Last season it took LSU until the month of November to get into a groove, but this year's team started firing on all cylinders in late September and is maintaining a healthy pace. Even after losing two of their top offensive skill position players for the foreseeable future, the current Tigers appear very capable of defending their SEC Championship.
All-SEC running back LaBrandon Toefield suffered a broken arm in the Louisiana-Lafayette game, and starting quarterback Matt Mauck hurt his foot against Florida. Doubt was starting to seep into TigerTown, even after the LSU's decisive 36-7 win over the Gators, when it was learned Mauck's injury would probably require surgery that would end his year.
But in Mauck's absence, the Tigers posted an impressive 38-14 win over South Carolina. Running back Domanick Davis helped LSU establish the pace of the game with 26 carries for 113 yards and a touchdown. And with the weight of giant question mark over his head the whole week, quarterback Marcus Randall turned in the best passing performance for LSU this season with 183 yards and no interceptions on a 12-of-23 night.
LSU running back Domanick Davis (31) pushes away from South Carolina defender Taqiy Muhammad (14) during a run in first half action Saturday night. Davis got away from Muhammad and turned the corner for a first down. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
The LSU defense also showed its mettle after letting the Gamecocks build a 14-3 lead in the second quarter. After allowing the USC offense to post 222 yards in the first half, the Tigers held the visitors to just one yard in the third quarter.
Through games played on Oct. 19, LSU was still the top team in the country statistically in pass efficiency (70.98) and total defense (217.43 yards per game). The Tigers are 11th best in rushing defense (93.43) and have a chance to improve their standings at Auburn on Saturday since the Plainsmen lost starting running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams to a broken leg in their loss at Florida.
"We talk about competing for 60 minutes and that's what we've got to do around here," said linebacker Bradie James. "From here on out, it won't be easy."
By no means will it be easy for LSU since SEC football is fraught with pitfalls each weekend. Two more road games remain on the schedule after the Auburn game for the Tigers, but they can definitely head into each showdown confident of their ability to dominate. Saban's 2002 team has shown is can handle adversity in various forms and still excel.
From here on out, the biggest challenges for LSU each week may be mental ones.
Auburn will certainly be hungry for revenge after falling to LSU last December in a game that decided the SEC West champion. Tommy Tuberville's team is coming off two straight SEC losses and desperately needs this game to stay in the divisional hunt.
The key for LSU at Auburn is to channel its emotion in a positive way and to put the home team on the ropes early in hopes of breaking their spirit.
After their second open weekend on Nov. 2, the Tigers are back on the road at Kentucky. The Wildcats are likely to face LSU with no better than a 2-3 mark in their SEC games, but they can recall nearly upsetting LSU last year at Commonwealth Stadium with a team that was not nearly as versatile as their current one.
The Tigers are still a more talented team than Kentucky and will have to re-establish their momentum following an open week.
A week later Alabama comes to Baton Rouge looking to play the role of spoiler since it cannot compete for the SEC title. The Crimson Tide plays at times like a cornered animal, so LSU will have to be careful not to be bitten on Nov. 16.
This doesn't mean, however, the Tigers should enter the game with a guarded mindset. An aggressive approach is the best bet for LSU to extend its home win streak over Alabama to two games.
Ole Miss currently has the best chance to catch LSU but will need to play much better than they did in a 42-7 loss to Alabama last Saturday. If things fall right for the Rebels and wrong for the Tigers, their game at LSU on Nov. 23 could be their best chance at grasping the West crown.
Inconsistency, which has plagued Ole Miss this season, cost LSU the game against the Rebels last season. The team that comes the closest to putting together a seamless performance will emerge the winner.
Arkansas is on the outside looking in as the month of October winds down, but a late season surge last year put the Razorbacks in the thick of the SEC West hunt. The Hogs will need help to make their Nov. 29 game with LSU meaningful, but it shouldn't stop them from presenting the Tigers with a tough challenge to end the regular season.
It's been a while since the Tigers have played well in Little Rock, Ark., but these are the kinds of mental hurdles Saban has challenged his team to clear so far this season.
Saban provided a look at how he will approach the remainder of the season in the post-game news conference Saturday. When asked how big the win over South Carolina was for his team coming on the heels of its blowout of Florida, Saban bristled at the thought that any one particular game – past, present or future – carries more weight than another.
"Every win is a big win," the coach answered emphatically. "Whatever wins we get, they're all big. Every one is a big as you can get, as big as you could imagine. None are bigger than the last one or best one because it's the one (you won) today. In 24 hours, we've got to start working on the next one."
The Tigers punched their time card for Auburn on Sunday evening with the goal of working overtime in 2002 in a repeat appearance in the SEC Championship Game and a bowl game on Jan. 1 – two games no more important right now than the most recent or upcoming ones according to Saban.
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