EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the eighth story in a series on the 15 most memorable SEC football games beat writer David Paschall has covered since joining the newspaper in 1990. The games are being presented in chronological order.
The early 2000s in Southeastern Conference football provided the challenge of replacing Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators as the league's dominant program.
Spurrier led Florida to six SEC titles in his 12 years in Gainesville before announcing after the 2001 season his ambition to coach the NFL's Washington Redskins. Tennessee appeared to be poised under Phillip Fulmer to ascend to the top of the conference, especially after upsetting Florida in the Swamp in 2001, but the Volunteers were upset in that season's SEC championship game by an 8-3 LSU team under second-year coach Nick Saban.
Georgia staked its claim in 2002 under second-year coach Mark Richt, winning its first league championship since 1982, while Auburn was developing into an annual threat under Tommy Tuberville.
The 2003 season showcased an early cross-divisional showdown between No. 7 Georgia and No. 11 LSU in Baton Rouge that quickly produced a throwback feel with two dominating defenses containing the likes of Thomas Davis, David Pollack and Odell Thurman wearing red and black, and with Chad Lavalais, Marcus Spears and Corey Webster wearing purple and gold.
LSU prevailed 17-10 amid one of the most deafening atmospheres, especially for a day game, ever produced inside Tiger Stadium.
"Well, you can't really say enough about both teams and the way they competed out there," Saban said afterward. "It was about as physical a football game as I've seen in a long time, and I'm proud of the way our players competed."
The Tigers appeared to be on their way to a 10-3 triumph with five minutes remaining when Bulldogs quarterback David Greene, hobbled by the incessant beating he took from LSU's defense, dropped back into his end zone and dumped a short pass to Tyson Browning. The reserve tailback found open space and raced to a 93-yard tying touchdown with 4:25 left.
LSU's silenced crowd became energized again when Devery Henderson returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield, and the Tigers capitalized six plays later with a 34-yard scoring strike from Matt Mauck to Skyler Green at the 3:03 mark.
The Bulldogs kept things interesting by moving into LSU territory, but a Webster interception of Greene at the 32-yard line with less than a minute to play sealed the outcome. Georgia's only lead of the game occurred on a 33-yard Billy Bennett field goal midway through the first quarter, but the normally reliable Bennett would miss three other attempts, including a 36-yard try that hit the left upright just before halftime.
Greene also lost a first-quarter fumble at LSU's 8-yard line.
LSU moved up to No. 7 in the rankings, its highest regular-season mark under Saban at that time, and the upward trajectory would only continue.
The two teams would meet again that December in the SEC championship game but could not recapture the intensity, with No. 3 LSU shredding the No. 5 Bulldogs 34-13. The Tigers then defeated Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to claim the 2003 BCS title, the program's second national title and its first since 1958.
Auburn would top both LSU and Georgia in 2004, when Tuberville's Tigers went 13-0 and won the league. The SEC's 2005 season was marked by the arrival of Urban Meyer at Florida and the absence of Saban, who had taken the reins of the Miami Dolphins but would return to the league in 2007 at Alabama.
Meyer and Saban would shape the latter half of the 2000s, combining for three national championships, but LSU remained quite relevant by routing Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl after the 2006 season and by dumping Ohio State in the BCS title game of the 2007 season.
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