DEVILLE: Are these the real Tigers?

Think back to your first thought when JaMarcus Russell overshot Skyler Green in the corner of the end zone against Oregon State with 2:50 left to play and the Tigers trailing 15-7 in the season opener.

People everywhere – fans in Tiger Stadium, players on the sideline, national football experts at ESPN – they were all scratching their heads asking themselves, "is this the same LSU team that won the national championship just nine months ago?"


There is no doubt the LSU Tigers came out of the starting blocks in this 2004 season as flat as an old tire. Were they cocky? Overconfident? Wrapped up in the idea of being defending national champions? Had they read too many of their press clippings?


Well, head coach Nick Saban will answer yes to all of the above.


The Tigers were not playing with the same competitive attitude and fire with which they won 13 games and the national championship a year earlier – and it was oh so obvious.


From all angles, fans muttered among themselves what was the problem with this team. Coaches were questioning the grit and heart of this football team. The experts, who had already been soured by the whole BCS funk from a year ago, finally were able to slam the door on LSU dropping the Tigers nine spots in the polls a week after they lost to a ranked team by one point on the road. In a sense, the nay-sayers from a year ago finally got the satisfaction of relishing in the Tigers travails.


Now you must ask yourself, is this team overrated? Are the talking heads right about Nick Saban's 2004 LSU club?


Not quite.


Although the talent level of Saturday's opponent will be taken into consideration, the Tigers' 51-0 thumping of reeling Mississippi State was the first dominant statement of the year for LSU. While one of the worst Division I-A teams in a BCS conference, the Bulldogs are still an SEC team, which the Tigers dominated.


Now we know most games in which Mississippi State will take part in this season will play out much like Saturday's game, but the Tigers' performance against Sylvester Croom's team may have been the wake-up call LSU needed…. And just in time with Georgia looming next week in a contest tabbed as the SEC game of the year.


Saban said he was happy with the way the team dominated Mississippi State, but put forth a challenge for his team in the future.


"What kind of real maturity and mental toughness does this team have?" Saban said. "The real challenge now is we did this once today, are we going to get satisfied with that or is this going to be the trademark of this team and can we go down the stretch and do it like we did last year game in and game out? Whether we win a game or lose a game, will we play with that kind of physical, aggressive, relentless type of team that gives themselves a chance that makes other teams not want to play them? I don't know if we have the will enough to do that, but that is what we need to do if we are going to be really good."


When asked point blank if he thought the team had lost the fabric of what made the 2003 team special, Saban candidly responded yes.


"There is no doubt…. There is no doubt about it," he said. "There is no doubt that our team lost some of the toughness, lost some of the competitive edge, everybody got worried about winning, got worried about the results, everybody got nervous at the end of the game – that ain't how we play. We have never played that way. That is for the fans and all the hoopla about repeating and doing this and doing that, too many interviews, too much hearing about what we did and not about what we need to do now. No matter what we did, it doesn't help us do what we need to do now. Hopefully, our players realize that now and that doesn't mean we won't win another game, but it means we are going to have a better chance to do it if we have that kind of competitive spirit."


It remains to be seen how LSU will respond to Saturday's pounding of the helpless Bulldogs, but nothing could have done this team any more good than having a game of this magnitude at this point in the season.


"This game would give anyone confidence," said redshirt freshman quarterback JaMarcus Russell. "We did a good job and we came through. I think as long as we play games like this, we'll get more and more confident."


Coming off the 10-9 loss at Auburn, sophomore wide receiver Craig Davis said this win will undoubtedly help the team's morale heading to Georgia this weekend.


"We really weren't thinking about last week during the game, but (winning today) is a really big confidence booster going into next week's game," Davis said. "Georgia is a really big game for us, and I believe that we really just need to have a good week of practice and keep the focus going like we did this past week."


If LSU is to keep this wave of momentum going, Saban must rely on senior defensive end Marcus Spears and the rest of the veterans to keep the team focused and motivated.


"I think it's very important," Spears said about the team maintaining focus and consistency. "I think in order for the young guys to understand what it takes to be successful in this league. Things like this have to happen, and as leaders we have to step up and make plays. It was just a great overall thing for those young guys to see and understand how important every game is as you play from this point on."


While the players are talking the talk right now, Saban will continue to test his Tiger squad because things can change in a hurry when you go on the road in the SEC, especially in a venue such as the one they will face Saturday in Athens.

"At Auburn, fans got really rowdy, and I know it's going to be the same and possibly even worse (at Georgia)," Davis said. "So the focus will be there because in practice they will have us ready."

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