When he arrived in 1999, the program was in shambles. Suffering from back-to-back losing seasons, academic problems as well as shoddy recruiting, Saban started from the ground up re-building what was once considered one of the top programs in the Southeastern Conference.
Three bowl games, two New Year's Day appearances, a top-rated recruiting class and an SEC title were pieces of Saban's master plan as he and his Tigers prepared for the 2003 season.
Anyone could have peered over LSU's schedule and realized that the Tigers should have been 3-0 heading into the SEC opener with Georgia. The main question was would the Bulldogs remain the dominant team in the eastern division suffering key losses on defense and on the offensive line? Would this game carry as much clout as previously anticipated?
The answer was a resounding "yes" for both questions.
Georgia rolled through its non-conference slate as did LSU setting up a premiere battle of East vs. West in Tiger Stadium.
The game drew the national attention that was expected as ESPN's Gameday crew visited the LSU campus. CBS chose the Tigers' clash with Georgia to be featured as the second half of a doubleheader being preceded by a classic Tennessee-Florida matchup.
Pre-game hype surrounded both LSU and the Bulldogs as the game was analyzed and re-analyzed from every angle. However, the resounding majority of "experts" claimed the Tigers had faced no real competition facing UL-Monroe, Arizona and Western Illinois and that the Bulldogs were a far more superior ball club.
Saban constantly downplayed the game stating "it was a big game because it is the next game." The entire time, the veteran coach was just trying to monitor the hype and shield his players from outside interferences.
The festivities began Friday morning when ESPN showed up and started setting up the Gameday set on the ramps of the Maravich Assembly Center. Students and fans alike began finding their special spots on those ramps where they would camp through Friday night in hopes of getting glimpse of Lee Corso, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstriet when Gameday went live at 9:30 on Saturday morning.
The CBS sports crew also arrived on Friday and the likes of Verne Lundquist and Jill Arrington were spotted around town and into the night.
When the sun rose on Tiger Stadium Saturday morning, the atmosphere was a festive one. Death Valley is known for its night games and folks have talked at length about the lack of atmosphere for a day game, but this 2:30 p.m., epoch SEC clash had all the makings of a night game in Baton Rouge.
"It's fine with me," said Oak Ridge native Woodard Mott. "I like night games better but a day game has a lot of revenue with TV and stuff like that."
Baton Rouge native Tracy Jones, who tailgates on the southeast end of Tiger Stadium, pointed out to a crowded South Stadium Drive when asked about the affect of a day game.
"The crowd seems to be up right now," Jones said. "It doesn't matter anymore."
One "Lot A" tailgater said he hasn't seen a crowd like for a day game in Baton Rouge in quite some time.
"It reminds me of the Ohio State game in 1987 when they came in with the red shoes," Grant Ethridge said. "We haven't been to a big day game like this is a long time. This is one we've been waiting on."
Even PGA Tour star David Toms wasn't going to miss this one.
"Yeah it's fine," Toms said. "It's going to be a little hot today but I'm hoping that fans get into it a little early and
are a factor in the game because we have to use it to our advantage."
The 2001 PGA Champion said he could not believe how many people turned out for the game – and how early they showed up.
"It took us forever to get into the stadium today," Toms said. "We knew it was a big game. We saw the red and black cars and somebody asked where are those people from and I said those are the Georgia fans. I told him he would probably see more of the opposite fans than he has ever seen before in Tiger Stadium."
An avid LSU fan, Toms has taken some time off from the Tour to enjoy the early portion of the Tigers schedule as well as hold a Fantasy Camp in the Baton Rouge area.
"I'm in the last week of a month break so I'm going to go back to work next week," Toms said. "I've got a lot of golf left between now and the end of the year."
A large mob gathered near the Maravich Assembly Center to
witness ESPN's first visit since 1997.
When Corso, Herbstreit and Fowler took their seats for Gameday's live broadcast, almost 30,000 people crowded around the PMAC trying to get a glimpse.
"It's pretty wild," said Blayne McRae, who traveled from DeRidder, La. for the game. "You look at GameDay every week on television but you never see this many people, this many charismatic fans. It's a good thing to be apart of. They should do this every other week."
Signs, banners, flags and "(Michael) Clayton for Heisman" billboards were hoisted into the air against the pristine background of Tiger Stadium in the distance behind the Gameday set.
"This is what it's all about," said Michael Ory, an LSU grad that lives in Nashville. "LSU fans come out here every week hoping the football team can pull it together and when we finally do and we're in the top ten.
GameDay comes from ESPN and they can come down here and we can show them what it's all about being out here all day starting at 9:30 in the morning and live the whole festival leading up to the game and put it all together on the field against Georgia. Tiger fans eat this up. You can't believe the smiles you see on the faces of everybody waiting to see the nation come here and enjoy what is LSU football."
The national media makes a big deal about LSU's tailgating tradition, deafening stadium and gameday rituals. The locals, though, feel like it is a way of life.
LSU is here showing the world what we're all about," said Minor Cipes, an LSU alum from New Orleans. "We're just sharing with the country what we do every week. When the Tigers are in town, everything goes nuts."
Even when the game started, there were still thousands of faithful Tiger fans who crowded around television sets in nearby parking lots, restaurants and bars. A ticket for this one was a bit hard to come.
Jackie Naquin, a longtime Tiger fan and Thibodaux resident, said he has been at every home game for 50 years and had never witnessed an environment for a game like Saturday, especially for a day game.
"I'm going to say this, this is the biggest crowd I've seen in 50 years," Naquin said. "This is unreal. I left Thibodeaux at 8:30 and I was five miles waiting in line to get here. I've never seen this before and I'm an early bird coming. This is unreal."
Naquin said the day game doesn't bother him.
"That's okay, it don't bother me," he said. "I like the day games because I get home about 8:30 instead of getting home at midnight. I mean, I'm 76 years old."
As the morning turned into early afternoon, the scene became rowdier. By the time, Corso sprang from his seat and donned Mike the Tiger headgear triumphantly predicted an LSU victory, the restless mob worked itself into a frenzy.
"The atmosphere is electric, unbelievable," Woodard Mott said. "I mean I woke up at the Marriott hotel this morning with Georgia Bulldog fans already dressed and ready to go, talking about how Georgia was just going to tear LSU up. I said do you mind if we come to the fight? Do you mind if we show up?"
Toms said he had been in Baton Rouge a few days leading up the game and had the opportunity to visit with a few former Tiger players who said this a game they wouldn't mind suiting up for.
"It's a special game, an SEC game," Toms said. "I actually played golf yesterday with Tommy Hodson and Mickey Guidry and they were excited about it. Hodson made the comment that hey it's probably the first time since he's been out of school where he wished he was playing again. It was that big of a deal and that big of a game. So it's awesome. You can feel the buzz around here."
Mott actually eerily predicted the outcome of the game two hours before kickoff. A farmer from northeast Louisiana, Mott told Tiger rag how he felt the game would be played out.
"My prediction is LSU by seven with a late, fourth quarter Georgia drive being turned back by an interception by some cornerback," Mott predicted. "Probably…. uh, Corey Webster."
Scary, huh? Only on gameday in Baton Rouge.