As many championship coaches have learned the hard way, LSU coach Nick Saban is seeing that the only thing harder than climbing to the top of the mountain is staying there.
It's tough enough wearing the weight of heavy expectations, but champions must also learn to deal with the temptations of complacency. Saban knows it will be easy for this year's LSU team to sit around and stare at its national and SEC championship rings instead of moving forward, so he's put a lot of time and energy into doing what he can to re-focus the Tigers on the current challenge of preparing for the 2004 season.
"I did discuss at great length with them how to try to handle success," Saban said.
"It's not really the human condition to win a championship. The human condition is really to survive and do OK and feel good about the fact that you can be relieved that you're OK. There's a security in that."
LSU won a share of last year's national championship with a talented roster, but the Tigers also won because of their chemistry, leadership and their ability to focus one game at a time as the season progressed and they climbed through the polls.
The Tigers lost a lot of those valuable leaders, but this year's leaders appear to be buying into Saban's warnings.
"The national championship is good, but it's temporary," said center Ben Wilkerson, who passed up a shot at the NFL draft to return for his senior year. "It's time to start another season. We're starting out back at ground zero and now we're trying to work our way back up the mountain again.
"It took a lot of preparation and hard work to get where we got last year," Wilkerson said. "That's what it's going to take this year."
For that to happen, the Tigers must start by replacing 11 starters, including quarterback Matt Mauck, receivers Michael Clayton and Devery Henderson and three of six starters up front. The return of sophomore Justin Vincent after a 1,001-yard true freshman season is a good place to start, but Mauck's steady productivity will be difficult to replace.
Fifth-year senior Marcus Randall has the physical ability to do the job and actually started six games in 2002, but redshirt freshmen JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn will push him for the starting job.
"I don't think the gap in physical ability is wide at all," Saban said. "But for right now the stability and confidence that that position provides for the rest of the players on offense is what is creating the difference in who we play."
The strength of the team remains a defense that returns seven starters, led by end Marcus Spears, linebacker Lionel Turner and defensive backs Corey Webster, Travis Daniels and LaRon Landry. The Tigers also return one of the nation's top punt returners in Skyler Green.
More important, the Tigers know what they're capable of if they'll just buy into Saban's warnings. That will be especially important when the Tigers play at Auburn, Georgia and Florida over a four-week period from Sept. 18 to Oct. 9.
"They believe now," Georgia coach Mark Richt said about the Tigers, "so they're a real dangerous bunch of guys right now."
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