Will LSU give Saban a big send-off against Iowa?

Friday, December 31st 2004, 2:22 pm

By: News On 6

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Next week Nick Saban can start worrying about how to beat the New England Patriots. His immediate concern is the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Since arriving in Orlando for the Capital One Bowl, the Louisiana State coach has tried mightily to concentrate on the job he's leaving rather than the one he'll start Monday in the NFL. Despite the occasional distraction this week, such as when he signed a five-year, $22.5 million contract with the Miami Dolphins, Saban is optimistic LSU will play well Saturday against Big Ten co-champion Iowa.

``This game is a great reward for having a great season, and nothing else that has happened around that should tarnish that,'' Saban said. ``Our players have done a very mature job of staying focused on the task at hand.''

After rejecting overtures from NFL teams for years, Saban interviewed with the Dolphins on Dec. 14 and accepted the job Dec. 25. The news ensured a blue Christmas in Baton Rouge, where Saban is beloved for leading the Tigers to a bowl berth in each of his five seasons and the 2003 BCS championship, their first national title since 1959.

For LSU players, the loss of their coach could be either deflating or a rallying point against Iowa.

``We've talked about it,'' All-American defensive end Marcus Spears said. ``We know it's our last game. You can never go through the process and not be emotional.''

The Tigers will need to be at their peak in a matchup that ranks among the best of the bowl season, with a 10-win year and Top Ten finish going to the victor.

``Next week, if guys want to be upset, they can,'' offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. ``But this week we've got to focus on the game.''

Iowa is No. 11 and LSU No. 12, and both teams are 9-2. The Hawkeyes have won seven games in a row, the Tigers six.

Only one team has a departing coach, however. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz draws attention whenever an NFL job becomes vacant, but he recently signed a contract extension through 2012 and said he's more than content in Iowa City.

``I'm a relatively simple person, I guess,'' Ferentz said. ``As a football coach, you like to be in a place where you think you have an opportunity to win some games and have the kind of support that's necessary, which we do. Then on a personal level, it's a great place to raise a family.''

Since Saban announced his departure, he has tried to keep the focus on the bowl game by declining to discuss the Dolphins. But attention in the LSU camp is clearly divided: There's speculation about the future of Saban's assistants, and the search for a new coach is already under way.

Programs in transition are faring poorly this bowl season. Terry Hoeppner lost to Iowa State coaching his final game at Miami of Ohio. Notre Dame fired Ty Willingham, then lost with an interim coach to Oregon State.

Ferentz disputed the notion of the Tigers as a team in limbo.

``We're expecting their best shot,'' he said. ``All January bowl games are visible. To me this is about as good as it gets outside the BCS. And for the players involved, it's going to be every bit as important as the national championship.''

Ferentz and Saban worked in offices 15 feet apart when they were assistants with the Cleveland Browns in 1993 and 1994. They've coached against each other only once, when Ferentz's first Iowa team lost to Saban's Michigan State Spartans 49-3 in 1999.

The Hawkeyes are much improved since, with Ferentz leading them to three consecutive January bowl games, an unprecedented achievement at Iowa. Saban, meanwhile, joined LSU in 2000 and rebuilt the Tigers into a powerhouse _ albeit one perhaps shaken by his imminent departure.

``There are a lot of things these players should be playing for, and none of them has anything to do with me,'' Saban said. ``That's what I tell them all the time: We're here for them. We coach them for them. I'm going to be right in the middle of them if they're not doing it for them.''

For the Tigers, the threat of Saban's wrath might be sufficient motivation to play hard for him one more time.

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