The third-ranked Tigers closed the regular season 11-1, with an SEC West title and a secured birth in the SEC title game. A rematch, against SEC East champ and preseason conference championship favorite, the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs.
The two squads had squared off in late September. It was one of the greatest fourth quarters in Tiger Stadium history, and the good guys found a way to secure a 17-10 victory.
But Tiger fans spent most of that season hearing about how they didn't really win.
Let it never be said that the phenomenon of the national media doubting the LSU program began with Les Miles. It was alive and well for the new-money Tigers back in '03 too, embodied best by then-ESPN analyst Trev Alberts. See the below video:
It's worth nothing that Alberts was nothing if not consistent. He picked the Tigers to lose to Auburn and even Ole Miss (never mind the eventual Sugar Bowl). Georgia had outgained the Tigers, but missed several field goals with star kicker Billy Bennett. They'd played the September game without future NFL first-round tight end Ben Watson (now, coincidentally, with the Saints) and star wideout Fred Gibson. Plus, as the season closed, freshman running back Kregg Lumpkin had begun to emerge as a strong running threat, something the Dawgs lacked in the first matchup. Georgia had been upset by the same Florida squad that caught LSU (fun Ron Zook fact: he can claim a winning record against Mark Richt for eternity), but they were still considered the favorites.
And I don't mind telling you, the Tigers were pissed. It was in the background all week; a quiet confidence of a team that felt like they had come a long way since gutting out that tough win at home. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was facing Kansas State for the Big 12 championship. A showdown between them and USC for the national championship seemed all but a certainty.
- This one might as well have been a home game for the Dawgs. They were the defending conference champs, the presumptive favorites to go back, and OH! they play the title game and hour and a half from Athens. Why the SEC won't rotate this game is something I'll never understand.
- Storytime: I'm gonna lose points for this, but I actually turned down a chance to make this trip with my dad. Over a girl, who joined me for dinner and the game. I was completely in the friendzone, but as was often the case at this age not nearly as aware of that as I should have been. We remain good friends to this day actually. So your intrepid student reporter enjoyed this one from the comfort of the couch in his Tiger Plaza apartment.
- Both offenses kind of stale-mated through most of the first quarter, but my, my, how things might be different if Lumpkin catches that post-pattern out of the backfield. Like I've said -- the 03 defense's kryptonite.
- A blocked field-goal attempt set Georgia up in LSU territory and David Greene tried to capitalize to Watson, but there's LaRon Landry making one of the signature plays of his freshman year. Georgia thought Watson was their best mismatch after the September game, but I don't think they counted on Landry emerging at one of the safety spots.
- Defense comes through again, as Marquise Hill sacks Greene on third-and-five just on the LSU side of midfield. LSU's offense was coming off a three-and-out, and needed a big play.
- And the legend of Justin Vincent officially comes into focus, with an 87-yard touchdown on a toss-sweep. Once he got by Greg Blue, nobody else had the angle. It's a testament to the speed that Thomas Davis had that he was even able to get close to catching up.
- Chris Jackson, however, would shank the extra point. The 03 squad's other major weakness -- two very shaky kickers. Luckily it was always other teams that had to make the pressure kicks, not LSU.
- Luckily, the Dawgs obliged LSU those extra points when punter Gordon Ely-Kelso (again, was it me or was he still punting for Georgia in 2011?) dropped a snap and was tackled for a safety.
- With Georgia reeling LSU came back quick with a 7-play, 71-yard drive, though Joseph Addai really came through with a 16-yard run that picked up exactly the needed yardage on third-and-16. Sometimes a well-timed draw play is perfect.
- Play-action, and Mauck finds Michael Clayton for six. And AGAIN an extra point is no good, though this time Georgia blocked it.
- Fun fact about the LSU defense in this game: 10 players combined for 8 tackles for loss, including six sacks.
- Another fun memory from this game: Corey Webster absolutely abused Gibson at the line of scrimmage, to the point that he started dogging routes and got benched.
- Bennett would get off the schnide with a 51-yard field goal in the second quarter, but that was all Georgia could muster by halftime.
- Their defense would stiffen through most of the third quarter, keeping Mauck on the run (he was sacked four times that night). Odell Thurman in particular had a huge night with 11 tackles and three tackles-for-loss.
- Ow. Why so angry, Eric Alexander?
- Georgia had just hit a nice slant pass to Gibson trying to get out from the shadow of their own goalpost, and tried to go to that well again. But Lionel Turner was ready, and suddenly 24-6 looked near insurmountable. Except this Georgia squad would not go out quietly, and immediately drove for a matching touchdown, with Reggie Brown gaining 35 yards on a crazy, broken-field reverse that sadly is not on camera here. It was a jolt to LSU to remind them that this one was definitely not over.
- Beautiful throw from Mauck to Henderson to set up Vincent's second touchdown. Mauck tended to struggle in LSU's best games, but he came through with a very efficient 14-22 day, for 151 yards and 1 touchdown.
- Most people remember Vincent's second long run as the back-breaker, but it really happened when the Tigers snuffed out an attempted halfback-quarterback throwback pass was very well snuffed out. Solid gadget call by Richt, but LSU was ready. The funny thing is that linebacker Adrian Mayes, who stayed with Greene as he went out for the pass, was a player more typically known for being too undisciplined to hold down a regular starting position.
- And bam. The Dawgs over-pursue, Vincent squirts through the crowd and goes 62 yards. 201 yards on 18 carries with two touchdowns in an MVP performance. LSU would only attempt one more pass the rest of the game, content to grind out the win.
- Meanwhile, a funny thing was happening a couple thousand miles away in Kansas City, Mo. The Darren Sproles-led Kansas State Wildcats stomped a 35-7 mud hole in the theretofore unbeatable, top-ranked Oklahoma Sooners. "Big Game" Bob Stoops' team had absolutely laid waste to almost every team they faced that season, dropping 40- and 50-point beat downs like clockwork. Quarterback Jason White had more than 40 touchdown passes on the season and won the Heisman Trophy. But no conference championship, and now, who knew how the BCS would work out for the Sugar Bowl. Sure, LSU had as good of a case to be in as anybody -- hell, neither Oklahoma nor No. 2 Southern Cal had faced a squad as good as the Georgia team LSU beat twice. But Oklahoma's lead in the BCS standings was so vast, just about everybody figured they'd stay at No. 2, with SC moving to No. 1 and LSU on the outside of the national championship looking in.
In a way, some were almost okay with that, because the thought of a national championship still seemed like such a thing LSU just wasn't ready for yet. But as Sunday came, we'd get some good news...