RABALAIS: The troubles have proved to be very little trouble for Tigers

LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee, left, slaps hands with quarterback Jordan Jefferson earlier this season. Show caption
LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee, left, slaps hands with quarterback Jordan Jefferson earlier this season.

Maybe we had it backward.

The fans and the media that follow this LSU football program looked at the somber list of offseason problems - the bar fight, two offensive starters suspended and a third lost for the season because of injury, Steve Kragthorpe’s illness, NCAA probation and whispers about Willie Lyles - and asked how could this team survive a meat-grinder schedule to fulfill its national championship potential with such issues weighing it down.

So here we are, halfway through the season, and aside from the fact that offensive guard Josh Dworaczyk is rehabbing from knee surgery and is applying for a sixth year in 2012, it’s almost as though “the troubles,” to borrow an Irish term, never existed.

Jordan Jefferson, Russell Shepard and Josh Johns are back on the team and contributing. Kragthorpe is consulting with emergency offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa to concoct an offense, that while not explosive, has helped LSU rank second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring. And it most closely fits the style Les Miles prefers of all the seven teams he’s had at LSU.

The NCAA and Willie Lyles issues? Mere afterthoughts.

Instead of being distracted, the Tigers have thrived. Could they be ranked any higher? Could they be any more than 6-0? No team in LSU history ever before opened a season with six straight double-digit victories and this against four ranked teams, the most anyone in the country has yet faced.

The old saying, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger,” is translated in LSU-ese as, “That which does not bring you down makes you better.”

Doesn’t that seem to be the case? How else do you explain what the Tigers have been able to accomplish in the face of what seemed to be such enormously damaging issues?

Perhaps it’s best to let LSU’s players tell you how they’ve won:

Shepard: “We learned from it. It forced us to man up and grow up at a young age. In a sense it’s been a blessing in disguise. It’s forced a lot of young men to mature early.”

Rueben Randle: “We put the negatives behind us and looked forward to the future. We knew we had a great team and just put everything behind us and have played great football.”

Ke-Ke Mingo: “They (the problems) kind of motivated us to keep on fighting and playing for those who got in trouble. It just worked out for the best.”

You think? Somehow, the pressure and stress of what looked like enormous issues instead of cracking this crew forged them into something better, like tempered steel. Instead of this team dropping out of the sky like the Hindenburg (or like this season’s Florida State team), it’s gotten off to THE best start against THE toughest schedule LSU’s ever had. E-V-E-R.

Even Jefferson’s return and immediate pronouncement that he wants to be the starting quarterback again, a potentially divisive and highly corrosive issue, in the early returns has meant nothing. Yes, Jarrett Lee looked like he was looking over his shoulder against Kentucky two weeks ago, but he has never been more on the mark than with the pair of long passes he threw against Florida to Randle.

“We’re a very focused and motivated group right now,” Lee said. “We’ve still got a lot we want to improve on, but we’ve grown up a lot from last year.”

If you want to see compounded problems, if you want to look trouble square in the facemask, look to Tennessee, the Tigers next victim - sorry, opponent - Saturday.

Dating roughly to the start of LSU’s troubles, the Volunteers have lost their best quarterback (Tyler Bray), leading tackler (Baton Rouge’s Herman Lathers), best defensive back (Janzen Jackson, now at McNeese State), best receiver (Justin Hunter) and its top running back (Tauren Poole) is running on a bad wheel with a balky hamstring.

Aside from being able to rely on former starting quarterback Matt Simms, a senior, the Vols don’t have enough adequate replacements for all those stars to keep up with what may be the deepest LSU team since the days of the White Team, the Go Team and the Chinese Bandits.

Black-and-white era history may be the biggest thing going against the Tigers today. The last time LSU went to Knoxville ranked No. 1 it was November 1959. A week after Billy Cannon’s legendary punt return to beat Ole Miss, Tennessee upset LSU 14-13, likely denying the Tigers a second straight national title.

It’s said they left the scoreboard on all night at Neyland Stadium after that one.

Chances are, LSU will put Tennessee’s lights out early this time.

These Tigers have been through to much to blow a game like this one now.