Tigers too good to ignore

Originally Published: November 20, 2003
By Pat Forde | Special to ESPN.com

The big argument in college football centers on who most deserves to play Oklahoma for the national title: Ohio State or Southern Cal.

And then there's the other one-loss team, LSU, conveniently ignored in that raging debate.

The dominant storylines in the Southeastern Conference at present are Eli Manning's quest to finally put Mississippi over the top in the West and the three-way controversy in the East between Tennessee, Florida and Georgia.

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  • And then there's LSU, holding the highest ranking of any SEC team but not necessarily the highest visibility.

    When the discussion turns to defense, the talking hairdos gush first and loudest about Oklahoma and Ohio State.

    And then there's LSU, quietly allowing fewer points than anyone in the nation.

    If it's possible to go 9-1, be ranked third in America in the human polls and still be overlooked, the Tigers are doing it. Metronomic consistency, a low-wattage nonconference schedule and a lack of individual star power can leave a really good team underexposed.

    Which is just fine with coach Nick Saban, a longtime devotee to tunnel vision.

    The big picture says that Saban has done what none of the five LSU coaches since Charlie McClendon have been able to do: build a winner, and then sustain it. Bill Arnsparger won for a while and then got out. Mike Archer won for a while and then lost it and was fired. Same with Gerry DiNardo.

    In four seasons Saban has gone 35-13, won at least eight games every year, finished no worse than second in the SEC West, won an SEC championship game, been to a BCS bowl and recruited like a madman.

    The big picture also says that if LSU wins out and gets some help from, say, Michigan, it could end up playing an hour down the road in the Sugar Bowl for the national title. By beating No. 15 Ole Miss, 7-3 Arkansas and the SEC East champion in the league title game -- probably Georgia -- LSU might vault past USC. If that happens and the Wolverines take out Ohio State, the Cajuns take over the Big Easy.

    But don't try getting Nick Saban to peek at the big picture now. You're talking Jumbotron, he's talking Watchman. He's got Mississippi blinders on.

    "We are not focused on national rankings or everything else being talked about in college football right now," Saban said. "We're most concerned about the games we have to play, and our next one versus Ole Miss Saturday. Each one is very, very important. We are only concerned with the things that we can control."

    LSU could significantly raise its profile by beating the Rebels in what shockingly shapes up as the SEC's Game of the Year. (Go ahead and admit it: you were thinking Auburn-Georgia in August, right? Same here.) What once was the showpiece rivalry in the South for a time in the 1950s and '60s is back, and back big.

    Ole Miss is the more surprising element in this matchup. LSU was expected to be good, then exceeded expectations.

    LSU's defense leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 8.9 points per game.
    Saban had two excellent foundations to build this team upon: the offensive and defensive lines. Around them he has coalesced two exceptional units.

    Offensively, LSU has what every coach craves: great balance. The Tigers average 175 yards rushing with a rotation of backs, four of whom have had 70 or more carries this season -- none of whom rank in the league top 10 in yards per game. The Tigers average 258 yards passing with super-efficient quarterback Matt Mauck throwing to three big-time receivers: Michael Clayton, Devery Henderson and Skyler Green. They're the home-run threats in an otherwise methodical offense that leads the SEC in time of possession.

    Defensively, the line is led by tackle Chad Lavalais (six sacks, 12 tackles for loss) and end Marcus Spears, a converted tight end. Saban skillfully mixed and matched players from other positions at linebacker and in the secondary, got some help from a couple of stud freshmen safeties and now has a unit that gives up a nation-leading 8.9 points per game.

    Not only that, LSU has surrendered more than one touchdown in a game just once, a 19-7 loss to Florida. South Carolina had zero yards rushing against the Tigers. Alabama had 10 first downs. This unit simply doesn't bend, much less break.

    "Things kind of fell into place defensively," Saban said. "The chemistry has been really, really good. We're maybe a little bit better there than I thought we'd be."

    Florida coach Ron Zook watched LSU dominate Alabama last Saturday night. His thoughts on the Tigers' defense: "Man, oh man, are they good."

    They'll have to be excellent to stop Manning. This is one of those great strength-against-strength matchups that should make for highly entertaining viewing: Mississippi's 37-point-a-game offense, 11th most prolific in America, against LSU's 9-point-a-game defense.

    "Nobody here is na´ve enough to think we're going to stop these guys every time they have the ball," Saban said. "... Defenses like to be able to affect any quarterback, get themselves into a situation in their favor in down and distance.

    "Down and distance has a big effect on quarterback efficiency, and quarterback efficiency is a great determination of how teams perform and whether they have success or not."

    The matchup will hinge on protecting Manning against the relentless LSU pass rush, and it will be interesting to see who gets the upper hand early. Ole Miss has made a habit of scoring on its opening possession and taking early leads. LSU has only allowed 19 first-half points all season. Something's gotta give.

    If the something that gives is Ole Miss, there will be no more overlooking and underappreciating LSU. The Tigers will be too good to ignore.

    Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.