On January 4, 2004, LSU defeated Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, 21-14, to clinch the Tigers’ second national championship in football and their first since 1958.
This weekend, 20 years later, we gather at Tiger Stadium to not only cheer on the 2023 Tigers in their matchup versus the Florida Gators, but to honor one of the greatest championship teams in LSU history.
Led by head coach Nick Saban, the 2003 Tigers cruised to an 11-1 regular-season record, with the only defeat being a surprise upset loss at home to Florida. The highlights of the ‘03 regular-season victories included a blowout non-conference road win at Arizona, a huge victory over No. 7 Georgia in Tiger Stadium, and lastly, a close win on the road in Oxford, Miss., against No. 15 Ole Miss.
With players like quarterback Matt Mauck, running back Justin Vincent and wide receiver Michael Clayton on the offensive side of the ball, the Tigers used a dynamic, yet balanced, pro-style attack that averaged almost 34 points a game. Defensively, LSU’s unit was one of the best in the country and was led by the likes of future NFL players such as Corey Webster, Kyle Williams and Marcus Spears.
Vincent, who now works for LSU’s athletics fundraising entity, the Tiger Athletic Foundation, as the Director of Athletic Alumni Engagement, made sure to emphasize just how special the victory at home against the Georgia Bulldogs was on September 20, 2003.
“That was the first time I heard the mystique of Death Valley that everyone raved about,” said Vincent when asked about memorable games from the ‘03 season.
“I didn’t get snaps on offense that day, but I did start on special teams. When we scored with 1:34 left in the game … I had never heard anything like that in my life up to that point. That place erupted, and it felt like I had two 12-inch speakers attached to my ears.”
That “mystique” is what makes Tiger Stadium such a special place to play, and it’s what gives LSU that “home-field advantage” every Saturday Night in Death Valley. 2003 was a special season, and the incredible environment that the LSU fans were creating every game in Tiger Stadium cannot be forgotten.
LSU went on to face Georgia once again during the 2003 season, this time in the SEC Championship Game. Vincent, who had earned the starting role at halfback midway through the season, dashed 87 yards to the end zone just 10 minutes into the contest, setting the tone for the Tigers in a 34-13 rout of the Bulldogs that secured LSU’s second SEC Championship game victory in three years.
The win in Atlanta put LSU on a collision course in the national title game with the No. 1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners and their top-ranked offense that averaged almost 45 points per game. To sweeten the deal, the BCS Championship Game host that season just happened to be the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, a mere hour from Baton Rouge.
It’s almost like the Tigers were destined to make it that far, as the convenient location would allow for fans across Louisiana to travel to the Superdome for the game on January 4.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Tigers dominated the contest, holding the Sooners to just 14 points as they were the ones lifting the BCS Crystal Ball at the end of the evening. Both Vincent and Skyler Green had rushing touchdowns, while Spears returned an interception for a TD that essentially put the game away for LSU.
Vincent’s touchdown and his 117 yards on 16 carries were more than enough for him to earn the Sugar Bowl MVP Award. It was an incredibly special moment for Vincent, as he was raised in Lake Charles, La., and while growing up had imagined himself playing football for LSU.
“It was pretty surreal to win a national championship down the road from where you were born and raised,” said Vincent. “Believe or not, LSU was my second choice (for college), but like my grandmother used to always say, ‘God doesn’t make any mistakes.’”
Although the national championship feels like it was so long ago, Vincent is still in awe at not only the 2003 season, but the fact that he has maintained his connection with LSU since that time.
“To be honest with you, it’s still all surreal to me 20 years later,” Vincent explained. “I am so grateful for everything LSU has provided me and continues to provide me today. I just want to give back to the place that has given me so much enjoyment and wonderful memories for me and my family. I am LSU, and LSU is me.”
The university this weekend is proudly honoring the 2003 National Champions – the coaches, the support staff, the players like Justin Vincent – because of all the sacrifices they made and the work they put in to bring pride and glory to those three letters Tigers love so much: LSU.