Reality has a way of dashing the dreams of teams in the Southeastern Conference, regardless of the sport. The league is widely considered the nation's best in intercollegiate athletics because on any given day, one team is capable of beating the other and beating it soundly.
LSU found this out the hard way last Saturday at Auburn when the Plainsmen implemented a nearly perfect game plan against the Bayou Bengals to post a 31-7 rout of the visitors at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn.
Auburn executed in each facet of the game against LSU, which suffered throughout a complete meltdown in the rainy muck.
In his first start since losing at LSU last season in the game that decided the SEC West Division, Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell turned in a competent effort with 7-of-11 passing for 105 yards and - most importantly - no interceptions.
Defensively, Auburn stymied LSU's offensive staple - running the ball. Quarterback Marcus Randall led the Tigers with 74 yards on 16 carries, the bulk of which came from scrambles on busted plays. The conventional source for LSU on the ground, Domanick Davis, was held to 42 yards on 14 carries.
The Plainsmen also made Davis a non-factor on special teams, limiting him to 48 yards on two kickoff returns and nine yards on one punt. On his six kickoffs, Auburn's Damon Duval recorded four touchbacks.
The pressure was also on LSU's passing game, resulting in four Randall interceptions and only 79 yards on nine completions.
"Today was just a tremendous effort by the whole team," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. "We played great all four quarters, made the big plays and got some key turnovers. Our kicking game looked good, which was also key for us today.
"I just want to say congratulations to the coaches. They really got the job done. They worked hard to get the players ready for this game and it showed here today. Our players definitely came to play. That was definitely Auburn football that I saw out there today."
Nick Saban could not say the same about his team, especially after watching his Tigers win six straight games and their first three SEC contests.
"There is no excuse," said Saban. "It is as much the coaching staff's fault as it is mine. We didn't execute the game plan that we had in mind. I don't think we played like the LSU Tigers today. We missed a lot of tackles on defense, but you have to give Auburn credit."
Perhaps what Saban witnessed last Saturday was the fortunes of football, which had smiled upon his team in recent weeks, take an inevitable turn. LSU still managed to play dominant football after losing All-SEC running back LaBrandon Toefield and starting quarterback Matt Mauck, but maybe it was only a matter of time before those injuries caught up with the Tigers.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Marcus Randall would struggle. In his first road start for LSU, the sophomore forced the issue on the four passes that ended up in the hands of Auburn defenders.
Perhaps the one-sided loss to Auburn was the end result of a week full of distractions for the Tigers. Free safety Damien James missed a week of practice and, according to accounts from Saban and teammates, had no explanation for his absence.
But by game time, LSU issued a release stating James would be "suspended indefinitely" for his actions. Saban said after the game that he had talked to James, as did James' roommate strong safety Norman LeJeune. Team captain Bradie James begrudgingly admitted the LSU defense was not the same without Damien James calling the signals from the secondary, but Saban said he didn't see any apparent mistakes from replacement Randall Gay.
Any of these factors could have contributed significantly to LSU's first league loss. But what must also be taken into consideration is that a perfect record in the SEC is almost an inconceivable notion. The few teams recording that distinction are the special ones that usually end up in the national championship picture.
Despite all the grandiose fan and media projections made a week ago when LSU landed in the first Bowl Championship Series rankings of 2002, the truth remains that the Tigers are still a team in a transitional mode. They possess the potential to repeat as SEC Champions, but potential – as the saying goes – is just another way of saying you have yet to prove yourself.
It could have just as easily been Matt Mauck, also a relatively inexperienced quarterback, who had thrown four interceptions. And the way Auburn's defense played, it would have been just as hard for a healthy LaBrandon Toefield to make his mark running the ball.
Before the predictable question could be asked, Saban said he didn't like the timing of LSU's open week coming after such a big loss. But the week off will only be a detriment to the Tigers' long-term prognosis for 2002 if they allow it to affect them mentally.
Injured players will have a chance to heal over the next two weeks, and the coaching staff will get to address the shortcomings that reared their ugly heads against Auburn. Experience is the best teacher at this point for Randall and the other young players LSU must rely upon this season. But the best prescription for the Tigers might just be to sit back and get back in the right frame of mind to learn.
Can you recall ever looking forward to your next test after failing one? You usually want to make sure you're as prepared as possible for your next opportunity, and the two weeks LSU has to get ready for its road date at Kentucky should be adequate.
While the Auburn game definitely brings LSU down to earth, it by no means should signal the start of a decline for Saban's squad. What we've said throughout this campaign about the Tigers still stands – they have the talent to beat anybody remaining on their schedule. But execution, effort and plain old luck still play a part in determining the outcome of games.
Just because the Fiesta that a few were contemplating a week ago for LSU was spoiled, there is no reason yet to say the party is over for these Tigers.