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BIG CAT EYES

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LSU learned to mold and channel its natural chaos, and then unleashed it on the way to a national title.

LSU is the horde. This is their forever story; they have always been the horde. Like the Mongols, they appear seemingly out of nowhere and consume everything in their path.

Their coach eating twenty pounds of crawfish at once; their legacy of raking up the prime talent in the state and trucking it back to Baton Rouge for safekeeping; their insatiable fanbase, so steady in their consumption that they drink bars dry wherever they go and set records for beer sales in enemy arenas. If they’d stayed in town ten minutes longer after the Peach Bowl, LSU would have eaten the whale sharks in the aquarium down the street.

Hordes have never given much thought to waste, burning through resources without fear of scarcity and moving on to the next pillage. For a long time, LSU lived that way. They put grade A talent in C-grade systems, and that was good enough to beat most teams. It was a hard deal to turn down for barbarians: Win eight to ten games a season, lose to the empire in Tuscaloosa every year, and loot every bar in Orlando or Tampa during the bowl game. Locusts can’t carry suitcases, and LSU fans limited their baggage to one cardboard 12-pack for carry-on and zero memories of what might have been.

The right degree of organization can stop a horde. It seems like rank madness to type this now: In 2018, LSU scored zero points against Alabama. That’s a void where a something should have been, and that’s with Joe Burrow, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Terrace Marshall, Justin Jefferson, and a host of other players you know from the 2019 LSU team trying to move the ball out there.

A throng as vast and as hungry as LSU’s can have trouble finding its focus, but when they do, this [gesturing to everything in giddy flames around us] happens. Those same players, better honed and maybe a little wiser, just hung 628 yards of offense and 42 points on Clemson in pursuit of a national title. The management overhauled the offense. The transfer quarterback, who was at one point playing third-string for the Ohio State Buckeyes, went the hell off for four record-setting months of manic offensive plundering. The defense, good last year, went from being the tape holding LSU together in big games to something much, much more fun: preying on teams frantically trying to keep pace with LSU on the scoreboard. No longer under constant siege, they experienced the joy of closing down the stretch, waiting for stressed and desperate teams to make mistakes, and fall beneath their wheels.

And not even Clemson could keep pace, punting a galling nine times in the Superdome. Travis Etienne, desperately trying to spark his reigning national championship squad in the second quarter, made three defenders miss in the backfield. Looking to what should have been open ground ahead of him, he instead looked up, and met the crashing gut of LSU defensive lineman Neil Farrell, Jr. falling onto him, for all the world like a logger meeting the fattest, meanest tree in the forest.

Unfair is the word, but perhaps not in the way you’re thinking. It’s a delightful, unleashed, soaring kind of unfair. Playing LSU this season was like watching your car burn down to the frame on a roadside, or witnessing a landslide casually carry an entire neighborhood into the ocean. It felt like that because everyone knew LSU had this kind of talent to burn, but also that the prospect of focusing that talent seemed to swing between impossible and unlikely, given the program’s history. Only Nick Saban in 2003 had ever drilled down the horde long enough to get them into something like regimental shape; only Les Miles and a string of straight-up blackjacks against the dealer had gotten them there in 2007.

Luck didn’t book a hotel room in New Orleans. LSU’s horde needed a conduit and a compass. That’s it.

That direction manifested in the mind of Joe Brady, who fashioned an offense that was less of a game plan and more of a series of opportunities in space. Brady’s pupils flowed in, over, and around whatever stood in front of them, finding weaknesses in the fencing and prying them open for gain. Against Alabama, it was Clyde Edwards-Hilaire who tore through the dam of the Crimson Tide, breaking tackles and battering away past first-down markers. Against Clemson, it was Ja’Marr Chase, to whom Burrow returned whenever Brent Venables’ blurry blitzing and fakery threatened to overwhelm.

And for a conduit, LSU fielded the best in the history of the game. Joe Burrow was as close to functionally perfect as any college quarterback has ever been. Cam Newton might lay claim to dominance over a single season, but in the sense that Newton was a self-contained weapon capable of blowing up a game single-handedly. Newton played like dynamite: Put him in the spot, and he’d detonate and bring down whole buildings.

Joe Burrow played like kerosene. It’s how he was everywhere and spreading in all directions simultaneously, hitting every receiver on the depth chart for five, ten, twenty yards at once, less of a quarterback and more of an accelerant. He threw receivers open and burned down secondaries. He took hits and evaded tackles and scrambled downfield for first downs whenever it would inflict maximum damage and humiliation. Burrow, in a way very, very few quarterbacks ever do even at the pro level, saw physics problems in motion and threw into them, rather than trying to hit points on a map, with a kind of aggression so relentless as to be indistinguishable from blind optimism.

Because ... well, why wouldn’t it work if Joe Burrow is throwing the ball? Who are you going to believe, your lying eyes or Thaddeus Moss with another touchdown in his hands? This is rare space here, but this entire season belongs in that territory because of Burrow’s singular ability to twine chaos into something whole, something beautiful, of seeing daylight twenty yards downfield a full five seconds before anyone else. There is a lofty point at which an athlete transcends execution and transubstantiates into creation, and Burrow visited it on a weekly basis in 2019, only performing better and more out of his mind as the season progressed.

Burrow started out great. He finished the playoffs in hundred-armed-and-levitating Doctor Strange mode: fourteen touchdowns in two games, and leading his team to a combined 105 points against the best competition the sport had to offer. That isn’t football. That is sorcery, channeling the kind of deft holy geometry that can get lost in the thumping crashes of the American game. I don’t think I’ll know how great this team was for years yet, because it will take that long to come to terms with just how much territory they covered, and how quickly they did it.

I don’t even think their fans will, either. It’s too much, too fast, and done with such terrifying ease. Even now, with New Orleans draped in a fog that won’t budge, and purple and gold-clad faithful waking up in cemeteries or jails or draped across three barstools to drag themselves back to the mortal plane, there is the sense that this all set in with an unreal quickness.

If the Bayou Bengals are that merry horde, then this is their zenith, summited in a rush so swift and so wildly victorious that the ride to get there, across half a world of acreage, flashed past like a momentary hallucination. For years, LSU turned off the lights, started swinging, and called that victory. Then, in Joe Burrow, the horde revealed a legitimate marvel: a captain who didn’t ever want to turn on the lights, or need to. He could already see in the dark.