ATLANTA, Ga.-- Ladies and gentlemen, hats off to Nick Saban and the LSU Tigers. The Bayou Bengals did what neither you nor I thought they could do here Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.
Down 17-7, with their starting quarterback and running back knocked out of the game, doggone if they didn't bounce back and deflate the favored Tennessee Volunteers, 31-20, to win an SEC Championship. In the process, the Tigers also delivered a cruel, fatal blow to Tennessee's Rose Bowl hopes, and threw the BCS into utter disarray. The streets around the Dome erupted in a purple-and-gold postgame celebration to rival Mardi Gras.
Fresh off a rare victory in the Swamp a week earlier, hordes of Tennessee fans had besieged Atlanta, cocksure that LSU was merely a bump in the road on the way to Pasadena. When the Vols took a 17-7 lead in the first half and knocked out Rohan Davey and LaBrandon Toefield with injuries, it didn't appear anyone or anything could get in the way of the Big Orange juggernaut.
But the Orange never counted on LSU's bench warmers Matt Mauck and Domanick Davis. In as gutty a relief performance as I've ever seen in a game of this magnitude, freshman signal-caller Mauck guided LSU with his running and passing to 21 second-half points; and Davis, subbing for Toefield, got it done on the ground, picking up 78 yards on 16 carries against Tennessee's tenacious defense.
Mauck threw the go-ahead touchdown to Josh Reed, a 13-yarder, and followed it immediately with a 2-point coversion that put LSU up 24-20. Later it was Davis carrying for a 1-yard touchdown for the Tiger's final score with 2-1/2 minutes left.
Earlier this season, when Georgia stunned Tennessee in Knoxville, announcer Larry Munson said Georgia had just "stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose." If that game was a hobnailed boot... this game was a spear right through the heart. Fans in orange stumbled through the streets of Atlanta, absolutely dazed by their team's second-half collapse. How could this have happened? All week the Tennessee players and Knoxville media had assured the Orange Nation there would be no letdown after the landmark win in Gainesville.
Philip Fulmer had few answers. "We just didn't play very well," he told reporters afterwards. "We came here as a team, and we lost as a team."
Two fourth-quarter turnovers were key-- a fumble by Travis Stephens in Tennessee territory, and a fumble after a long reception by Donte' Stallworth. LSU was able to convert both into touchdowns, and consume plenty of clock in doing so. Tennessee got the ball back trailing 31-20 with 2:26 left, but turned the ball over on downs when Casey Clausen failed to convert on 4th-and-20; and the Cajun revelry commenced.
(So which team, Tennessee or LSU, had the most unruly, drunken, obnoxious fans? I'd call it a standoff, but let's just say both teams were well represented.)
So... what happens next? LSU (9-3) wins the 2001 SEC title (its first since 1988), and as such becomes the SEC representative in the Bowl Championship Series. As I understand it, LSU will play in the Sugar Bowl. Nick Saban now has to be the toast of Baton Rouge, winning the SEC in only his second year as coach of the Tigers.
Tennessee (10-2), on the other hand, with its second-half choke, forces thousands of Vol fans to cancel their plane and hotel reservations for the west coast. The SEC Championship, the No. 2 ranking, and the chance to play No.1 Miami for a national title all just went down the toilet. The Vols' probable postseason destination is the Citrus Bowl in Orlando-- a huge comedown for a team that had gotten so close to playing for a possible second national championship in four years.
And the BCS organizers go to bed tonight with "Hold that Tiger!" rolling around in their brains, not to mention a monumental headache. On Sunday their omniscient computers will determine that Miami is No. 1, and either Colorado or Nebraska is ranked No. 2... meaning No. 3 is shut out of contention for the national title.
Nebraska fans will say, "But Colorado had two losses, and we only had one!! How can a team with two losses deserve to play for the championship?" Colorado fans will say, "But we crushed Nebraska late in the season, 62-36!! We proved we're better... on the field!!" (Oregon fans will say, "How about us? We only had one loss!" To no avail.)
All three teams have a point. Suddenly, thanks to LSU's stunning second-half comeback, the BCS has a colossal mess on its hands.