What's next when main goal is gone?
The LSU Tigers awoke Sunday morning to the hard truth that they would not repeat as Southeastern Conference champions, much less return to the BCS Championship Game. What had been in their grasp -- in their stadium, in front of their fans -- slipped away in the final seconds. No. 1 Alabama escaped with a 21-17 victory.
"The good news is that we have a good football team," LSU coach Les Miles said Saturday night after the game. "The good news is that we will fight again. They learned a tremendous lesson today: Give everything you got. That is what they did. They gave everything they got."
Bruises fade, scratches mend, aches heal. But those are merely physical ailments. The loss of a season-long goal can leave a scar on a team's psyche that will not fade. For the teams at the top of the polls, the second week of November heightens the tension under which they operate. But this time of the season also dictates that so many other teams are in the middle of adjusting their goals downward.
At his news conference Monday, Miles refused to state what that new goal might be for the No. 7 Tigers. A BCS bowl bid is possible. A third consecutive season with at least 10 victories is likely. But Miles is the guy whose team lost on Thanksgiving Friday in 2007 and still won the BCS championship.
"A championship-style effort and a championship-style football team are still very much our need and want," Miles said Monday. "Things have to play out for me. I am an eternal optimist, and if I feel like a door is open to us, we'll come."
Optimism is rare this time of year. They're feeling it at No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 15 Texas A&M, teams that few this season gave a chance to succeed. Texas A&M, which has lost to No. 6 Florida and No. 7 LSU, plays at No. 1 Alabama on Saturday. By not only playing but thriving in its first season in the SEC, Texas A&M (7-2 overall, 4-2 in conference) has acquired a "strange confidence," coach Kevin Sumlin said.
"We didn't get shoved around and get our ass kicked," Sumlin said. "They got some confidence because of the way that they are playing. They're having fun. It will be interesting to see their reaction when we come out there. Shoot, what have we got to lose? Nobody is giving us a chance. We'll go over there and see what happens."
For every Texas A&M, there are many more teams headed in the opposite direction. Two weeks ago, North Carolina State controlled its destiny in the ACC Atlantic. After consecutive losses to North Carolina and Virginia, the Wolfpack (5-4, 2-3) are struggling to clinch a minor bowl bid.
"Whatever their expectations were for the year," Tom O'Brien said of his players Sunday on his television show, "now they're trying to make something happen real fast instead of just playing the game."
O'Brien captured why coaches would rather forfeit their media rights than start talking about any goal beyond the present. Long-term goals are fine for the offseason. The weight coach paints last season's heartbreaking score on the wall where his players must stare at it through eight months of workouts. Revenge, or perhaps talk of a championship, might motivate in the abstract of summer. But this is the reality of November.
It brings into focus why coaches outfit their players with blinders. No. 3 Oregon coach Chip Kelly's motto is "win the day." At least he ventures as far out as midnight. Alabama coach Nick Saban teaches his players to focus on the next play and not beyond it.
That level of maturity is beyond the reach of many 20-year-olds, especially when their dreams of a conference championship or a Jan. 1 bowl game or any bowl game are receding from their grasps. With its 31-22 home loss to Texas, Texas Tech (6-3, 3-3) fell to No. 22 in the BCS standings and out of contention for a major bowl bid.
The Red Raiders have made great strides from last season's 5-7 debacle, in which the defense gave up at least 31 points in every Big 12 game. But that's a big picture the players don't care to see.
"There's not a whole lot you can do other than talk about it, and try to get a good game plan in and try to get everybody focused," coach Tommy Tuberville said at his news conference Monday. "The seniors yesterday, they were obviously down, and as we talked as a group and then as a team, it's one of those things that we can if we can fix the problems, we can control it."
In other words, boil it down. Don't set the big goal. Fix the problem. Play the play. The big picture, the end-of-season goal, is for writers to write about and fans to fret about. And if that doesn't work, there's always fear, the fear of feeling like LSU did when it awoke Sunday morning.
"When you work as hard as we do," Miles said, "you get to the back end of the week and you finish second in a ballgame, there's a lot of incentive to win."
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