Tigers say they belong in Sugar Bowl

Originally Published: December 6, 2003
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- So there Chad Lavalais sat, knowing he and his teammates had done everything possible to prove they deserved to play for the national championship. And yet having no idea if it worked.

Deep in the LSU locker room, numbers had been crunched, polls tabulated, algorithms run and the bottom line seemed to be this: Thanks to Oklahoma's loss to Kansas State, suddenly it's all in the hands of the coaches and writers who vote in the polls. If LSU stays within one spot of USC in the polls, they're likely playing a home game for the national title. If they fall two spots behind the Trojans, well, the Tigers don't want to go there.

They don't want to think that a 34-13 drubbing of Georgia, the fifth-ranked team in the country, is suddenly worthless. That an SEC crown means nothing to BCS computers. That they were any less worthy of a title shot than the glamour boys -- USC and Oklahoma.

I can't speak for the rest of the team. I can't speak for anybody else. But if we don't play in the Sugar Bowl -- hell yeah, I'll be pissed
LSU DT Chad Lavalais
Led by their politically correct head coach Nick Saban, most of them said the right thing -- it was out of their hands. They had done everything they could. They had achieved their goal of winning the SEC Championship and anything else was gravy.

But Lavalais couldn't resist.

"I can't speak for the rest of the team. I can't speak for anybody else. But if we don't play in the Sugar Bowl -- hell yeah, I'll be pissed," the senior defensive tackle said. "There's no way a team that doesn't win its conference should play for the title. Nebraska did that a few years ago -- and how did that turn out?

"But I'll tell you what -- no matter what BCS game we play in, if we win that game, we deserve a share of the title. I don't think anybody can argue with that. We deserve a piece."

Judging by LSU's performance on Saturday, it's tough to argue. If ever the Tigers needed an off-the-charts performance to prove their value, if ever they needed to impress the writers, impress the coaches and try to influence those goofy computers, Saturday night was it. And the Tigers delivered.

The LSU offense steamrolled its way through the fourth-ranked defense in the country, totaling 444 yards, while the Tigers' defense created an all-night living hell for Georgia quarterback David Greene. Despite having already seen the complicated LSU scheme, Greene was often confused and the Bulldogs were ultimately dominated.

"There's no question -- that's probably the best defense I have faced and best defense I will face," Greene said. "They do some things that no other team in the country does."

The Tigers sacked Green six times, knocked him down a countless number of others and created a crescendo of defensive chaos. The quarterback that hadn't thrown an interception in his last 105 attempts, the quarterback with the lowest percentage of intercepted passes in SEC history, threw the ball to the wrong team three times.

"They put so much pressure on you they force perfection," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. "And if you aren't perfect, they're really going to put it on you. They'll sack you, they'll knock you around, they'll pick off the ball and you won't have a chance. And that's what they did."

How bad did things get? Midway through the second quarter Georgia had run 19 plays for a grand total of minus-8 yards. They had back-to-back drives of minus-15 yards. And Lavalais was getting to the point where he said he was able to predict the Bulldog plays.

"We'd line up and I'd tell them -- 'Man, you guys are getting way too predictable'," Lavalais said. " 'I'll bet this is gonna be a screen.' And you'd see it on their faces -- 'Uh-Oh.' Then they started throwing fade routes and that's when we knew we had them. They were just looking for a prayer."

In a way, the Tigers are the Oklahoma of the South. Like Jason White, LSU's Matt Mauck is a solid, but not spectacular veteran quarterback. Both teams feature a group of talented running backs, an emerging wide receiving corps and an in-your-face, we-dare-you-to-throw-it-up-top defense.

"Do I think they're worthy of playing for the national championship?" Georgia's Sean Jones said. "Absolutely -- we aren't exactly a bunch of slouches. And they stuck it to us."

That may be a bit of an understatement. Heading into the game, Georgia's defense surrendered just 261.9 yards per game, was eighth in the nation in pass defense and eighth in rushing defense. But on Saturday night, the Dawgs gave up 332 yards on the ground, 201 to a true freshman.

"Man, we're not used to that," said a somber David Pollack, Georgia's dominating DE. "We're not used to giving up big plays like that. We're not used to getting run over. It's a little bit of a shock."

The Tigers came into this game with something to prove. They were irritated the last time these two teams played, when the Bulldogs lost 17-10 and chirped that they beat themselves.

"This time, it was personal," LSU receiver Devery Henderson said. "We wanted to show them that wasn't a fluke. And we wanted to show the country we could play with anybody."

Ask the Tigers why they deserve to play for the national title, ask them why they, and not USC or Oklahoma, deserve the ticket to the Sugar Bowl and, well, they're not shy with the answer.

"We've got the athletes, we've got the schemes, we've got the coaching staff and we execute," Henderson said. "There's no team out there that intimidates us."

Whether or not they'll get the ultimate chance to prove that is in the hands of the voters. The Tigers certainly made their case. As for Lavalais, if he had a vote, which team would he put No. 1?

"I'm not going to fall for that one," he said. "If I was on the street and I didn't have recorders in front of me, I might say something different. But tonight, let's just say we're the best in the SEC. And we'll take care of the rest down the road."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.

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