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Tigers fans approach Saturday's showdown with mixed emotions

It's early Tuesday afternoon and 100 hours until the start of Saban Bowl I in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

You're live on Baton Rouge's hottest sports talk radio program, "The Buddy Songy Show" on 1210 AM The Score.

Today's question for the audience: Do you love current LSU football coach Les Miles, or do you still love former LSU and first-year Alabama coach Nick Saban? Have Miles' go-for-broke coaching decisions gotten him more love from LSU fans?

Buddy, let's go to the callers. Hello Christy!

Christy: "I fell out of love with Nick Saban on Christmas Day [2004] when he called a news conference to announce he was leaving [LSU]. He must have believed he was St. Nick, because he's holding a press conference when everybody is sitting down to Christmas dinner. I've grown to respect Les Miles more, especially the way he handled the [Hurricane] Katrina situation and the 2005 season. As far as him gambling on play calls, I think he's pretty comfortable in his skin."

There's passion and emotion oozing in Baton Rouge this week like never seen before. Because this is the week that LSU fans have waited for since Jan. 3.

That morning, Saban, who took LSU to a BCS national championship in the 2003 season before jumping to the NFL's Miami Dolphins, announced he was leaving the Dolphins to become head coach of Alabama, one of LSU's most hated SEC Western Division rivals.

The fact that Saban broke the news on the same day that LSU was playing Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl also raised the temperature of Tigers fans to volcanic proportion.

In retrospect, Saban's hiring at Alabama might have been the best thing that ever happened to Miles, who is the total opposite of Saban, from sideline temperament to people skills in dealing with the general public.

No matter Miles' success his first two years -- he didn't win the SEC championship, but his teams were a combined 24-4 (13-3 in the league) with the two largest bowl victory margins in school history (40-3 over Miami in the '05 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and 41-14 over Notre Dame in the '07 Allstate Sugar Bowl) -- he still couldn't win over LSU fans who yearned for Saban.

Of course, some of them still do.

Let's go to another caller. Bennett, whatcha got?

Bennett: "One of the biggest gripes of the fans right now is we have a lot of talent and we've won games, but we don't have anything to show for it. People think if we had Saban back, we would have seen another SEC championship by now, maybe even another national championship."

Yet other LSU fans believe Les is more.

Scooter, welcome to the program. Toss some cayenne pepper on this subject.

Scooter: "Do you remember the song 'Love The One You're With'? That's what I think about Les Miles. You've got to love the one you're with. There has been a lot of talk in this town that Les Miles is playing with Saban's recruits. But as Saban said yesterday [Monday] during his press conference, 'I may have recruited them there, but I had nothing to do with developing them.'"

Miles has the No. 3 team in the nation, with 20 of his 22 starters signed by Saban, who credits Miles and his staff for doing, as he said, "a fantastic job of coaching these guys, developing these guys and having the success that they've had."

So far, Miles has a 29-5 record at LSU, which is better than Saban's 25-9 record in his first 34 games (though Saban also won an SEC championship in his second season in Baton Rouge).

Miles lost the opening home game of his LSU career (in overtime to Tennessee in a game delayed by Hurricane Rita, just 3½ weeks after Katrina blew through southern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast), but hasn't lost in Tiger Stadium since -- that's 18 straight wins.

He certainly has national respect, because as a former Michigan player and assistant, he's rumored to be the top candidate for the Wolverines' head coaching job should Lloyd Carr ever vacate that position, voluntarily or involuntarily.

Yet even with Miles' success, there still seems to be a portion of the Tigers' faithful reluctant to accept him.

Part of the problem in the past has been Miles' Mr. Rogers personality. Rabid LSU fans loved Saban because he didn't mind getting in a player's face when a mistake was made. They liked that accountability. They embraced a coach who was as passionate as they are.

And Miles? Before this season he seemed to have the flatline personality of a storm window salesman from Peoria.

But something happened in the offseason. On signing day at an LSU recruiting party, a riled-up Miles referred to Alabama as "F------ Alabama." Then just before the season started, he ripped on USC and basically called out the Pac-10 for having an easier road to the national championship game.

While he apologized for the obscenity ("I certainly regret those choice of words," he said) and tried to explain his thoughts on the Pac-10 ("I just think it's easier to come from a conference that there is no championship game. … I wasn't calling out USC in any way," he said), you could see a more confident, outspoken Miles emerge.

"Whether Les changed because he feels more comfortable in Baton Rouge after 2½ years or whether he has heard that Nick was fiery and he was told he was laid-back, I don't have any evidence of that," said Doug Moreau, a former LSU star receiver/place-kicker from the 1960s who's now an analyst on the Tigers' radio network. "But the result is he has become more candid and straightforward with what he says."

His decision-making with the game on the line also has been just as clear-cut. He has been so "no guts, no glory" that the coach once nicknamed "The Hat" for the way he wore his coaching cap now has the nickname "The Mad Hatter."

Already this season, Miles is 7-for-8 on fourth-down gambles. In his previous two seasons, he was a combined 21-of-28.

He's also tried fake field goals (one for a touchdown against South Carolina) and OK'd the decision to have quarterback Matt Flynn throw a game-winning TD pass against Auburn with one second left when LSU was already in range for a game-winning field goal.

That type of gambling has got to help Les win over fans, right next caller? Mike, you're on with Buddy.

Mike: "I think Les Miles is a better person than Nick Saban, that's what I perceive. I still haven't jumped on the Les Miles bandwagon. I think he [Saban] is head and shoulders, as far as coaching goes, above Miles. People want to say he's a great gambler, but if you manage the game and personnel better earlier in the game, there's no need to come up with trick plays and fourth-down conversions at the end. We're more talented than every team we play. It shouldn't come down to trick plays and gambles. I think part of the reason he's gambling is he's not going to be here next year."

Miles' players say the more Miles rolls the dice, the more it reinforces their confidence.

"The fact that coach has the confidence in us to go for it, that's a big call right there," said LSU running back Jacob Hester, who converted two of LSU's 5-for-5 fourth-down gambles in a 28-24 victory over Florida on Oct. 6. "If it doesn't work, he's on the hot seat. Everybody's blaming him.

"The fact that he has the confidence to run five times on fourth down and even score on a fake field goal proves what kind of coach he is. Give credit to him for making those calls."

Glenn Dorsey, the Tigers' All-American tackle, said he realizes it took fans awhile to warm to Miles.

"Coach Saban was a great coach for us and achieved some great things," said Dorsey, who is questionable for Saturday's game after he sustained a sprained knee against Auburn thanks to a couple of young AU linemen who flunked Cut Blocking 101. "Coach Miles is achieving great things also. The only thing he doesn't have is a national championship.

"Coach Miles is starting to get the straight A's now that he should have gotten when he got here. I think people should rally around him a bit more. He always takes us on the field with a great game plan. I have a lot of confidence in him. If people are looking for something like that [the fourth-down gambles and trick plays] to see if he's a great coach, maybe they'll understand that coach Miles is in it to win it."

LSU athletic director Skip Bertman believes it. He hired Miles, admired his compassionate response to guiding his physically and emotionally exhausted team through the Hurricane Katrina disaster and to the SEC championship game in '05 and shakes his head at anyone doubting Miles as a coach and person.

"He's a non self-promoting coach, which I think is incredibly noble," Bertman said. "This guy also has moxie. But he doesn't get credit, because he's not quotable, because he's not likely to make a scene.

"I think he'll be a great coach here for years to come. The standards have risen here, he's met the standards, he feels they are worthwhile and he never complains. No, I don't think he would go to Michigan. He likes it. His wife likes it. The people are warming up to him."

Let's go to one last caller to close out this hour. Big B, you're up.

Big B: "Do we even need to go to Tuscaloosa and play the game if God Saban is over there?"

Thanks for listening to today's show. Don't forget to buy your "Nick Satan" T-shirts on the way out the door.

Ron Higgins covers the Southeastern Conference for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.