So when it came time to choose captains among the 2003 seniors, a group representing the first of Saban's increasingly stellar recruiting classes at LSU, a rare decision was made: Neither the players nor the coaches saw the need to single out anyone. "We have leaders," says Saban, "but they know who they are." Fittingly, the two on whom Saban relies most are players whose slightly advanced age and low-key demeanor have earned them both, at one time or another, the nickname Gramps. Lavalais, 23, had his football career almost derailed when he failed to qualify academically out of Marksville (La.) High. This year, with six pass breakups, seven sacks and 23 quarterback hurries, he's a finalist for the Nagurski Award as the nation's best defensive player. His quarterback counterpart, 24-year-old Matt Mauck, is a minor league baseball washout who led the SEC in pass efficiency this season. Still, according to teammate Daniels, in the student cafeteria Mauck sits "all hunched over with his head down, so as not to call attention to himself."
With such low-wattage stars, LSU hovered behind other, flashier teams in the polls through the better part of this season. Yet the Tigers finished November ranked first in the nation in scoring defense (10.8 points per game) and first in the SEC in scoring offense (34.9 points per game). Finally, in a hostile Georgia Dome on Saturday, they made as bold a BCS bowl pitch as they could muster. As Oklahoma's stars went on the blink in the Big 12 title game in Kansas City, Mo., new ones emerged in Atlanta. Junior linebacker Lionel Turner tipped a Georgia pass to himself and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. Freshman tailback Justin Vincent, a speedster who was expected to merely push for playing time this year, had touchdown runs of 87 and three yards to earn MVP honors. While fortuitous wins on Saturday by previous opponents pushed the Tigers' BCS ranking to No. 2, their own performance earned them 21 of the 65 first-place votes in the AP poll and 18 first-place nods in the coaches' poll. "When we did move the ball, they did a great job stealing momentum back, like great champions do," said Georgia coach Mark Richt. "They can beat anybody they play."
For Saban, beating Oklahoma will be the challenge that keeps him at the football complex late at night through the holidays. After giving a brief press conference in a lower level of the football complex following the bowl announcement, he boarded an elevator to return to his office. Before his second-floor stop, three young girls hopped on with him. All stared, until finally the boldest ventured, "Great job yesterday—but I'm sure you're tired of hearing that."
Most coaches would have smiled; Saban ruminated. "The thing about success," he said, "is that it makes everyone want more."
Including Mr. Louisiana himself.