MULE': Fans have Nov. 3 circled

What a mixed bag last week was for LSU: The Tigers won their 11th game of the season and secured a top-5 finish for the second year in a row with their rout of Notre Dame.

On the other hand, before fans could fully enjoy the accomplishments of this LSU team, they had to start worrying about future Tiger seasons.


Nick Saban, the man LSU fans were ready to canonize just two years ago, is back in the SEC West.


It's not altogether a bad thing. For one thing, the development will spice up the division – and give LSU something it hasn't had in decades: a real rival. Ever since Tulane fell off the face of the football world, and Ole Miss stopped being a major conference factor four decades ago, the Tigers have lacked a hated opponent they want to beat just for the fun of it, and vice versa.


Auburn has become important to LSU, but really just because it is the only other consistent contender in the West. In an average year, Alabama and Georgia are far more important to Auburn than LSU; Tennessee and Auburn are far more important to Alabama than LSU. There is what has become the season finale with Arkansas; but, of course, playing for The Boot is an artificial contrivance of former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, one which never engendered anything close to a fierce "rivalry."


Now, the date of the LSU-Alabama game, you can be assured, will be not just be circled. The circles will be decorated as bulls-eyes.


There's no question Bama got an accomplished coach. Let's face it: LSU's 70-20 record since 2000, the 78 percent victory ratio of the Saban/Miles era, was erected on a foundation laid by Saban. After the worst football decade in Tiger history (54-62-1 in seven losing seasons), Saban galvanized the LSU base and put the pieces in place for perhaps its most successful stretch. He coached two SEC championship teams and one national championship team. Most of the key athletes in the 22-4, two-year record Miles has compiled in his two LSU seasons were signed by Saban.


So, however hurt – and panicked – Tiger fans might be right now, Saban should get his LSU props.


On the other hand, LSU has no reason to believe Bama has yet another coach who can walk on water.


In a lot of ways, Saban, who was 34-24-1 with no titles at Michigan State, caught lightning in a bottle when he came to LSU, a floundering program but one with a great talent base that just needed everyone pulling together. To his credit, Saban was able to do that, forging a five-year, 48-16 record.


But – and many have a hard time believing this until shown the black-and-white facts – in four of the five years he was in Louisiana, Saban and the Tigers lost a minimum of three games. Before Saban went to Bama, many LSU fans seemed to think LSU was undefeated every year. The only time the Tigers weren't tagged with three or more setbacks was in 2003 when LSU won the BCS title with one defeat.


That, however, was a major defeat, one that bordered on a rout: 19-7 to Florida, which ended with the Gators near the Tigers' 20 and taking a knee. Another Florida touchdown and it's hard to believe LSU would have tabulated enough computer points to squeeze into the national championship game.


And let's remember a few other Saban outings often forgotten when his name comes up: How about the embarrassing 2000 homecoming upset at the hands of Alabama-Birmingham, a loss he managed to successfully palm off to fans and some media on a late interception by Josh Booty? But that final was 13-10, so somebody was apparently being out-coached from the opening kickoff.


There was the 31-0 shellacking from none other than Alabama (which Saban took pains to point out at his Tuscaloosa coming-out party the other day was the only time the Crimson Tide got the best of him). There was the 24-20 close call against Troy in 2005 when the mighty Bayou Bengals barely escaped another red face against a lower-echelon mid-major. And let's not ever forget the last-gasp, 30-25 stunner to Iowa in the CapitalOne Bowl, Saban's last LSU game, one lost because he spent much of the preparation time going back and forth to talk to the Dolphins about his new duties and, presumably, contract tweaks.


Every head coach loses games, of course, but these were uncommonly flawed games that people seem wanted forgotten soon after they were over.


All that being said, Saban owes LSU nothing. LSU fans owe him a lot. His return to college football has instantly made the SEC West a thornier road for all contenders. Just don't think Bama will dominate southern football like Bear Bryant did for three decades.

In the meantime, LSU fans can start circling Nov. 3 on their calendars – with bulls-eyes.




Marty Mule' can be reached at

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