On the road to superpower status
Saban has LSU well on its way to becoming one of nation's elite
Posted: Friday July 30, 2004 11:39AM; Updated: Friday July 30, 2004 11:39AM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- LSU head coach Nick Saban said he was able to enjoy his team's 2003 national championship until about 3 a.m. the night of the Tigers' Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
"By then, I started worrying about how many agents were in the lobby, who's staying and who's going, who we have to go after as recruits, etc., etc.," he said. "There is always plenty to do, and if you lose sight of things, it affects your ability to have success in the future."
Judging by his comments at this week's SEC media days, Saban seems to be consumed with the future. And why shouldn't he be? Delivering LSU its first national championship since 1958 was only the first step in the mission he embarked on upon arriving in Baton Rouge, La., four years ago. Next up: Trying to turn the Tigers into the next Miami or Florida State, Ohio State or Oklahoma, the kind of elite program you expect to see at or near the top of the polls every season.
All indications are that LSU is headed in that direction. After five years of staggering recruiting hauls, the Tigers' roster is loaded with as much talent as any of the aforementioned powers. Seven members of last year's title team were drafted, and the scouts are already drooling over potential 2005 prospects, such as defensive end Marcus Spears, corner Corey Webster and center Ben Wilkerson.
But Saban has never been one to take anything for granted. In addition to the expected blocking and tackling drills, bench presses and wind sprints, much of his players' preparations for the coming season have dealt with the mental aspect of handling success.
"We did not deal with that success very well in 2001 [when LSU upset Tennessee for the SEC title], and it affected us in 2002 [when the Tigers went 8-5]," Saban said. "Why do the mighty fall? Complacency. But there's also an element of a sophomore jinx. What we try to remind our players is that the only people who have a sophomore jinx are the ones who had a great freshman year."
The Tigers broke through to the upper echelon last season on the strength of an utterly dominant defense, one that led the nation in points (11.0 per game) and yards (252) allowed. Seven starters from that unit return, including pass-rusher extraordinaire Spears, lock-down cover corner Webster and hyperactive linebacker Lionel Turner.
But, the two cogs in LSU's stellar D, tackles Chad Lavalais, a consensus All-America, and Marquise Hill, have since departed for the NFL. The disruptive Lavalais occupied blockers and made it nearly impossible for teams to run up the gut, while the athletic Hill made life miserable for passers, tipping several of Heisman winner Jason White's passes in the Sugar Bowl. The good news is, LSU rotated as many as eight defensive linemen last season, so experienced replacements are waiting in the wings. The bad news is, they have to live up to a pretty high standard.
"We lost two great players who were part of a dominating front," Saban said. "Young players are going to determine the depth and quality of the kind of defensive team we're going to have."
Offensively, the Tigers have a huge question mark at quarterback, where senior Marcus Randall and redshirt freshmen JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn are vying to replace the vastly underrated Matt Mauck, who went 18-2 as a starter. Whoever gets the job, however, will be surrounded by a wealth of weapons, including last year's breakout freshman running back, Justin Vincent, big-play receiver Skyler Green and an experienced offensive line led by Wilkerson and tackle Andrew Whitworth.
On paper, LSU has the same amount of questions as any of the other expected title contenders. And yet, when the preseason Coaches' poll was released Friday morning, the Tigers were ranked third, behind both their co-defending champion, USC, and the team it beat in the title game, Oklahoma. Perhaps more insulting, SEC media didn't even pick LSU to repeat in its own conference, opting instead for a Georgia team the Tigers beat twice last season.
If Saban is using the spites as motivation, he's not saying. On the contrary, he seems determined to draw on last season's accomplishments as little as possible.
"Last year was a mountain climb -- we were fortunate to be able to plant the flag at the top of the mountain and win the national championship," Saban said. "This year, we have won zero games. We are at base camp at the bottom of the mountain looking up at the climb. And it will be very difficult."
If all goes according to Saban's plan, however -- and assuming he doesn't eventually live up to the rumors and bolt for the NFL -- LSU will soon be one of those teams that gets at or near the top of the mountain year-in and year-out. It's a tall chore for a program that had won just two SEC championships in the 30 years prior to Saban's arrival, but considering the Tigers now have won two in the past three seasons, clearly a different kind of era is dawning in Baton Rouge.
"We have a special program right now," Wilkerson said. "Coach Saban has done a lot of great things with the program both on and off the field. We're bringing in great guys each year, and we have the national championship to show for it."
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.