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Stewart Mandel Inside College Football

Meet the Tigers

Saban's Bayou Bengals have coming-out party against Georgia

Posted: Saturday September 20, 2003 9:25PM; Updated: Sunday September 21, 2003 3:37PM
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  Skyler Green
Skyler Green's 34-yard touchdown reception sealed the deal for LSU.
AP

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Can a team that just won an SEC title two years ago still take the SEC by storm?

Can a program that's already winning at a 69 percent rate under its current coach still have a breakthrough victory?

Can a defense that allowed 411 yards still assert itself as one of the finest in the country?

Yes, yes and yes.

It wasn't always pretty, it wasn't even technically an upset, but No. 11 LSU's 17-10 victory over seventh-ranked Georgia on Saturday was a coming out party for one of the nation's fastest rising programs, one that wasn't sealed until Skyler Green's 34-yard touchdown catch with 1:22 remaining.

For all its luster and tradition, Tiger Stadium rarely hosts games the magnitude of Saturday's Georgia-LSU tussle -- not since 1973 had two top 10 SEC teams jousted here -- but when it does, it does it right. In front of a thunderous, school-record crowd of 92,251, the two combatants staged a classic, gut-wrenching, down-to-the-wire defensive struggle.

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LSU's offense, so explosive its first three games, wasn't exactly overwhelming, but it didn't have to be. Its defense manhandled Georgia's offense like no opponent in recent years, holding them to three points the first 56 minutes. And even after a Matt Mauck fumble gave Georgia the chance to tie the game on a remarkable 93-yard screen pass with 4:25 left, LSU came right back and answered with the game-winning drive.

"I think it helps us a lot to know we can be better than we were," said defensive end Marcus Spears, "and we still played effectively."

For the first time since 1996, LSU stands 4-0. And for the first time since the '80s, the Bayou Bengals -- not recently upstaged powers Florida and Tennessee, not defending champ Georgia, not preseason favorite Auburn -- has established itself as the team to beat in the SEC.

If it's not them, it's SEC West foe Arkansas, which LSU hosts in its season finale.

Not that Tigers coach Nick Saban wants you to hear any of this.

"Big picture? It's one win in the SEC," said the fourth-year Tigers coach. "I know it's great for LSU and great for our players to win on national television against a nationally recognized, top 10 team. I'm as proud of them as I can be. But really, it's just one win the SEC.

We've got four games left. We could still go 4-8 this year."

They're not going to go 4-8. They're probably not going to go 8-4, either. It's too early to say just where this or any team stacks up at this point -- just read Michigan's press clippings from the past week to find out how prophetic we pundits are -- but this much is clear: LSU is a much, much better team than they were before Saban's 1999 arrival.

Remember those LSU teams of the Curley Hallman and Gerry DiNardo eras? To say they were a non-factor in the SEC back then is as obvious an observation as declaring Michael Jackson past his prime.

Enter Saban, with his NFL pedigree and his all-business demeanor. He's succeeded where his predecessors did in both recruiting elite athletes and utilizing them to the best of their ability.

Among the Saban recruits on full display Saturday were Green, the speedy 5-9 receiver who made the biggest play of his young career on the touchdown; Spears, the 6-foot-4 part-time basketball player who batted down two passes at the line; and Corey Webster, the converted receiver now serving as the Tigers' top cornerback who sealed the game with his last-second interception.

And that's not counting star receiver Michael Clayton, who entered with 23 catches and 423 yards through three games but was largely shut down.

"LSU recruits some great athletes, it's just a matter of going out there and making plays," said Spears. "It's going to be like that for a long time because they keep recruiting great players."

Well, at least they will as long as Saban's in town. And popular opinion says that won't be too much longer.

Saban's name comes up on the NFL rumor mill every year, much to the bewilderment of some college followers who wonder what's so special about a guy who got the LSU job off one good year at Michigan State and whose first three Tigers teams have each gone 5-3 in the SEC.

Hopefully they were watching Saturday.

Make no mistake, Georgia counterpart Mark Richt, 13-1 a year ago, is one of the better coaches in the country, but Saban's game plan ruled the day. His defense provided a seemingly endless array of looks and seemed to genuinely befuddle the Bulldogs.

"I have to give a lot of credit to coach Saban and LSU," said Richt. "I thought those guys had a great plan without question and had the athletes to pull it off."

Those athletes will have only 24 hours to savor this one before preparing for a road trip to Mississippi State. Looming in the not-too distant future are Florida, South Carolina and Auburn.

"This was a big step in having success," said Saban. "The next one's a big step in how to handle it."

Stay tuned. There could be more big steps in the weeks to follow.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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