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November 1, 2011

HURT: Never a dull moment with Miles

BATON ROUGE, LA. | I came to Baton Rouge on Monday well-prepared, I thought, for whatever Les Miles could throw at me. I even bought one of those handy tourist phrase books so I could understand the answer to simple questions, not in Spanish or French, but in Miles-speak.

For instance, you might expect the answer to "where is the washroom?" to be a simple "Over there." Not in Les-land, where you would be told that "there is a wonderful opportunity to maximize your strong hand-cleaning opportunities in a general direction that some people might take." Something like that.

Miles did come up with a few head-scratchers at his jam-packed Monday press conference, a prelude to the No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. For instance, he referred to his pending sideline opponent, not as "Nick," but as "Alabama's very strong and capable head coach." But for the most part, he pushed his message in his public pronouncements just as Nick Saban does.

It's just that the message is different - although not quite as different as people think.

It has been a vintage year for Les Miles, after all. His status with LSU fans and the local media seems a dozen times higher than it was a year ago when Alabama came to town. That win, replete with grass-chewing and fourth-down tight end reverses, seemingly did a lot to cement Miles in local affection.

He is quirky, but it is a genuine quirkiness. He seemed downright jovial in talking about his children's success in youth football and soccer - a report that filled the first five minutes of a press conference ostensibly devoted to College Football Armageddon. Later, he joked with a local reporter about a Halloween-themed pumpkin-orange shirt. If Saban jibed at a reporter in the same way, ESPN would break into SportsCenter with a special report and a nuclear fallout warning.

With Miles, it just prompted laughs around the room. It was all good, folksy fun - until you realized that "fun" is Miles' theme for the week.

"This team has enjoyed the glare of the lights, the opportunity to play for a significant victory. How wonderful it is," he said. But he also cautioned that he wanted to "limit" his players' media time for the rest of the week.

So Miles wants his team "relaxed," but not too relaxed, just as Saban wants his team as focused as a microsurgery laser, but loose at the same time. It's a different path, but the same destination.

There wasn't an abundance of hard news at the Miles news conference. The off-week, the LSU coach said, "hit us just right." The star players including Spencer Ware and Tyrann Mathieu who did not play in LSU's last game (apparently the word "suspended" is expunged from the Tiger vocabulary in much the way "depth chart" is at Alabama) will, to the utter surprise of no one, return.

Jarrett Lee will be the starting quarterback, despite a checkered on-field past against Alabama. Jordan Jefferson, who had success against the Crimson Tide last year, will also play. History (and some of the Baton Rouge media) suggests Jefferson will play a lot, but Miles did not elaborate on his plans.

Instead the press conference was full of Miles' unique observations, which seem goofy until you look more closely. At one point, in talking about his linebackers, he noted "the contact when our defense is on the field" is "sincere." As off-kilter as that sounds, it was actually a concise and fresh way of saying "we will hit you clean, but we will hit you hard." If Emily Dickinson had said the same thing, graduate students would be doing theses about it, so - as opponents have found all year - you label Les Miles as "goofy" only at your own peril. He does things differently than Alabama fans are used to these days, but as they might say in some parts of Louisiana, "vive le difference."

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com

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