32 games. 15 cities. 11 states. 3 time zones. 29,000 miles. 1 sportswriter.
When they told me I’d be covering almost all of the LSU and New Orleans Saints games this past season, I was excited, overwhelmed, and feared for the life of my favorite piece of luggage.
Before thinking of what to write, I thought of the children’s book that was penned long before I tackled this adventure:
Oh, the places you’ll go!
Thirty-two football games from August to January: 12 LSU games, 17 Saints games (including preseason and playoffs), Bayou Classic, Southeastern Conference Championship Game and the BCS National Championship Game. Thirty-two plane flights and 19 car trips. Nearly 29,000 miles traveled. About that many credit-card receipts, as our accounting department will attest.
With Dr. Seuss as my co-pilot, I touched each coast three times, covering games in 15 cities, 11 states and three time zones.
Here are some fond memories from the road well traveled …
BEST GAME: LSU’s 44-41 point-a-thon loss at Georgia was mighty entertaining. But considering what was at stake, it’s hard to top Florida State’s 34-31 victory over Auburn on Jan. 6 in the final BCS National Championship Game. If the BCS had to go, this was the way to go out, with fireworks, amazing plays and a stellar comeback by Florida State from an early 18-point deficit. When Auburn running back Tre Mason ran over FSU free safety Jalen Ramsey for a 37-yard touchdown with 1:19 remaining, it looked like the game-winner.
WORST GAME: No game I saw last season got so much hype yet flopped so badly as the Saints’ 34-7 regular-season loss at Seattle on Dec. 2. Billed at the time as a battle of the top two teams in the NFC, the 9-2 Saints were done by the end of the first quarter, down 17-0 to the 10-1 Seahawks. The game set Seattle on the path to being the NFC’s No. 1 seed and was the first of three straight road losses for the Saints that sent the NFC South division title slipping from their grasp.
BEST CATCH: Jarvis Landry didn’t just reach through Arkansas cornerback D.J. Dean to catch a 32-yard pass from Zach Mettenberger in their Nov. 29 meeting. He committed some kind of magic trick, morphing back and around Dean to first try to prevent a turnover then bring in the ball with his left hand for a key first down in the Tigers’ drive for a field goal in their eventual 31-27 victory. Count the Razorbacks glad to see Landry heading off for the NFL after the amazing one-handed, back-of-the-end-zone touchdown grab he made in LSU’s 20-13 win in Fayetteville in 2012.
Landry’s catch in the 2013 LSU-Arkansas game was the back end (Les Miles term) of the season’s most dramatic play, as Mettenberger went down with a season-ending knee injury on that same sequence.
BEST RUNNING BACK: LSU’s Jeremy Hill proved he was ready for the NFL with his magnificent mudder performance against Iowa in the Outback Bowl, and Mason was a machine, toting the ball a combined 80 times in the SEC and BCS championship games. But Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch is in his prime as a pro. No one I saw all season was as stubborn, as hard to bring down as the Seahawks’ big back, who rushed for a combined 185 yards and two touchdowns in his two games against the Saints.
MR. CLUTCH: Florida State’s Jameis Winston stepped into the huddle before the Seminoles’ fateful drive, scanned the faces of his teammates and told them, “Guys, we didn’t come here for no reason. This is ours, man.” The Heisman Trophy winner proceeded to lead FSU on a drive for the ages, 80 yards in seven plays. Famous Jameis was 6-of-7 passing on the march, including the 2-yard game winner to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left. He was off most of the night, dreadful at times, but Winston was wonderful when FSU needed him to deliver in a 34-31 victory.
BEST QUOTE: “I beat my brother again.” From New York Jets coach Rex Ryan after his team beat the New Orleans Saints and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan 26-20 on Nov. 3. Rex is now 5-0 all-time against his twin brother. Rob does get my vote for the season’s best hair, an easy pick since the Saints didn’t play the Pittsburgh Steelers and Troy Polamalu.
MOST ILL-TIMED QUOTE: Richard Sherman had two cracks at the New Orleans Saints this season but never uttered anything as spectacular as his post NFC Championship-game nuclear option Sunday. You owe me one, Richard.
ONE OFF THE BUCKET LIST: Anyone who knows me knows I have always wanted to cover a game at the Rose Bowl. I’m still bitter about the fact that USC choked against UCLA in 2006, keeping LSU out of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play in the Granddaddy of Them All. So it was a huge thrill to be able to cover the BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif. It wasn’t the Rose Bowl game (and no parade), but watching the old bowl enveloped in shadows while the bright January sun still turned the nearby San Gabriel Mountains gold was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen at a football game. If you love college football, you will find a way to get to at the Rose Bowl at least once.
IT NEVER RAINS IN TIGER STADIUM , EXCEPT …: Every year. This season, rain put a damper on what was an otherwise huge and hugely anticipated LSU-Auburn game on Sept. 21. LSU’s “just holding on” 35-21 victory left many fans grumbling when the Tigers gasped to the finish line after leading 21-0 at halftime. But after Auburn wound up playing for the national title with the loss at LSU the only blemish, that game took on a much different light.
IT ALWAYS RAINS (APPARENTLY) IN TAMPA: Florida is known as the Sunshine State, but on Sept. 15 when the Saints played the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium, we were all reminded of another fact: Florida is the lightning capital of America.
In what looked like a scene from the movie “Twister,” an evil black and gray storm front descended on Raymond James Stadium during the first quarter, prompting a 1 hour, 9 minute lightning delay. When LSU and Iowa played in Tampa on New Year’s Day, there was no lightning, just a cold, misty rain that left the stands less than half full for the Tigers’ 21-14 victory.
BEST BAND: Hearing FSU’s band belt out “We Are The Champions” after the BCS title game was epic. But just as the Seminoles retired the BCS trophy, Southern’s Human Jukebox marching band long retired the one for bands. I’m still wowed to see them do the halftime score formation, as they gleefully did at the Bayou Classic with the Jaguars up 27-3. I’m sure there’s a formula for it, but I don’t want to know. Like watching Jarvis Landry catch passes, I prefer to be amazed.