When Towson athletic director Mike Waddell broached the idea with Rob Ambrose of taking his football team down to play LSU in Baton Rouge for the fourth game of the 2012 season, the Tigers' coach was decidedly lukewarm.
The initial discussion took place two summers ago before the athletic department's annual crab feast in Ocean City. At the time, Towson was coming off a 1-10 season in 2010 after going 2-9 in Ambrose's first year at his alma mater. Their turnaround 9-3 season in 2011 was still months away.
As daunting a task as it appears for Towson (2-1) to face the nation's third-ranked team Saturday, Ambrose said playing Football Bowl Subdivision teams such as LSU (4-0) is part of his vision of building Towson into a perennially ranked Football Championship Subdivision program.
The hefty payday — $510,000, according to Waddell — certainly factored into the decision to play the highest-profile opponent in the history of Towson football.
"It's an opportunity for us to broaden our horizons and grow as a program," Waddell said this week. "Rob is doing a great job of growing us on the field, and he and I and others on the campus are trying to grow us as a brand off the field."
Towson played its first game against a FBS school when it faced Navy in the 2008 season opener, losing 41-13. The Tigers also lost at Northwestern (47-14) in Ambrose's first game in 2009, at Indiana (51-17) to open the 2010 season and at Maryland (28-3) last year.
Towson opened this season with a mistake-filled 41-21 loss at Kent State.
Those Tigers won BCS national championships in 2004 and 2007 and have been perennial contenders in the Southeastern Conference — considered by far the best league in the FBS — under coaches Les Miles and Nick Saban.
Ambrose, who recalled a similar type of game when he was offensive coordinator at Connecticut and the then-new-to-FBS Huskies were going to play at Miami, is still weighing the pros and cons of such a potential mismatch.
"You're not talking about just another [FBS] team, you're talking about the best of the best. … historically so," Ambrose said. "I'm sitting, watching film all week and you're always looking for a way, either schematically or personnel matchup-wise, to give your team a chance to be successful. This is the most technically sound, physically gifted football team I've ever evaluated on film."
Ambrose said it is virtually impossible to prepare for a game such as this because of the overall team speed and depth of the more famous Tigers, who barely beat Auburn on the road last week, 12-10, despite being heavily favored.
But Ambrose knows Towson might have even more to gain for the future of the program than it has to lose in the present.
It starts with the fact that the Tigers will play in front of more fans in one night (an expected sellout of around 92,000) than they did in it all their games combined last season (around 66,000).
The game will be nationally televised (ESPNU), one of eight this season for Towson that will be telecast on some kind of national cable package.
"I know when I took the job, the best we could get around here was the local Comcast affiliate, we weren't very good and it's all about money," Ambrose said. "We've now garnered enough respect that people feel that it's monetarily beneficial to put us on TV. That speaks well to the kids and the program and the things that we've done. It's like being in a fish bowl. This is more like the ocean."
Sean Landeta, who went from Towson to a 21-year NFL career as a punter, said this is a lot different than when the biggest game was a trip to play Delaware, then a Division II power.
As great as the benefit of taking home a sizeable check and the national attention that comes from playing a highly ranked team, perhaps even in a close game, there are also risks, according to Landeta. It comes right before the Tigers start a tough stretch of conference games.
"If you go down there and lose by a very high margin, and maybe the negatives that come from that, or you sustain some injuries where now the rest of your season in your conference, that may cost you later," Landeta said. "I'm sure they looked at everything and said they need to do this."
Said Waddell: "Does anybody expect us to go in there and beat LSU? No. Is there always the Appalachian State-Michigan opportunity [in 2007] to pull off the upset? Yes. The tough thing is not that we're playing LSU, the tough thing is that we're playing LSU at this point in the season."
Waddell said however unlikely it might seem for the Tigers to pull off the upset, or even keep the game close, he is quick to point out, "we're not Savannah State," alluding to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team that lost at Oklahoma State, 84-0, in the season opener.
Towson senior defensive back Jordan Dangerfield said the mood in practice this week has been no different than it was before last week's homecoming game against St. Francis, except a lot louder from the music being piped in to simulate the setting in a place called "Death Valley."
"We put on our pads the same way, we bleed the same color blood," Dangerfield said. "We're going down to represent Towson, to represent the conference. Most people think we're going to get blown out. We're going down there to shock the world."
Some are already shocked — just to see Towson-LSU on the schedule.
Towson (2-1, 1-0 CAA) at LSU (4-0, 1-0 SEC)
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Site: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.
What's at stake: The biggest upset in college football history? Pipe dream aside, Towson will be entering one of the most intimidating venues to play one of the most dominant programs over the past few years. LSU is undefeated in their last 40 games against non-conference opponents, an NCAA record. They also have not lost at Tiger Stadium since the 2009-10 season. Towson, on the other hand, is looking for its first win against a FBS opponent, with an 0-6 all-time record. In a perfect world for Towson, LSU is caught looking past Towson to next week's marquee game against Florida. But after surviving with a 12-10 win over Auburn, look for the Louisiana Tigers to seek a blowout. The Baltimore Tigers can only hope to limit their mistakes and take some positives home from the Bayou.
Key matchup: If the Towson defense catches the LSU offense on a bad night, the Towson offense will need to put a few points on the board to keep it close. This will come down to how well the offensive line can slow down the relentless LSU defense. The Bayou defense ranks No. 4 in total defense and No. 3 in rushing defense (56.8 ypg), manned by likely future NFL defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. If the line, which has given up nine sacks, cannot give Terrence West a little space or Grant Enders some time, Tiger Stadium is going to get a whole lot louder.
Player to watch: After an average game Saturday night against Auburn (15-27, 169 yards, no TDs) look for LSU QB Zach Mettenberger to come out trying to establish a groove to carry into the Florida game. If that's the case, senior Towson free safety Jordan Dangerfield will get plenty of opportunities to make some plays on national television. The 2011 All-American leads the team with 20 tackles and is looking for his first interception of the season.
[Chris Trevino]Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun