BATON ROUGE, La. -- The Southern half of last year's national championship hasn't noticed the slight. Really, LSU hasn't had time to dwell on the fact that it is just about nobody's preseason No. 1.
"If anything, I see our people being more burned out, ready to go on vacation," Tigers coach Nick Saban said, "more than they usually are."
|Matt Mauck is gone, but LSU still has an experienced QB in Marcus Randall.(Getty Images)|
Players constantly have that little bug in their ear, whispering that they must work that much harder. Days are taken up with summer school and workouts. Nights? They ought to charge admission to the seven-on-seven drills: returning national champs mixing with what some have called the top recruiting class in the country.
"We don't get too much time off," cornerback Corey Webster said. "Football is year round. That's the only way you can compete with the best."
But even though the Tigers have won two of the past three SEC titles, they are not used to defending instead of pursuing.
"Why do the mighty fall? It's always complacency," Saban said. "We've got to guard against that. I don't see a lot of that here."
If LSU wants to start the motivational blocking sled, there is that dis factor before fall drills start. We're talking mostly about the preseason magazines that hit the shelves this time of year. In the dead calm of the offseason, it's a subject that does raise some eyebrows. LSU is not No. 1 in any of them.
To recap: The Tigers finished 13-1, won the SEC, beat Georgia twice and shut down Oklahoma and the Heisman Trophy winner in the Sugar Bowl. That the school's first national championship in 35 years was shared hardly matters now. The magic season was an accomplishment for the ages here.
But it is kind of weird that LSU can't get any No. 1 love from the major mags. SportsLine.com combined the rankings of five preseason publications and our own post-spring ranking, and LSU finished fourth behind USC, Oklahoma and Georgia.
The preseason Associated Press and coaches polls won't come out until August, but don't expect them to be much different.
"You'd think that after winning the national championship and proving that you can play amongst these guys (there would be more respect)," said Webster, expected to be a preseason All-American. "It's not where you start out at, it's where you end up."
The Tigers aren't bitter, just determined. Nebraska repeated as national champion as recently as 1995, but it isn't a regular occurrence. The six years of the Bowl Championship Series has produced variety, if not closure. There have seven champions in those six years. In its own conference this year, LSU is projected as being a heartbeat behind Georgia.
That means it could be a two-horse race for the SEC and the national championship. LSU's visit to Georgia on Oct. 2 could be the 2004 game of the year.
"We're kind of still coming into that national prominence," said linebacker Marcus Spears. "We've got one championship under our belt, but it's still important for us to be good. There may be some teams where people think there's one good year, and that's it."
Not LSU. Saban won't let his players get fat and sassy.
|Combined preseason rankings of: Street and Smith (USC, No. 1); Lindy's (USC); The Sporting News (Georgia); Phil Steele (Oklahoma); Athlon (USC) and SportsLine.com post-spring (Georgia).|
|5. Florida State|
|9. Ohio State|
|11. West Virginia|
|13. Kansas State|
|18. (tie) Utah|
"The No. 1 thing I've tried to emphasize with them is not to worry about defending," Saban said. "No. 2, you don't compete against yourself. The only guys that have a sophomore jinx are the guys that have a great freshman year instead of remembering how you had a great rookie year. It's probably because you busted your ass just to make the team."
Saban showed his commitment by signing a new contract that will pay him an average of $2.6 million per season. That puts the annual angst about his leaving for the NFL a little further in the background.
"You don't know what the limits of the program are if he stays for those amount of years," Webster said. "We could have tradition like the Florida States, the Michigans."
Seven starters return from the No. 1 defense in the country. If the receiving corps comes together, the offense could be more potent than last year's group that averaged 418 yards per game.
There is reason to believe, however, the Tigers could be better. Senior quarterback Marcus Randall already has started six games, including the Bluegrass Miracle at Kentucky two years ago. Randall will have to hold off 6-foot-5, 236-pound redshirt freshman JaMarcus Russell, whose physical tools fans are drooling over.
To shore up the defensive line, Saban recruited one of the top junior college prospects in the nation, tackle Claude Wroten. Wroten, 6-3 and 315 pounds, was able to work out with the Tigers during Sugar Bowl practices.
Junior tackle Kyle Williams had four sacks last year as probably the least known of the linemen. Backup Melvin Oliver got four sacks himself. But the gem is Spears. You probably remember him best for intercepting a Jason White pass and running it back for the eventual winning touchdown in the Sugar Bowl.
The Tigers are a bit thin at receiver after the loss of Michael Clayton and Devery Henderson. But Webster has been working out at receiver, and the future was glimpsed at a recent workout.
Veteran Skyler Green lined up to race incoming receiver recruits Xavier Carter and Early Doucet in an informal 100 meters. Carter, the fastest at 4.35 in the 40, slipped at 30 meters, pulled away at 60 and left the other two in his dust.
It's pretty much a certainty that talent like that won't get redshirted.
It's all in place, again, and deep down the Tigers know it. It's just that, for them, the celebration is over. The preparation already has begun.
"A lot of teams get the (No. 1) ranking based on tradition and what they've done in the past," Webster said. "A team like us, we haven't been up there a whole lot. A lot of people think we'll be up and down. We'll have to keep showing them."