Come Saturday when LSU faces Oregon on a national stage, the
teams finally get to push aside the offseason tumult that has rocked both programs.
The No. 4 Tigers will be without quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who is facing charges connected with a bar fight on Aug. 19, and receiver Russell Shepard will sit out after violating NCAA rules surrounding an ongoing recruiting investigation.
The No. 3 Ducks won't have All-American cornerback Cliff Harris, suspended indefinitely after he was clocked driving a rental car at
118 mph. And, like LSU, Oregon is under investigation by the NCAA.
But even without the controversy, the game would be big: The perennial SEC contender and the Pac-12 upstart with the flashy
uniforms open the season at Cowboys Stadium.
LSU finished 11-2 last season and was ranked No. 8 in the final
AP poll after defeating Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Oregon went
12-1 with the lone loss coming to Auburn in the BCS championship
game. The Ducks wrapped up the season ranked No. 3.
While the off-field messes won't go away, the teams hope the start of the season means those concerns are left to just smolder in the background.
"I think for everybody outside the Oregon football team and the LSU football team, it's gonna be huge. But for both teams, our focus is football. They're focused on us and we're focused on them," Oregon running back Kenjon Barner said about the peripheral issues.
"We're not letting it worry us one bit," Ducks receiver Josh Huff added. "As a family we stick together. What comes, comes. What goes, goes."
The Tigers are still reeling from last week, when Jefferson and
reserve linebacker Josh Johns turned themselves in after police
obtained warrants charging them with felony second-degree battery.
More players have been implicated in the melee and the investigation is ongoing.
LSU also announced Shepard's suspension for discussing an NCAA
inquiry with a teammate who was scheduled to be interviewed about
the same matter. A source familiar with the situation told The Associated Press at the time that the NCAA investigation concerns LSU's relationship with scouting service owner and purported street agent Willie Lyles.
The person spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because LSU had not announced what the inquiry entailed.
"There is a heart-filled loss among the team for losing two teammates. I think with that being said, it is just about going forward and going with a little bit of a different cast of characters," Tigers coach Les Miles said. "There are some things we can control and some things that we can't. Right now there are two that aren't in the huddle. We'll line up and play in their absence."
Lyles' relationship with Oregon is also the subject of an NCAA
investigation. Oregon paid Lyles and Houston-based Complete Scouting Services $25,000 early in 2010.
Some questioned the size of the payment, and when Oregon released the information it said Lyles provided, purportedly for potential recruits that year, it was outdated.
At issue was Lyles' relationship with running back Lache Seastrunk, who signed a letter of intent to play for the Ducks just weeks before the payment was made. Seastrunk was granted his release from Oregon two weeks ago and has since enrolled at Baylor.
Because the NCAA does not comment on investigations, there is no
indication when the Oregon and LSU matters might be addressed.
Off-field trouble continued for the Ducks when Harris was pulled over for speeding on a suspended license in June.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly immediately suspended the dynamic cornerback because of repeated traffic violations, and Oregon's compliance office was looking into the circumstances surrounding his use of a university employee's rental car.
Kelly has said that Harris' reinstatement is dependent on his adherence to program rules. Ducks linebacker Kiko Alonso has also been serving a suspension after being arrested this spring on an alcohol-related charge.
Both Alonso and Harris have been allowed to practice. While Oregon's players have said all along that they are focused on the upcoming season -- and rebounding from the loss to Auburn in the season finale -- on Saturday they get a chance to prove it.
Quarterback Darron Thomas said the Ducks would like nothing more
than to quiet all the off-field issues.
"Everybody wants to say all this about Oregon and we don't like that," he said. "We've just been working hard getting ready for the season, ready to shut everybody up, ready to come out and play ball and forget about all these allegations."