ATLANTA — LSU's day couldn't have started out much worse. It couldn't have ended any better.
One of the strangest days in the history of LSU's program began with rumors that Tigers coach Les Miles was on the verge of accepting Michigan's coaching job. It concluded with Miles pledging his loyalty to an LSU team that suddenly has a legitimate chance of playing for the national championship.
"I'd line up against anybody and look forward to the opportunity," Miles said Saturday after LSU rallied for a 21-14 victory over Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game. "Anybody that saw this game would certainly understand that this team (is) arguably the finest team in the country."
The Tigers just might get a chance to prove it.
Losses by the two top teams in the BCS standings – No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia – left the national championship sweepstakes so muddled that No. 7 LSU (11-2) just might learn Sunday that it has earned a shot at the title.
No. 3 Ohio State (11-1) almost certainly will have a spot in the championship game, but which team will the Buckeyes face?
No. 4 Georgia? The Bulldogs (10-2) lost the SEC East title to the same Tennessee team that fell to LSU on Saturday night.
No. 5 Kansas? The Jayhawks (11-1) ended their season with a loss to Missouri and haven't beaten a single BCS team that won more than seven games this year.
No. 6 Virginia Tech? The Hokies (11-2) lost 48-7 to LSU in the second week of the season.
No. 8 USC or No. 9 Oklahoma? Both were behind LSU in last week's BCS standings.
No wonder the Tigers suddenly find themselves believing they still have a shot to end the season as the No. 1 team in the nation.
"This team has finished fifth in the nation (in 2005), third in the nation (in 2006)," Miles said Saturday night, hours before West Virginia and Missouri had lost their games. "And Lord willing, we'll see if we can catch another odd number here coming forward."
Whether LSU gets a chance to prove it's the best team in the country, the Tigers at the least have shown they're one of the toughest teams in the land. LSU overcame all sorts of injuries and innuendo to earn a conference title that will allow them to remain in their home state for the postseason, whether it's in the Sugar Bowl or the BCS title game.
The Tigers won the SEC title by revealing the heart that helped persuade Miles to stick around. For at least a few hours, they put the soap opera surrounding their program out of their minds and overcame the kind of adversity that would wreck most other teams.
"We're all about each other," said LSU quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, who was named the game's most valuable player after starting in place of an injured Matt Flynn. "Everything we do is about us. We don't let outside distractions get inside our family. We just keep working and keep pressing forward and continue to get better."
LSU 21, Tennessee 14
Offensive player of the game
LSU QB Ryan Perrilloux injured his right index finger while throwing a third-quarter interception and had it bandaged for the rest of the game, but he still went 20 of 30 for 243 yards and a touchdown pass in only his second career start. LSU WR Brandon LaFell said he knew Perrilloux's injury wouldn't bother him too much. "He couldn't grip the ball too much, but Ryan's got a gun," LaFell said. "Taking a little bit off his (throws) is like other dudes' normal (throws) because he's got such a strong arm."
Defensive player of the game
LSU CB Jonathan Zenon's 18-yard interception return put the Tigers ahead for good with 9:54 left in the game. Zenon also broke up a pass and collected six tackles.
The obvious turning point came with Zenon's interception, but another big moment happened when Tennessee failed to capitalize on a takeaway. Tennessee led 14-13 late in the third quarter when an Eric Berry interception gave the Vols the ball at LSU's 37. Tennessee gained just 3 yards on its next three plays and wasted the opportunity when Daniel Lincoln's 51-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide right.
LSU's Colt David and Tennessee's Lincoln missed field goals they normally make. David had gone 18 of 18 on field-goal attempts from less than 37 yards away before his 30-yard attempt went wide right with six seconds left in the first half. Lincoln had his 30-yard kick sail wide right in the third quarter. He had gone 14 of 15 from less than 40 yards out before that miss.
Tennessee probably wasn't feeling too sympathetic toward the Tigers over the absence of LSU starting QB Matt Flynn. Tennessee played the majority of last year's game against LSU without starting QB Erik Ainge after he aggravated an ankle injury in the first quarter. LSU won that game 28-24 on Early Doucet's 4-yard touchdown catch with nine seconds remaining.
Long time coming
Trindon Holliday's turnover in the third quarter marked the first time any of LSU's active running backs had lost a fumble since Jacob Hester coughed up the ball in the first game of his career, in 2004.
What this means for LSU
LSU will definitely play a postseason game in New Orleans. The only question that remains is whether the Tigers are playing in the Sugar Bowl or the BCS title game.
What this means for Tennessee
This loss knocks the Vols out of BCS consideration. The Outback or Chick-fil-A bowls look like possible destinations.
LSU clinched its spot in the conference championship game two weeks before Tennessee, but that didn't stop Vols fans from snapping up tickets. About two-thirds of the sellout crowd was decked out in orange. … Tennessee TB Lennon Creer's 50-yard kickoff return in the first quarter was the longest in SEC Championship Game history. … Tennessee WR Lucas Taylor caught just two passes for 25 yards, but that was enough to make him the fifth Vol to have at least 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Taylor has 73 catches for exactly 1,000 yards. … Tennessee wore orange pants for the first time since a 17-16 victory over Memphis on Sept. 25, 1999. … Tennessee didn't commit a single penalty for the first time in Phillip Fulmer's 16-year coaching tenure. … LSU has scored 475 points this season to tie a school record. The 2003 team that won the BCS national title also scored 475 points. … Zenon's interception return was LSU's first defensive touchdown of the season. … LSU DT Ricky-Jean Francois was in the starting lineup, which marked his first action of the season after serving a year-long suspension. … LSU won its 10th SEC title and first since 2003.
They certainly faced plenty of distractions this weekend. The Tigers went to sleep Friday night with Flynn hurting and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini potentially leaving. They woke up Saturday amid speculation that Miles also was on his way out of town.
Flynn never played a down Saturday night after injuring his shoulder a week earlier. Perrilloux remained in the game despite injuring his right index finger in the third quarter. All-America defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey sat out most of the game with a lower back injury.
Yet LSU still found a way to win.
Jonathan Zenon's 18-yard interception return put LSU ahead for good with 9:54 left, then Darry Beckwith clinched the victory by picking off an Erik Ainge pass at the Tigers' 7 with 2:42 remaining.
"That's just the kind of team this is," said LSU running back Jacob Hester, who rushed for a game-high 120 yards on 23 carries. "We've been through so much – so many close games, so much adversity. We always seem to just fight through it. That's just the character of this team."
This day offered the ultimate test of that character.
The Tigers already had heard reports linking Pelini to the coaching vacancy at Nebraska when ESPN reported Saturday morning that Miles was on the verge of accepting the job at Michigan, where he had played and worked as an assistant.
That led to an awkward situation as Miles tried to prepare his players for their biggest game of the season.
"I go down to chapel," Miles said. "When they see me, they're sitting there going, 'Coach, sounds like you're catching a plane on Monday.' That's not true, I had to tell them."
In one of the most bizarre scenes in the 16-year history of the SEC Championship Game, Miles held a news conference two hours before the opening kickoff to dispute the report of his impending departure.
"I am the head coach at LSU,'' Miles said. "I will be the head coach at LSU.''
He reiterated that point after the game and indicated there was "no wiggle room" in his statement. Miles also explained why he felt the need to hold a pregame news conference to put the rumors to rest.
"For me to be an issue, for a coach to be an issue on a day like today, it's not forgivable," Miles said. "That's why I had to take the podium and tell the truth."
Miles then proved he was at LSU to stay by opening the game with one of his characteristic gambles, attempting an unsuccessful pooch kick that allowed Tennessee to open the game on its 43. Ainge capitalized on the favorable field position and led the Vols on a scoring drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Chris Brown.
Early in the second quarter, LSU's season-long penchant of going for it on fourth down backfired when Hester was stopped for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-1 from Tennessee's 31.
Those two moves – as well as a missed 30-yard field goal by Colt David – helped explain why LSU trailed 7-6 at halftime despite holding the ball for more than 21 minutes and gaining nearly three times as many yards as Tennessee in the first two periods.
But Miles' biggest gamble of all played at least a small part in helping LSU take the lead for good.
Tennessee (9-4) led 14-13 in the fourth quarter when Miles called for a fake punt from his 45. Patrick Fisher responded with a 9-yard pass to Quinn Johnson that gave LSU a first down at Tennessee's 46.
LSU didn't score on the ensuing drive, but the fake created favorable field position. When Fisher actually did punt a few plays later, he pinned Tennessee at its 9.
When Zenon saw the Vols line up on third-and-5 a couple of plays later, he immediately got a familiar feeling.
"I'd seen that route about three or four times this weekend throughout practice," Zenon said. "As soon as I saw that formation, I knew exactly what they were going to do."
And he knew exactly what he was going to do.
Zenon jumped in front of a pass intended for Quintin Hancock, made the catch and raced into the end zone untouched to put LSU ahead for good. Perrilloux's run for a two-point conversion made the score 21-14.
"It takes one play to get you beat," said Ainge, who went 20 of 40 for 249 yards with two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.
Ainge nearly rectified his mistake later in the fourth quarter. He threw to tailback Arian Foster, who capitalized on an outstanding block from Hancock to turn a short completion into a 47-yard gain.
Tennessee now had a first down at LSU's 14 against an injury-riddled defense that was getting more and more tired. That's when the Tigers remembered what Pelini had told them in what likely was his final pregame speech at LSU.
"Coach Pelini told us that a champion is not measured by its failure, but how he overcomes that failure and continues to work hard," Beckwith said. "I think that's what we did. When we got in a tight situation, we came together as a team and did our assignments."
Never did they respond more than on the next play after that 47-yard gain.
Ainge attempted to throw a pass across the middle, but Beckwith made an impressive grab for his first interception of the season. Beckwith's big play capped an exceptional performance from a resurgent LSU defense.
Although LSU's defense has ranked near the top of most statistical categories on defense all season, the Tigers had given up at least 24 points in six of their past seven games. They finally lived up to their reputation Saturday in perhaps their final performance for Pelini. LSU strong safety Craig Steltz said Pelini had told the players there was a "high chance" he'd be heading to Nebraska.
"We put a lot of hard work in," Pelini said. "We went through a lot together and we wanted to finish this season off the right way and win the SEC. That's what we were able to do. That's really all I was concerned with. The speculation, that was for other people to concern themselves with. I was worried about winning a football game."
Pelini may be on his way to accepting his dream job, but Miles won't be following him out the door. His team's passion for the game helped Miles realize he already was living his dream.
"I love Michigan," Miles said. "I will always be a Michigan man. I will always root for the next head coach there. I will wear those colors when it comes down to the Ohio (State)-Michigan game. I'm going to root and pull for the blue, and they will eventually win that game.
"There's a proud tradition (at Michigan), and they have to do the things they have to do. I'm for them, and if there's any way I can help them, I'd love to help them. But I'm not going there. It saddens me at times. I can't be at two places. I've got a great place. I'm at home."
Miles can only hope that proclamation shifts the focus away from him.
The Tigers had been the talk of the nation for much of the season as the odds-on favorite to win the national title. Once LSU closed the regular season last week by falling to Arkansas in triple overtime, all the talk about the Tigers centered on off-field issues instead of the team itself.
"You watch ESPN and all they're talking about is Missouri this, Missouri that," LSU wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "Since we lost to Arkansas, nobody talks about us. They only talk about our head coach and assistant coach."
Don't worry, Brandon: The latest surprises in a season full of shockers has put LSU right back in the national-title conversation.