BATON ROUGE — A disaster can bury someone or motivate a resurrection.
Nick Saban, on the job as LSU's head football coach for just four games, and his Tigers rose from under Tiger Stadium in 2000 following an embarrassing, 13-10, home loss to Alabama-Birmingham, a school that had just started football less than a decade prior. The Tigers shocked No. 11 Tennessee one week later, 38-31, in overtime in winning five of their next six games and going on to finish 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the Southeastern Conference.
Ed Orgeron, in week five of his first full season as LSU's head football coach, lost 24-21 to 20-point underdog Troy — a Division I-A/Football Bowl Subdivision school only since 2001 located 144 miles from Birmingham in Troy, Alabama — and suddenly the $10 million buyout of his contract was a hot number. But his Tigers upset No. 20 Florida on the road, shocked No. 11 Auburn in Tiger Stadium after falling behind 20-0 and won a third straight game on Oct. 21 at Ole Miss, 40-24.
The Tigers (6-2, 3-1 SEC) are suddenly just a game behind No. 1 and SEC West-leading Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) going into Saturday's 7 p.m. CBS game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
"I think, psychologically, it's almost just the opposite of what you think," Saban said. "Sometimes when you have a catastrophic event, which losing to some teams would be viewed as that relative to sort of the image that everybody has of a program, it kind of ignites a team a little bit."
When Saban suffered a similar loss in the first season of his Alabama coaching tenure in 2007 to Louisiana-Monroe, 21-14, he compared it to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which historians say woke up and motivated the United States to victory in World War II. Alabama lost again the next week to Auburn, but recovered to beat Colorado in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport and followed that with the SEC West title in 2008.
"It raises the level of everybody's focus in terms of what they need to do and how they need to respond so they can do better," Saban said of the cataclysmic losses to UAB and ULM. "And I certainly feel like that was the case way back when we lost. And I see that happening with LSU's team as well."
In fact, Saban, who tends to keep a closer eye on LSU than other West teams because of the prep talent in Louisiana, took notice of Troy's upset in the opposite way.
"Probably the worst thing to happen for all of us in the SEC is when they (LSU) lost to Troy," Saban said this week. "They've really made a turnaround as a team, which I think speaks volumes of the coaching staff and the job Ed Orgeron has done there to get the players to re-center, refocus and work on improving. They've been very productive since that time, and they're playing very well as a team."
Orgeron and team went from shame to prideful in a few weeks.
"I mean, we were embarrassed," he said. "I was embarrassed as a coach. We let down the Tiger family. But we weren't going to complain or say anything about it. We just went to work and did it. And I think that's just what you saw."
Not only did LSU play poorly, it played softly against Troy.
"I think so, and we didn't execute obviously," Orgeron said. "We didn't play with the passion and energy that we needed to. We were not ready. We didn't come ready to play full measure like we talked about. We didn't come with our hands up going into the fight. We got caught, and we learned a lesson from it."
Even though the Tigers lost 37-7 at Mississippi State two weeks before the Troy game, they were overconfident, 20-point favorites entering the Troy game. LSU was favored again at Ole Miss two weeks ago by a touchdown, but Orgeron felt his team did not play as if a win would just happen.
"We can't just go out there and think we're better than anyone," tight end Foster Moreau said.
"We understand," Orgeron said after the Ole Miss game, which was LSU's best overall performance of the season. "We know who we are now. We've got to play with passion. We've got to play with energy. We've got to work hard to get the things we want. It just doesn't happen."
And now, LSU is about where it should be — about where it was expected to be entering the season with a chance to do something few expect it to do: beat Alabama, which is a 24-point favorite.
"Three victories over very good SEC teams is a very good accomplishment, but it's something that you need to do at LSU," Orgeron said. "It's to be expected. Alabama is obviously our biggest rivalry. We know how good they are, and we know that it's going to be a tough task. But we're going to be up to it."