under circumstances as deflating as those of the 2010 season were uplifting.

Last year’s Tigers anticipated a trip back to the Cotton Bowl, only to learn at the 11th hour that they would instead be going to the less glamorous Chick-fil-A Bowl.

That finale sent the team into the offseason on a downer after the Tigers squandered a lead in the final minute and lost to Clemson 25-24.

LSU’s mood didn’t get any better as one by one, 11 underclassmen declared early for the NFL draft, increasing uncertainty about the 2013 team’s ability to maintain the level of play of its two immediate predecessors.

If the 2011 team was riding a crest of confidence and inspiration leading up to its opener, the 2013 team was doggedly blocking out naysayers as it grinded away.

Still, both teams came away from the Cowboys Classic with one of the marquee victories of the opening weekend.

This one had some blemishes to be sure — sloppy penalties, a crucial turnover, a special teams breakdown, red-zone inconsistency — but for a season opener away from home against a preseason Top 20 team it was still pretty good.

It sure looked like LSU still has the athletes — and the coaching staff — on defense to compete at the highest level.

It looks like it has a new-found willingness to be bolder on offense under new coordinator Cam Cameron as well as the watchful eye of coach Les Miles.

All in all, it seems the players’ staunch belief that they have enough leaders and reinforcements to maintain the tradition that helped convince them to become Tigers was well founded.

The victory against Oregon was special because it served as a launching point for the most successful regular season in LSU history.

No one knows where this team will go from this opener, but based on the performance, if anyone thought the finish to last season and the tumult of the offseason were signs the Tigers were regressing, they might want to reconsider.