LSU arrives in Tampa for Outback Bowl

TAMPA, Fla. — Odell Beckham Jr. stretched his arms over his head, dropped his hands to his belly and sighed.

The LSU receiver and his teammates had just been served an entrée plate that included a sirloin steak, softball-sized baked potato, chicken breast and half a rack of ribs.

Welcome to the Outback Bowl.

“Oof,” Beckham said with a shake of the head.

LSU’s week in Tampa began Thursday night with a hearty welcome dinner from the bowl’s sponsor — a kickoff to a week-long set of festivities in a city in which the Tigers haven’t played in 25 years.

They all lead up to the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day between No. 14 LSU (9-3, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) and Iowa (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten).

The two teams shared a few Outback Steakhouse favorites under the same roof at the A La Carte Event Pavilion on the city’s west side Thursday.

More than 5,000 pounds of food was prepared and each player had three proteins — at least — plopped on his plate.

It serves as the first in a long line of what some might call distractions ahead of the big game.

On tap over the coming days, is a smorgasbord of trips.

Players will visit Tampa-based theme park Busch Gardens on Friday. They’ll participate in a team-versus-team bowling outing Saturday night and are set to attend a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game Sunday.

Monday is Beach Day, an annual Outback Bowl slew of beach games between the two squads.

It’s all topped off by a New Year’s Eve parade a day before the bowl game. Sounds like a recipe for a distracted team, no?

“We know what’s the task at hand,” safety Craig Loston said. “We’ve got all of these events going on. This is what bowl games are for. You want to come in and have fun, but don’t forget you’re here on a business trip as well.”

Said coach Les Miles: “It’s not just a vacation. It’s not just, ‘Go see Tampa.’ This will decide something here on the back end of this week.”

Will that include LSU’s future starting quarterback? Miles has dismissed the notion that the bowl game, no matter how it goes, will decide the 2014 starter.

True freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings, starting for injured senior Zach Mettenberger, continues to progress in practice, Miles and players said Thursday.

The team made a late-morning arrival Thursday to their plush team hotel, the Westin Harbour Island, a pristine setting on the banks of Hillsborough Bay, about 2 miles south of downtown Tampa.

They then had an eighth bowl practice — the first of five in Tampa — with Jennings leading the offense.

“He had a good practice today,” Miles said of Jennings. “He’s constantly improving day after day, practice after practice. It’s all about snaps. I think he’ll be ready to play come the 1st.”

Jennings is gaining more confidence with each practice, Beckham said. The new QB and his receivers had issues with timing in the first few practices last week in Baton Rouge.

And now?

“We’re right there on most of the throws,” Beckham said. “(There are) little things that we need to work on, but by game time we should be good, ready to play.”

Asked about areas in which Jennings could improve before kickoff, Miles said there aren’t any, before adding this: “It’s just anticipation. With a young guy, it’s all about anticipating the throw.”

Mettenberger joined the team in Tampa. Victim of a torn anterior cruciate ligament tear in the regular season finale against Arkansas, Mettenberger did not use crutches while seen Thursday.

He is scheduled to have surgery next week when the team returns to Baton Rouge.

In the meantime, the Tigers will enjoy “paradise,” a word used by bowl officials to describe this beautiful bay area.

Daytime temperatures hovered around 75 Thursday. Golfers were swatting balls on a driving range and people at local hotels were taking dips into the pool.

Inside the A La Carte Even Pavilion, more than 700 people were chowing down.

Even Miles joined in on the expansive dinner, which included that three-meat entrée, cheesecake for desert and a salad.

Asked how much he ate, Miles smiled.

“I did not measure,” he said.