When people say there's no playoff in college football, I point them to games like this.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had postponed a full week of college football games, meaning that there would be one last round of games the weekend of Dec. 1 instead of the usual slate of conference title games. I don't know that anybody really fathomed just how that would affect that would have on the national title picture. LSU's game with Auburn and the annual Florida/Tennessee matchup were the big names that were pushed back, and both had developed into de facto divisional playoffs before the SEC Championship Game.
For the Western Division teams, the change was a huge momentum swinger. LSU was coming off of three straight wins, and had seen its offense explode down the stretch, led by Rohan Davey and Josh Reed. The other Tigers, however, came into this game off of completely throttlings by Arkansas and Alabama in two of their last three, and had even lost their stud freshman tailback, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, in the process. Still, both teams sat at 7-3 and 5-3 in conference, with the tiebreaker for a trip to Atlanta at stake.
LSU had lost two in a row to Auburn, and the last game in Tiger Stadium had ended with a 41-7 beatdown and the infamous image of Tommy Tuberville's team lighting post-game victory cigar. The buzz on campus was consistent. The veterans on this team wanted this game, and when the stakes factored in everybody knew that emotions would run high. I'm not even sure any of us realized just how high, as this game saw more than its share of craziness.
- I remember it being a cold, cold day, and my buddies and I knew the student section would fill up quickly. LSU had never been to the conference championship game before, and as much as I was used to watching the Tigers fall short, I can very distinctly recall the general mood on campus that week (and it emanated from every player you saw everywhere) was "we GOT this." Gametime was the usual 7 pm, but with it being winter and all, Tiger Stadium was pitch-black long before kickoff. And the students might have been hungrier than Mike the Tiger.
- Tennessee would pull off a win over Florida that seemed downright miraculous at the time, as the Vols hadn't won in Gainesville since Phillip Fulmer's playing days. Which meant a potential rematch of the Tigers' 26-18 loss to UT from earlier in the year, but I was quite sure that was preferable to another round with Rex Grossman, Jabar Gaffney & Co. I'm probably in the minority but that Florida team scared me even more than the Danny Wuerrffel teams of the mid-90s.
The Game Itself:
- The first time anybody ever tried stomping on the Eye of the Tiger -- and it was the the equivalent of throwing raw meat into the student section on this night. It wasn't smart then, and it ain't smart now. I'm still amazed every time anybody does it. AND it drew a 15-yard penalty that would prove very costly.
- Nick Saban wasn't, and still isn't, the type of coach to break tendencies very often, but there was never a better time to do it than this game. The crowd was just over the edge, and that onside kick pushed them into a full-on frenzy. I don't know that Tuberville had ever been pants-ed like that in a game before. Of course, he'd never coached against Les Miles yet either. The look on his face is priceless.
- Nice recovery by "Mitchell" Clayton.
- And a few plays later, BOOM goes the kick returner. What's funny is I remember this hit seeming at least 75 times harder than it looks in the video. I bet Rod Hood still gets headaches.
- At this point in the game, I was supremely confident, right up until I remembered that Auburn still had Tim Carter and that LSU's pass defense was shaky at best.
- Auburn's attempt was the most obvious onside kick in history, and you'll never convince me Tuberville didn't call it out of anything but pure ego.
- The Auburn defense thought they'd be able to bracket and out-muscle Josh Reed with some tight zone coverage -- Junior Rosegreen said that Reed was "soft" and they'd be able to push him around. 10 catches, 186 yards and a touchdown.
- Want to know what's funnier (/more pathetic) than a kicker that has forgotten that he's a kicker? A kicker that loses a fight to a trombone player. I like to think that there have been times, alone, in whatever Opelika trailer park Damon Duvall finally settled in, that he thinks about his actions on this night, and how big of a jackass he showed himself to be on national television. Maybe he cries a little. I mean, I'm sure he quickly returns to his meth-cooking operation, but at least he cries a little first.
- LSU's running game wasn't exactly dominant in 2001, but once the passing game had a lead they would find ways to wear teams down, and this game's a great example of it with 136 of the 188 yards on the night coming in the second half. The 27-14 final score truly did not do any justice to just how thorough of a beating this game was.