Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

LSU 24, Alabama 21. LSU established itself almost immediately as either the clumsiest good team in America or the luckiest mediocrity, depending on your perspective, a label the Tigers earned mainly by making everything so hard.

They turned the ball over five times and barely held off a late comeback by shorthanded North Carolina on opening night. They limped to a lethargic win over West Virginia despite a nonexistent passing game. They only escaped an upset bid by Tennessee after their own incompetence was trumped by the Vols' in the most jaw-dropping finish of the year. They only beat Florida by virtue of an insane fake field goal. If the Tigers have been the most entertaining team in the country, that's hardly translated into a really good team according to public opinion or the polls.

At some point, though, you run out of explanations. Here, LSU met the odds-on favorite to return to the BCS title game, outgained them by more than 100 yards and turned in four straight scoring drives in the third and fourth quarters for a late, two-score lead. The Tiger defense held a versatile, star-studded offense a full 120 yards and two touchdowns below its season averages. Maligned quarterback Jordan Jefferson, overseer of the SEC's least productive passing attack, hit 10 of 13 with zero turnovers against the league's No. 1 passing defense, including his first touchdown pass in two months, a 75-yarder to Reuben Randle. The final score couldn't be attributed to trickery (a successful fake punt in the third quarter didn't lead to any points), luck, Alabama gaffes or any other brand of Milesian voodoo. It was just one enormously talented outfit making the plays to beat another.

Their soundest effort of the season doesn't open up any brave new worlds for the Tigers where the national championship is concerned – with last month's loss at Auburn, they're not even in the SEC West picture unless Auburn loses to Alabama and Georgia – but it might be worth a BCS at-large berth. Outside of the more tangible goals, though, it confirms their return to significance: After back-to-back disappointments in 2008-09, in a season in which it was widely picked to finish fourth in its own division and could plausibly describe its head coach as "embattled," LSU is finally, undeniably back among the elite in the SEC.

If it wins its last three against Louisiana-Monroe, Ole Miss and Arkansas, this team will finish with the best regular season record in Miles' six-year tenure – better than the '05 team that won the West, better than the '06 team that won the Sugar Bowl, better than the '07 team that won the SEC and BCS championships with two losses – which is a long, long way to come from "the hot seat."

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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