- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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If it hadn't been clear before Saturday night, there could be no question that the 2003 season is, once and for all, over.
The debate that began last December about who's number one never let up, thanks to the split national championship. It continued right up until Saturday because the names at or near the top of the polls -- USC and LSU -- remained the same.
Now that both teams have not so much won their openers as survived, let the swaggering conclude. These are not the same teams that finished last season. They are not as good as they were in December. For that matter, based on their openers, they may not be as good as they were last September.
USC, its offensive line wearing name tags -- HELLO, MY NAME IS -- needed big plays last week to outlast Virginia Tech, 24-13. LSU needed the kind of comeback that only champions know how to make to overtake Oregon State, 22-21, in overtime in the muck and bog of Tiger Stadium.
For that matter, throw in Georgia, which needed an eviction notice to get the option offense of I-AA Georgia Southern off the field Saturday. The Bulldogs won, 48-28, despite controlling the ball for only 22 minutes and change.
And if you really need convincing, look no farther than De La Salle, the high school from Concord, Calif., that had its 151-game, 12-year winning streak broken at Bellevue (Wash.) High, 39-20, on Saturday night. Bellevue, a three-time state champion whose coach has patterned his program after what Bob Ladouceur has done at De La Salle, never threw a pass in its victory.
You can make the case that USC, LSU and Oklahoma played tough openers. All three opponents went to bowl games last season. With schedules peeled back from 12 games to 11, most schools dropped their difficult non-conference opponents. For instance, every other non-conference opponent in the SEC came from leagues that don't get automatic BCS bids.
Still, the good times barely rolled in Baton Rouge, where the Tigers survived because the Beavers' kicker, Alexis Serna, missed three extra points, including a final one in overtime that brought the game to a stunning conclusion.
LSU won its share of the national championship with a physical defense and an offense that was good enough. The Tigers combined veteran quarterback Matt Mauck, whose best trait was that he didn't make mistakes, with a running game that gradually took life as freshmen Justin Vincent and Alley Broussard ratcheted up their game.
Fast forward to Saturday, when the Tigers could have used Mauck, who refused to petition for a final year of eligibility so that he could go to the NFL or to dental school.
One of the biggest barroom questions for LSU fans has been at what point during the season would redshirt freshman quarterback JaMarcus Russell overtake fifth-year senior Marcus Randall. There's a good chance that few fans chose the second half of the opener for the passing of the baton. Russell completed only 9-of-26 passes for 145 passes yards, but he threw the game-tying touchdown pass late in regulation before Randall ran for the go-ahead score in overtime.
Coach Nick Saban said after the game Saturday night that he would look at the tapes and discuss the situation with offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher before he made any decision. The temptation to throw in with Russell must be great, even for a coach as conservative as Saban. Russell can work through the willies against Arkansas State this week before the Tigers play at Auburn on Sept. 18. LSU also must play at Georgia and at Florida, and those road trips surely will weigh on the decision that Saban and Fisher make.
Down the poll, teams such as Minnesota, which embarrassed MAC favorite Toledo, 63-21, and Purdue, which humiliated Syracuse, 51-0, on Sunday afternoon, surpassed expectations. Mississippi State, a sloppy 2-10 a year ago, committed no turnovers and only three penalties in a 28-7 defeat of Tulane in coach Sylvester Croom's debut in Starkville.
Some teams look better than expected in their opener. The teams at the top looked worse. If the opening weekend is any indication, the 2004 race will be closer than expected.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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