High stakes up for grabs between LSU, Tennessee

A jumpstart in the Southeastern Conference standings was at stake when LSU met Tennessee earlier this season, but there is considerably more up for grabs when the Tigers and Volunteers tangle again in Saturday night's SEC Championship game. One team is playing for its first conference crown in 13 years while the other can advance to the national title game with a victory.

LSU, a 26-18 loser to Tennessee on Sept. 29, earned its first-ever bid to the SEC Championship game with a 27-14 win over Auburn last Saturday in Tiger Stadium. The Tigers, ranked 21st in the latest Associated Press poll and 20th in the coaches' poll, finished the regular season at 8-3 with a 5-3 mark in SEC games. A win over the Volunteers will give LSU its first SEC title since 1988 and an automatic berth in the Sugar Bowl. A loss probably sends the Tigers to the Cotton Bowl.

Tennessee moved into the national championship picture with its 34-32 upset of Florida. The win vaulted the Vols (10-1, 7-1 SEC) into the No. 2 position in the Bowl Championship Series standings and in the national polls. They can advance to play for the national title against No. 1 Miami in the Rose Bowl with a win in the SEC Championship game.

"The opportunity we have right now is a team challenge," said LSU head coach Nick Saban. "It's going to be a really different challenge for us. Tennessee has a chance to play for a national championship. For them to run the ball like they did against Florida…shows they've made a lot of improvement since we've played them."

UT tailback Travis Stephens, the leading rusher in the SEC with 1,427 yards, ran for a career-high 226 yards against Florida. He logged 95 yards on 34 carries with one touchdown when Tennessee beat LSU earlier this year.

"He's a short guy who's real compact," said LSU linebacker Trev Faulk. "He runs hard and low to the ground, making it a challenge to tackle him."

Stopping Stephens is not the only challenge LSU faces in stopping the Tennessee offense, which averaged 404.3 yards per game. The passing game was the downfall of the Tigers in their September meeting with Tennessee, as wide receiver Kelley Washington caught 11 passes for a school-record 256 yards and touchdown.

LSU took an early 7-0 lead in the game after Rohan Davey connected with Michael Clayton for a 67-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Turnovers and defensive stands gave the Tigers the chance to build upon their lead, but the Vols battled back and cut LSU's advantage to 7-6 at the half.

Tennessee scored on its first three possessions of the second half to take control of the game and held off a furious comeback attempt from the Tigers. LSU had possession at its 20-yard line with 30 seconds remaining but Davey's desperation heave into the end zone fell short as time elapsed.

"Everybody's going to want to talk about the last game we play against Tennessee," Saban said. "They're improved and are a different team, but we've also improved. So I think it's a difficult comparison.

"We went on the road and played well, probably as good as we had since I've been here," Saban continued. "But looking at the film, which I did this morning, I can see the errors that we made on offense in the first half that didn't allow us to build a bigger lead and the mistakes we made on defense that allowed Tennessee to get back in the game."

A 70-yard touchdown pass from Casey Clausen to Washington gave Tennessee a lead against LSU it would not concede. The Tigers have been susceptible to the big play throughout the season, but Saban thinks his defense has been victimized less and less as the schedule has progressed.

"I think we've played against a lot of good quarterbacks this year," Saban said. "Philosophically, we've had to change our style of what we play since then. But our guys have gotten better at executing and disguising our coverages, and the pass rush has been effective as of late. So it's not just the secondary. I think our entire defense has gotten better."

LSU's improvement has been obvious over the last month, as the Tigers have rolled off four straight wins behind its prosperous offense and resurgent defense. During that stretch, Davey has rewritten the school's single-season record book with over 3,000 yards passing. His favorite target, wide receiver Josh Reed, owns a handful of SEC single-season records and is among the three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award. The trophy for the nation's top collegiate receiver will be awarded Thursday night.

Despite its prolific offense, LSU has been tabbed a seven-point underdog in the SEC Championship game. Tennessee takes the favorite's role in the game a week after being picked to lose against Florida.

"Hopefully, we can go in there and do the same thing that they did (against Florida)," said Reed. "That's just more motivation for us to go out there and prove something."

Tennessee defensive lineman Will Overstreet acknowledges LSU's ability and believes the Tigers will provide a tough obstacle in the Volunteers' path to the Rose Bowl. In both of the games he's played against LSU, Overstreet has succumbed to injury and not completed the game. He expects Saturday's showdown to be another physical affair.

"They've always played us close," said Overstreet.  "It's been a war whenever we played them and it could be again this week. Toefield's being back has helped them out a lot."

The Tigers have been a better team with Toefield, who scored once against Auburn to tie the SEC mark for rushing touchdowns in a season with 19. When the sophomore running back has been healthy, the Tigers have enjoyed some of their better performances. In his absence, specifically against Tennessee, Florida and Ole Miss, LSU has struggled and lost.

But even if Tennessee can slow Toefield's progress, they will still have to contend with Davey's passing. As long as Reed and LSU's other receivers are an option, Overstreet knows the Vols' defense has its work cut out for it.

"When you have a quarterback like Rohan Davey, you've got to get more pressure on him," he said "But LSU has a better running game than Florida's, and we've got to stop the run first before we can start worrying about pressure."

LSU hopes it can catch Tennessee looking back to its dramatic upset of Florida and ahead to a possible national championship match-up with Miami. The Volunteers last claimed the NCAA title in 1998, when this year's seniors and redshirt juniors were in their first year in Knoxville. Head coach Phillip Fulmer is counting on the experience and focus of those older players to filter down to the younger ones.

"We're only going to worry about this week," said Clausen. "We've enjoyed the win (over Florida), but we worked way to hard to get to this point and not concentrate on what we have to do this week."

The Vols would benefit if LSU enters the game satisfied with its eight wins and West division crown. But according to team captain Faulk, the Tigers are still hungry for more achievements in the 2001 season. 

"Our goals on the wall of our locker room say we want to be the SEC champs, not just the SEC West champs," Faulk said. "Tennessee might be motivated because they can play for the national championship, but we're both playing for the same thing this week – the SEC Championship. I don't think we'll be lacking for motivation for this game."

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