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10 wins that defined Nick Saban’s tenure at LSU

Just before the turn of the century, LSU hired a coach that would change the program, along with the SEC, forever.

That coach was Nick Saban. Under Saban, LSU returned to national prominence. The LSU job catapulted Saban to the NFL, where things didn’t work out, which led him back to the college ranks at Alabama.

By now, you know the story. Saban won six national titles at Alabama to go along with his one at LSU. With the news of his retirement breaking earlier this week, it’s a good time to reflect back on his tenure at LSU.

The relationship between Saban and LSU is complicated by Saban’s success at Alabama — success that came at the Tigers’ expense. But perhaps with Saban out, some of that hostility can dissipate.

As we reflect on the massive legacy Saban leaves behind in the sport, here were 10 wins that defined his time in Baton Rouge.

2000: LSU upsets No. 11 Tennessee

Nick Saban got off to a 2-2 start at LSU. The Tigers won their first two against Western Carolina and Houston before dropping two straight heading into Week 5.

That second loss was a bad one, coming at home to UAB. Now, LSU was tasked with hosting No. 11 Tennessee.

The first half went LSU’s way with the offense catching fire and scoring three touchdowns in the second quarter, taking a 24-3 lead into the half.

Tennessee cut into the lead with a 9-0 run to open the third, but LSU responded with Rohan Davey finding Josh Reed for a 53-yard touchdown. But Tennessee had a response of its own, scoring two touchdowns and converting a couple of two-point conversions to force overtime.

In overtime, Davey hit Robert Royal for a 25-yard touchdown and the LSU defense held, winning 38-31.

This was Saban’s first big win at LSU. It was his first SEC win and his first ranked win. The program needed it after the UAB loss.

2000: Peach Bowl vs Georgia Tech

After a 7-4 regular season, LSU earned a Peach Bowl date with No. 15 Georgia Tech. The Tigers dropped the final regular season contest against Arkansas and Saban was looking to end year one on a good note.

The first half was rough and the Yellow Jackets took a 14-3 lead into the locker room.

But LSU started to figure it out in the third quarter, scoring a touchdown to open the second half. The defense buckled down and the offense kept rolling and LSU won 28-14.

Reed had a solid day with 96 yards while linebacker Bradie James won defensive player of the game.

Saban finished year one with positive momentum and it was evident the program was finally climbing.

2001: SEC West on the line vs. Auburn

On Dec. 1, 2001, LSU and Auburn met as ranked teams with the SEC West on the line.

LSU was riding high, winning five of six after a 2-2 start. Meanwhile, Auburn had dropped two of its last three, letting LSU climb back into the SEC West race.

The two traded touchdowns in the first quarter, but the rest of the game belonged to LSU. The Tigers went on a 20-0 run that extended into the fourth quarter.

Auburn scored once more, but LSU won 27-14 and clinched the division.

It was Reed’s day, catching 10 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown. On the ground, LaBrandon Toefield ran it 29 times for 120 yards and a touchdown.

2001: SEC Championship

The Tennessean
The Tennessean

The next week, LSU found itself facing No. 2 Tennessee in the SEC title.

LSU was trailing by one late in the third, but a Vols’ fumble was recovered by LSU’s Damien James.

Freshmen QB Matt Mauck entered the game in relief for an injured Rohan Davey and led LSU on a go-ahead touchdown drive. Leading 24-20, LSU scored again to make it a 31-20 final score.

This was the first of many SEC titles for Saban and continued to help lay the foundation for LSU’s eventual national title in 2003.

2002: Blowout of No. 16 Florida

LSU was ranked No. 18 and 4-1, set to host No. 16 Florida.

Despite the 4-1 record, LSU was yet to notch a significant win in 2002. The lone ranked team LSU had faced was Virginia Tech, and that was LSU’s only loss.

A road game against a ranked Florida team isn’t supposed to be easy, but LSU rolled, winning 36-7.

Corey Webster got it started with a pick-six, putting LSU up 10-0. Later on, Mauck would throw two touchdowns, both to Devery Henderson. Blain Bech added another score on the ground.

This win wasn’t huge, but it represents the dominance Saban would go on to be known for. It was also an important step in LSU earning a Cotton Bowl invite later this year.

2003: A classic against Georgia

This isn’t just one of the most important games of Saban’s tenure, but its one of the best games in LSU history.

LSU was undefeated and facing No. 7 Georgia. It was a low-scoring affair with LSU leading 10-3 at the start of the fourth. But with just under five minutes to go, a 93-yard Bulldog touchdown made it 10-10.

But with about 1:30 remaining, LSU QB Matt Mauck rolled left on third and four. He fired it to the endzone, taking a hit in the process, but finding Skyler Green. LSU took the lead, 17-10. Tiger Stadium was loud.

The importance of this win speaks for itself with it being one of the most memorable moments from LSU’s 2003 title run.

2003: Close win in Oxford

By late November, LSU was 9-1 and had established itself as a national title contender. But LSU had a tough road test ahead, facing Eli Manning’s Ole Miss squad in Oxford.

Ole Miss struck first with a pick-six early in the first. But LSU responded by taking the lead back before the half with a Michael Clayton touchdown.

Neither side scored in the third, but LSU padded its lead when Mauck connected with Henderson for a 53-yard touchdown.

Ole Miss would respond, but the defense held the rest of the way and LSU won 17-14.

LSU had been blowing out nearly everyone leading up to the Ole Miss game, but it got a close one in Oxford. The Tigers notched a resume-building win over an Ole Miss that had won six straight.

2003: SEC title

The 2003 SEC Championship provided fans with a rematch of the thrillers from September. But this one wasn’t that close.

Justin Vincent put LSU on the board with an 87-yard touchdown before the defense added a safety on the ensuing drive.

LSU went up 17-0 with 9:37 left to go in the second quarter. Georgia took back some momentum with a couple of field goals, but a Lionel Turner pick-six took it right back for LSU.

LSU outscored UGA 10-0 in the final quarter to win 34-13.

The day belonged to Vincent, who considering the stage, had one of the best performances in LSU history. He ran it 18 times for 201 yards and two scores.

It was a pivotal win against a top-five-ranked team to put LSU in the national title.

2003: National title

This is the big one. The national championship.

LSU was facing Oklahoma and scored first thanks to Skyler Green. Justin Vincent added another score late in the second, putting LSU up 14-7.

The LSU defense took it from there. Marcus Spears put LSU up two scores with a pick-six early in the third and the Tiger defense held OU to just a touchdown the rest of the way.

LSU won 21-14. It was LSU’s first national title since 1958. LSU has won two more national titles since and the only program to have more this century is Alabama under Nick Saban, the coach that brought this one to LSU.

2004: Oregon State

LSU began its title defense against Oregon State at home.

The first half wasn’t pretty with Oregon State pitching a shutout. But JaMarcus Russell found Skyler Green with 5:41 left in the third to put LSU on the board.

It was a tight contest through the fourth and with just over a minute to go, Dwayne Bowe scored and Russell added a two-point conversion to tie it at 15, sending it to overtime.

In the first overtime, LSU went up 22-15 after a Marcus Randall touchdown run. Oregon State responded with a touchdown of its own but missed the extra point. Saban and LSU escaped with a close win.

2004: Last second win vs Florida

Preston Mack-USA TODAY Sports
Preston Mack-USA TODAY Sports

SEC play got off to a rough start for LSU in 2004 with the Tigers having to play road games against ranked Auburn and Georgia teams.

In week six, LSU had another tough test. On the road again, this time in Gainesville against No. 12 Florida.

Florida went up 14-0 and led 21-7 with 1:39 to go in the second. But an Early Doucet touchdown just before the half put LSU back in the game. The Tigers chipped away at the lead in the third with a Chris Jackson field goal, making it 21-17 Florida.

With the game winding down in the fourth, LSU had the ball at Florida’s 10 yard-line. Marcus Randall took the snap and found Joseph Addai in the flat. Addai fought his way through a Florida defender and scored.

Florida had time for one more series, but it didn’t go anywhere. LSU won 24-21.

Story originally appeared on LSU Tigers Wire