article Promising LSU hits hurdle right out of gate By Lee Feinswog, special for USA TODAY BATON ROUGE — ESPN analyst Lee Corso proclaimed last week that LSU will play for the national championship. That left third-year Tigers coach Nick Saban incredulous. "I don't want anybody to think I don't like Lee Corso," Saban said with a dry smile. "But I would think there are a lot of teams in this country that you could make a good argument for that would have a better chance to win a national championship than we would." After all, No. 14 LSU plays Sunday at No. 16 Virginia Tech (ABC, 2:30 p.m. ET), truly a marquee matchup but a tough season opener. Virginia Tech is not only 1-0 but showed its offense is in full gear with a 63-7 victory Sunday against Arkansas State. "Yeah, but that's against Arkansas State," LSU junior defensive tackle Chad Lavalais says with a laugh. "Not to knock Arkansas State, but I hope they don't do that against us." Probably not. But exactly how good LSU will be is a mystery. When last seen, the Tigers were completing a magical end to the 2001 season, winning their last six games, including a stunning upset of No. 2 Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference championship game and a victory against Illinois in the Sugar Bowl. But gone from that team are record-setting quarterback Rohan Davey, now trying to make the New England Patriots, and Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Josh Reed, in camp with the Buffalo Bills. In addition, the school spent the offseason investigating academic-fraud allegations that resulted in a report released Aug. 16 in which LSU admitted five secondary NCAA violations involving football players. LSU, which just spent five years on NCAA probation for basketball violations, contends the football violations are minor, such as players having papers typed for them, and that even an expected NCAA investigation won't amount to much. However, two kinesiology instructors have sued LSU, charging mistreatment after alleging that athletes committed plagiarism on papers, papers were written for athletes and tests were taken for them. Chancellor Mark Emmert, whose university is completing a state-of-the-art academic center for athletes that LSU claims will be the best in the country, said when LSU released its report, "We do not believe that these violations rise to the level of major violations." Still, because LSU already was on probation, major NCAA penalties are possible. But while off-field problems might hang over the school like the sword of Damocles, the anticipation of what lies ahead on the gridiron has LSU faithful champing at the bit. Looking forward to some fun A victory at Virginia Tech could go a long way toward making Corso seem like a prophet. "Playing in a place like Virginia Tech is going to be real fun," junior offensive tackle Rodney Reed says, adding he's looking forward to going to Blacksburg and getting a break from the Louisiana heat and humidity. "Playing against a team like Virginia Tech is going to be fun, too, because they're hard-nosed and talented." LSU, opening on the road for the first time since a loss at Texas A&M in 1995, will rely on 23-year-old sophomore quarterback Matt Mauck. The former minor league baseball player filled in when Davey got hurt in the SEC title game. He ran for two touchdowns and was named the game's MVP. But the former catcher in the Chicago Cubs organization completed just 18 of 41 passes last year, including five of 15 in the SEC title game. Although LSU lost Reed, it actually should have one of the nation's best collections of wide receivers, including sophomore Michael Clayton and senior Jerel Myers. Clayton was an all-conference freshman last year with 47 catches, six for TDs, and is on the Biletnikoff Award watch list. Myers has 132 receptions in three seasons. Mauck showed he's more than a capable runner with 50 yards on 12 carries against Tennessee. But his passing? "I'm throwing probably the best I have since I've been here," says the product of Jasper, Ind., who was a three-year starter at quarterback in high school before switching completely to baseball. "I needed time. I was throwing a baseball for four years, and throwing a baseball and a football are totally different. It just takes a while to get your motion back and remembering how you threw in high school." LSU hopes Mauck is ready, because backup Marcus Randall, who is recovering from offseason knee surgery, took just two snaps last year and none of the three other quarterbacks has played in a Division I game. Staying grounded The good news is LSU expects to have a potent running game behind what it figures to be its best offensive line in years. Sophomore center Ben Wilkerson is on the Rimington Trophy watch list, and junior tailback LaBrandon Toefield, apparently fully recovered from reconstructive knee surgery, is on the Doak Walker Award list. Senior Domanick Davis, who filled in for Toefield in the Sugar Bowl by rushing for 122 yards and four TDs, also is regarded as one of the nation's premier return specialists. "This game is good. It's going to let us know where we stand right off the bat," Davis says. "We've got to get out there and prove we can do things against a good team." Defensively, LSU thinks it could be its strongest yet under Saban, a former NFL defensive coordinator. All-conference linebacker Bradie James, back for his senior year, is on the Lombardi, Butkus and Nagurski award lists. Lavalais also is a Lombardi candidate. And junior punter Donnie Jones is on the Ray Guy Award watch list. But none of them has played a game this season. Virginia Tech has. "Between the first and second games, a team can improve a lot," Saban says. "Some of the questions you have about your team get answered after you play a game. And you can respond to those things better after you play a game. We have young players that are good football players, but how are they going to play in their first game? Nobody knows. "Are they going to play physical and aggressive like guys who have knowledge and experience, or are they going to play with some inefficiency because they're afraid to make mistakes? We're going to try to get them to play aggressively." Aggressively enough to prove Corso right? "Let me put it this way: We're not thinking about those kinds of results in terms of what we're doing," Saban says. "We have a lot things from a process standpoint that we have to go through, like a 12-game season, an SEC championship game and all that, and be focused on every game every week to accomplish that."