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College football

LSU finds how easy it is to fall from top

Tigers were warned of pitfalls, while 2003 co-champion USC has met the challenge so far.

Published October 7, 2004

Nick Saban spent the offseason trying to prepare his LSU football team for what lay ahead.

After winning a co-national championship with Southern California, Saban wanted the players to forget about last season. His message was essentially this: Focus on the future, remember what got you to the top, then do whatever it takes to stay there.

He thought he had done a good job of getting their minds straight. Now he's learning what many defending national champions found out before him: It's tough to repeat.

Since 1978, only two schools have won back-to-back national titles - Alabama in 1978-79 and Nebraska in 1994-95.

Six weeks into the season, USC remains on track to become the third, LSU is nowhere near. The Trojans have managed to avoid the pitfalls that befell so many champions while the Tigers are sinking quickly into the trap.

USC is undefeated and ranked No. 1 heading into this weekend's showdown with its rival, No. 7 California. LSU is 3-2, 1-2 in the SEC, and has fallen from No. 4 to No. 24 in the nation. The Tigers play at No. 12 Florida Saturday night, coming off a 45-16 loss to Georgia last week.

Saban said LSU's woes may be more of a surprise to him than others who have been in this situation.

"I didn't really anticipate it, but I think everybody else did," he said. "I tried to set the groundwork for this team that we were climbing a new mountain, we had new challenges and therefore what we accomplished last year really had nothing to do with this year. It's a very difficult mindset to try to create with people because it's really kind of human nature to be a little bit satisfied with what you've accomplished. We've got a lot of young players, we lost a lot of older players and we really haven't shown the maturity and poise to be able to go execute in tough situations and that's affected us."

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer can relate. The Vols defeated FSU 23-16 to win the 1998 national championship with a 13-0 record, but the next season went 9-3 and lost to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.

"It's tough, just the mindset sometimes," Fulmer said. "Then obviously graduation losses, that makes it tough. The mindset, everybody telling you how great you are and you start believing that and the next thing you know you're having a hard time getting back to where you want to get to. It's just human nature. It's difficult sometimes. Actually, it's difficult most of the time."

In fairness, this isn't the same LSU team that shared the title last season. The Tigers lost 11 starters including their quarterback, two best wide receivers and top two offensive linemen. They are playing with two quarterbacks - freshman JaMarcus Russell and senior Marcus Randall, who had six starts before this season.

"Our team is definitely going through a transition from a team a year ago that had a lot of older players with a lot of good leadership to a team that is a lot younger," Saban said. ". . . I knew this would be a challenging thing for our team to be able to develop young players with a tough early schedule and only eight or nine seniors and four or five of them that play."

Saturday's game will be LSU's third on the road against a ranked opponent. Which teams happen to be on your schedule also factors in to whether a team can repeat, Miami coach Larry Coker said.

"The key to repeating is to first of all realize how hard it is to repeat," he said. "I did spend a little time with Mike Shanahan, just talking to him about repeating as Super Bowl champions. It was a little bit like our situation; scheduling has a lot to do with it (in the NFL, the top team plays the toughest schedule). Who you play the next year has a lot to do with it."

In 2001, Miami played five ranked teams en route to winning the national title: No. 14 FSU, No. 14 Syracuse, No. 12 Washington, No. 14 Virginia Tech and No. 4 Nebraska.

"(In 2002) we played Florida, Florida State and Tennessee and ended up losing to Ohio State, which cost us, so obviously we played an awfully tough schedule along the way," Coker said. "The big thing, again, is you've got to stay focused, you've got to stay hungry. Once you've won a ring, you've got that one, you've got it, you've got to really stay focused and hungry if you want to repeat and get that second one."

So far, USC has been able to do that. The Trojans returned 14 starters, including Heisman candidate Matt Leinart. Despite trailing in several games, they have found ways to win. And they have embraced the challenge of being No. 1.

"I think it helps more than hurts, although people might think the other way around," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "We are accustomed to having that every week this season. This is the next one that is a huge game for us. We should be used to this kind of attention. ... Every game down the road is going to grow with intensity and focus if you are able to keep winning. We need to feel comfortable and make that be a normal place for us to be. I am hoping that this is a natural opportunity for us to do something special."

Times staff writer Brian Landman contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 7, 2004, 00:30:24]

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