What It Takes To Be A Champion

Phillip Marshall takes a look at LSU's ride to the national championship.

On Oct. 11, LSU lost 19-7 to Florida at Tiger Stadium. The Gators, who had lost to Ole Miss at home the previous week, pitched a shutout on defense. The only LSU touchdown came on a punt return.

Who would have believed on that day that, come Jan. 4, LSU would be celebrating a national championship?

LSU won a share of its first national title since 1958 with a combination of talent, effort, coaching, schedule luck, injury luck and just plain good fortune on the football field.

Clearly, LSU has some remarkable athletes, particularly on defense. At positions where it doesn't have great athletes, it has solid players who understand their roles. It did not play a difficult nonconference game like many in the SEC did.

The only real injury problem was at tailback, and that resulted in the emergence of freshman Justin Vincent. Truth be told, no one at LSU expected Vincent to be an immediate star. He spent most of spring practice last year practicing at cornerback.

On the field, Ole Miss kicker Jonathan Nichols missed just three field goals all season. He missed two of those against LSU in a 20-17 loss. Georgia's Billy Bennett missed three field goals in a game just once in his career, and that was in a 17-10 loss at LSU.

So it is for almost every team that wins a national championship. Tennessee won it in 1998 after Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner, running out the clock in Knoxville, fumbled the ball without being touched. Tennesee took it in for a touchdown and went on to win it all. In 1996, Florida lost the regular-season finale to Florida State. Only a remarkable combination of losses by other contenders landed the Gators in the Sugar Bowl for a rematch against Florida State.

The common denominator, of course, is that those teams were ready and able to take advantage when their opportunities came.

When LSU got its chance, it took full advantage. The best thing the Bayou Bengals did was get better as the season wore on. When they blew out Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, it was obvious they were a legitimate contender.

Because there are so many variables, it is rare for teams to repeat as national champions or even SEC champions. One injured quarterback, one untimely fumble, one blown call can change everything. LSU went 8-5 last season with almost the same players – better players at some positions. But quarterback Matt Mauck was injured.

Nick Saban has surely become a cult hero in Louisiana. LSU was mired in a funk that had gone on for more than a decade when he arrived from Michigan State in 2000. He's won two SEC championships and a national championship in four seasons. The NFL will surely come calling, but most people close to the situation say Saban has no desire to leave.

It was always inexplicable that LSU could have eight losing seasons in 11. LSU is the only major player in a state loaded with talent. That's why Saban was willing to leave a good job at Michigan State when former LSU athletic director Joe Dean called.

What does all this mean for the rest of the SEC? It means LSU is going to be a force for the foreseeable future, but beyond that, not much. Tennessee hasn't won a conference championship since it won the national championship. Steve Spurrier won his fourth consecutive SEC championship in 1996 but won just one after 1996.

For LSU, it means a great deal. National championships are so hard to win. The young men who hoisted that trophy Sunday night have memories for a lifetime.

And it won't bother them one bit that Southern Cal players have those same kinds of memories.

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