FOOTBALL

The night everything changed

Kyle Riviere
kriviere@weeklycitizen.com
Weekly Citizen Sports Editor Kyle Riviere.

This week marks the 15-year anniversary of an LSU football game that many people don't even remember.

After some of the classics that have taken place in Tiger Stadium over the years, this particular game often slips through the cracks of memory.

It's lost in the epic shuffle of the 2003 game against Georgia, or the two 2007 thrillers with Florida and Auburn, or the big upsets over Alabama in 2010 and Ole Miss just last year.

LSU's upset win over Tennessee on Sept. 30, 2000, is often forgotten, but it shouldn't be.

That game may not have been the spark to a national championship season or even a victory that helped the Tigers secure a BCS bowl bid.

However, that game was the most important in the modern era of LSU football.

The success of the program 15 years later can all be traced back to that upset victory.

We've all been spoiled over the past decade. LSU has asserted itself as one of the most dominant college football programs in the country.

It's one of the most popular destinations for blue chip high-school talent. It's a team that is always in the discussion for the national title and they routinely win 10 games a year.

But it wasn't always like that.

Prior to Nick Saban's arrival, the Tigers were stumbling around in mediocrity. If they cracked the top 25 and made a bowl game, fans were satisfied.

Venturing into the top 10 and national championship discussion was almost like delusional grandeur. It just wasn't a realistic expectation.

In 1999, LSU suffered through a dreadful 4-7 campaign that featured an embarrassing 41-7 loss to Auburn in Tiger Stadium.

In the 10 years before Saban arrived, LSU had gone just 54-59-1.

They were a combined 6-22 against Alabama, Auburn and Florida and 9-30 against ranked opponents.

Even in Saban's first year, things didn't get off to a promising start. LSU started the 2000 season just 2-2.

One of the losses was a 17-point defeat to Auburn and another was one of the wort losses in program history, a home upset to UAB.

That ugly 13-10 defeat in Tiger Stadium had the Tigers at rock bottom. There was already grumblings that Saban might not have been the right choice to lead the program.

Then came Tennessee.

LSU welcomed the 11th-ranked Vols as a cloud of desperation loomed over Baton Rouge. After the shocking loss to UAB, they needed the upset in the worst possible way.

Behind Rohan Davey, they got it. In for an injured Josh Booty, Davey gave LSU's offense the spark it needed as he went 23-35 for 318 yards and four scores.

His proficiency helped LSU jump on top of Tennessee 24-6 in front of a raucous Tiger Stadium crowd.

The Vols made a furious comeback. They tied the game up at 31--taking the Tigers into only their second overtime contest in school history.

Davey began the extra period by hitting Robert Royal for a 25-yard score to take the lead.

The LSU defense then stood tall and forced Tennessee to turn the ball over on downs.

The stadium erupted, and the student section invaded the field.

That night marked a new era in LSU football.

It brought back the mystique of Death Valley that had been lost over the past decade. In the 10 years prior to Saban's arrival, LSU had gone a very ordinary 34-27 at home.

After that night, the Tigers went on to upset No. 13 MIssissippi State in Tiger Stadium, and for the first time in 12 years, they beat Alabama in Baton Rouge.

The rest is history.

The next year, they won the SEC, went 10-3 and captured a Sugar Bowl title.

Two years after that, they won another SEC crown and earned LSU's first national championship since 1958.

Ever since that victory over Tennessee, LSU has gone 151-43, won four SEC titles, nine bowl games, two national championships, never suffered a season with less than eight wins and has won at least 10 games seven times.

They have gone 50-29 against ranked opponents and 27-19 against Alabama, Auburn and Florida.

Tiger Stadium is now widely considered the greatest home-field advantage in all of college football.

Ever since that Tennesse win, LSU has gone 92-13 in Death Valley. That's an amazing 88 winning percentage.

The magic and electricity the Tiger Stadium crowd provided that night against the Vols followed the Tigers for the next 15 years.

If LSU had lost that night, who knows what would have happened.

They would have fallen victim to back-to-back defeats at home and would have been carrying around a 2-3 record.

Maybe they fall apart mentally and tank the rest of the season. Maybe more heat is applied to Saban and he leaves before the program ever gets back on its feet.

All I know is that after that night, new life was breathed into the program, and it would never be the same.