DEVILLE: Tigers<br>foiled by UGA curveball

ATHENS, Ga. - Up until Saturday's 45-16 loss at Georgia, although LSU had already played four games, not even Nick Saban knew the true identity of his team.

From the coach's demeanor in Saturday's postgame press conference, unfortunately he does now.

 

The Tigers, defending national champions and owner of the most feared defensive unit in college football just a year ago, were at the mercy of the Georgia Bulldogs Saturday as the nation's third-ranked team had their way with the preseason SEC Western Division favorite.

 

Favorites no more as LSU dropped its second game in three outings and are all but out of the race to return to Atlanta and defend its SEC crown. With Auburn winning at Tennessee Saturday (not only winning, but claiming victory with authority), the other Tigers hold a two-game lead over LSU as well as the tiebreaker. While in the SEC anything can happen, it would take some sort of catastrophe for Auburn not to represent the western division in Atlanta.

 

While coaches, players and most especially fans are downtrodden after the thrashing between the hedges last Saturday, this marks the dawn of a new chapter in the Nick Saban era at LSU – in a number of ways. While the national championship buzz was officially pronounced over in the wake of a 10-9 loss to Auburn, if anyone had any doubts about the splendor of the title run ending then, they certainly have closure now. LSU looked like a shell of the team that romped those same Bulldogs last December in the SEC title game. These Tigers were a far cry from the dominant machine that methodically dismantled Oklahoma en route to the school's first national title in 45 years. And as painful as it may be for the fans to accept, that run is over – and that may be a good thing. Most everyone will accept the fact the players, not to mention the fans, felt as if the Tigers would waltz into the 2004 season and slay one opponent after the next. Aside form some realistic observers, Saban was the one preaching patience and humility at the beginning of this 2004 campaign. And while it seems LSU fans handled the first loss better than in the past, the attitude was one of disappointment but understanding among those faithful 12,000 fans that made the trip to Athens last weekend.

 

Being in the midst of players immediately following the game, the looks on the faces of the Tigers as they left the field told it all. Disappointment, embarrassment and regret clouded the minds of the players as they field off the field single file up a tunnel as Georgia's students and band partied and danced from above, taking great pleasure of taunting each player.

 

The most distressed look of all was the one painted across the face of Saban, who was as somber (not angry) as many had ever seen him, granted it was the most points ever allowed by a Saban-coached team. A late, fourth quarter touchdown saved these Tigers from enduring the worst loss of the Saban era. That honor belongs to the 2001 Tigers, who were beaten 44-15 by the Florida Gators, granted that team went on to win the SEC title.

 

At any rate, Saban's eerily calm demeanor left a press room near speechless as the head coach compared Saturday's loss to an unexpected curveball. He said he was disappointed in the way his team played, but most of all shocked. He explained the fact the Tigers had had the best week of practice, in his opinion, of the season leading up to Saturday's debacle.

 

While Saban and his team were tormented by the horror of what transpired for 60 minutes on a Saturday afternoon in rural southern Georgia, the fans were singing a different tune. Ah, the powerful signal of mighty WWL Radio out of New Orleans – it was possible to pick up a clear signal of the Tiger Gamenight postgame show o the drive back from Athens to Atlanta. It was actually quite interesting.

 

In what was a ritual thrashing of the head coach in the wake of lopsided losses, most especially under Curley Hallman and Gerry DiNardo, the mood on this night was one of (surprisingly) patience and maturity on the part of the fans. Maybe a cool customer of the likes of Saban and a national title under its collective belt has helped transform the mob into a reasonable group.

 

Unlike in the past, even in the Saban era (memories of Ole Miss 2001), callers were not asking for the coaches job nor were they trashing players or assistant coaches. The mood seemed to turn toward one much similar to that of Georgia fans in the wake of last season's loss to LSU in the SEC championship game. The theme of the night tended to sway toward the fact a younger, more inexperienced LSU team was outplayed by a far more superior Georgia team, which that was the case.

 

They were outplayed in every phase of the game – PERIOD.

 

LSU's offense was downright anemic and the defense, which the Tigers pride themselves under Saban, was as porous as ever. Defensively, Saturday's game brought back memories of that 2001 loss to Florida in which Rex Grossman did whatever he wanted and there was nothing LSU could do about it.

 

The Tiger running game was a far cry from the last meeting with Georgia. Putting the performance in perspective, in last season's SEC title game, Justin Vincent rushed for 201 yards and was named the game's most valuable player. Last Saturday, the sophomore (which is obviously in that dreaded soph slump), rushed for two yards on two carries and was benched midway through the first quarter and replaced by true freshman Jacob Hester. As a group, the Tigers rushed for just 67 yards on 29 carries.

 

While these numbers reflect badly on the Tiger runners, the blame of these failures should be contributed largely on the poor play of the offensive line. The front five failed to open up holes, hold blocks long enough nor did they offer even average protection for LSU quarterbacks Marcus Randall and JaMarcus Russell, who were sacked a combined six times in the game.

 

And that's just the offense.

 

Defensively, the front four got little to no pass rush and David Greene had all day to pick apart an underachieving secondary. Cornerbacks Corey Webster and Travis Daniels were hung out to dry time and again as Greene set a Georgia record with five touchdown passes.

 

And adding insult to injury, when LSU did score late in the fourth quarter on a touchdown pass from Randall to Xavier Carter, Chris Jackson (a.k.a. Captain Hook) missed the extra point. LSU has now missed at least one extra point in each of the last four games.

 

What this all boils down to, the Tigers are not nearly as good as everyone thought going into this season. However, they are not as bad as some people are saying right now. This is still a very talented, inexperienced, but talented football team that needs more time to find the continuity and consistency, most especially on offense.

 

Defensively, Saban will continue to tweak the equation until he gets it right. But the offensive woes can only come with time. Unfortunately, a road date at Florida this Saturday comes much too early for a team with LSU's problems to overcome. After reading this statement, do not begin flooding e-mail inboxes with hate mail, but in this opinion, the Tigers will more than likely lose in Gainesville this weekend.

 

After watching the play of Chris Leak, who is undoubtedly the best quarterback in the league, and watching how Greene torched the Tiger defense, LSU will likely endure much of the same in The Swamp.

 

But after that, the schedule lightens up considerably and the Tigers will be able to cure what ails them. Lesser opponents come into Tiger Stadium for four consecutive games and in that time, LSU should be able to work out the kinks before the last test of the season comes on the day after Thanksgiving in Little Rock when the Tigers face Arkansas.

 

While Tiger Rag predicted LSU would go 10-1, not win the SEC title, but still be a BCS at-large team, that prognostication is being altered a bit. The Tigers should go 8-3 and end up, most probably back in Atlanta (ironically), not in the SEC title game, but in the Peach Bowl.

 

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Matt Deville is the editor of Tiger Rag. He can be reached by e-mail at matt@tigerrag.com


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