LSU seeks respect in SEC title game
Friday, December 7, 2001
ATLANTA -- LSU is getting a little tired of all this talk about Tennessee playing for the national championship.
After all, the Volunteers still have to win another game to get there: Saturday night's Southeastern Conference title game against the underdog Tigers.
"Getting respect for LSU is hard," linebacker Bradie James said. "It always seems like we're not expected to win or we're viewed as out of it."
No. 2 Tennessee (10-1) opened as a touchdown favorite over the 21st-ranked Tigers (8-3), needing a victory to lock up a spot in the Rose Bowl vs. No. 1 Miami.
LSU has reason to celebrate just making it this far. Auburn appeared to have the title wrapped up a month ago after beating Georgia, a result which left Auburn just one victory away from clinching the West Division.
It never happened. Auburn was routed at home by Alabama, then completed its late-season collapse with a 27-14 loss at LSU last week.
"Someone is always saying we don't have a shot," James said. "That's just the tale of our season this year, people saying we don't have a chance."
Actually, they've been saying that about Tennessee, too. The Vols went to The Swamp last week as an 18-point underdog to Florida, only to pull off a shocking 34-32 victory that decided the SEC East.
Instead of the Gators, it's Tennessee that stands on the cusp of playing for a national title.
"It's in our hands now," quarterback Casey Clausen said. "We've worked way too hard and spent way too much time trying to get to this point. If we go out and take care of our business and play well, we should do OK."
These teams are very familiar with each other.
On Sept. 30, Tennessee held on to beat the Tigers 26-18 in Knoxville. Clausen threw for 309 yards and Kelly Washington caught 11 passes for a school-record 256 yards.
"It's hard to beat a team twice in a season," James said. "We know that and they know that. Plus, they know that playing us is never easy. It's going to be a fight out there."
Last season, LSU defeated the Vols 38-31 in overtime at Baton Rouge. Overall, however, Tennessee has dominated the series, winning 19 of 26 meetings.
Experience also is on the side of the Vols, who are playing in the SEC championship game for the third time in five seasons.
The Tigers are here for the first time in the game's 10-year history, and it's been even longer since they were invited to a major bowl. That drought extends to the 1987 Sugar Bowl.
LSU would return to the Sugar with an upset of the Vols, probably to face Illinois. The Cotton Bowl is the likely consolation prize.
"We want to go out and prove we could have won that first game," running back LaBrandon Toefield said. "I think they got away with one."