BCS National Championship preview: LSU Tigers right at home in New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jordan Jefferson remembers nearly every second of the last time he played in the Superdome.
He was the starting quarterback for Destrehan High School, and like so many kids growing up in Louisiana, was awed to be playing in New Orleans' football palace. By the end of the night, he'd led his school to its first state championship in 34 years.
"I've been in the Superdome quite often," said Jefferson, who will try to wrap up his college career with another title Monday night, when he leads top-ranked LSU against No. 2 Alabama in the BCS title game. "I mean, it's something that I would call a sanctuary for me."
There's a bunch of Tigers who would say that.
The landmark structure just an hour's drive down Interstate 10 from the LSU campus in Baton Rouge is tantamount to a home-field advantage, even though it's supposed to be a neutral venue.
LSU players are hoping that 90 percent of the seats are filled with purple and gold, while the Crimson Tide would be content with a 60-40 split in favor of the SEC champs.
Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain went so far as to say he's treating it like a road game.
"I mean, I think it's going to be really loud in there," McElwain said. "Obviously we're a little on their home turf, so yes, it's an approach like we're on the road."
The Tigers are 13-4 all-time in the Superdome, winning their last nine games dating to a 30-15 loss to Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1987.
Along the way, a team led by current Alabama coach Nick Saban knocked off Oklahoma to win the 2003 national championship, and another led by Les Miles beat Ohio State to win the 2007 title.
"I think that our players need to understand that any time you play at a neutral site or any time you play on the road it's very challenging," Saban said earlier this week.
It's not just the Superdome that's been home sweet dome, though.
The Tigers beat then-No. 2 Oregon at Cowboys Stadium to open the season, and then ran their record to 9-1 at the Georgia Dome when they romped to a 42-10 win over Georgia in the SEC title game.
But the famous, saucer-shaped stadium in New Orleans, just a short walk from the French Quarter and the craziness of Bourbon Street, holds special meaning to so many on the LSU roster.
It depends a little on how you count, but some 74 players list their hometowns from Louisiana. Nine of them are from New Orleans, including Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu, tight end Deangelo Peterson, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and offensive lineman P.J. Lonergan.
"It's surreal feeling for me. It's everything I've hoped and dreamed of, and it's finally here," Beckham said. "The feeling, I can't even explain it."
The BCS system attempts to level the playing field.
Each team receives 17,000 tickets to the game, with the roughly 38,000 remaining divided among Sugar Bowl season-ticket holders, corporate sponsors and the 125-person Sugar Bowl committee.
But there's no way to know how many tickets LSU faithful have snapped up on the secondary market — at least, until Monday night comes, and an expected crowd of 72,000 filters through the turnstiles.
"They probably feel like it's a home advantage for them," conceded Alabama safety Mark Barron, "because it's their home state."
Several of the Tigers besides Jefferson played high school games on the floor of the 36-year-old arena, where state titles are bestowed each December.
Others remember it as a makeshift refuge during Hurricane Katrina, while their parents and grandparents remember it hosting Super Bowls, Final Fours and Pope John Paul II, who addressed some 80,000 children there in 1987.
"It means a lot," said cornerback Morris Claiborne, LSU's Thorpe Award winner from Shreveport. "As a kid, you just dream about these type of things, of going and playing for a big-time school and playing good opponents. And this point here, where you play for a national championship, some people never get this moment in a lifetime."
LSU offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert has special memories of the Superdome, even though he's from Georgia. He's the affable son of Bobby Hebert, who had some of his best years as an NFL quarterback leading the Saints during the late 1980s and early '90s.
"When I was younger, I used to pop in those old game tapes, the old broadcasts. Sometimes I'd turn down the volume and commentate on it, and sometimes I'd have a pen and paper and keep track of the stats," Hebert said. "I feel like I got a good sense of how it is."
The home-field advantage for LSU isn't just in the stadium for LSU, but also in the fact its players can experience all that New Orleans has to offer — the clubs and restaurants, the hot spots and cool places — any time they want.
Trips to the Big Easy are a novelty for the boys from 'Bama, who have been forced to keep their focus on the game Monday night while a never-ending party swirls around them.
"We've played in some tough circumstances," Saban said, "and I don't think that that's something that you have to look to as a challenge. We know we're going to have to overcome adversity in this game, and the circumstance that we play in here is just one of the adversities that we'll have to have the mental toughness to deal with."