Three away games, three ranked opponents, three impressive double-digit victories.
A month into the college football season, LSU’s body of work has finally taken the Tigers to the top.
A hard-fought but convincing 47-21 victory Saturday at then-No. 16 West Virginia propelled LSU to the No. 1 ranking Sunday in The Associated Press Top 25 media poll.
The Tigers, who ran the table on a brutal four-game September schedule that saw them play three ranked teams away from Tiger Stadium, surged past preseason No. 1 Oklahoma (3-0), a 38-28 winner at home Saturday over Missouri.
LSU picked up 42 of 60 first-place votes in the AP poll with 1,471 points. Oklahoma has 12 No. 1 votes with 1,422 points. Alabama got five No. 1 votes and 1,413 points, while Boise State (3-0) picked up the final No. 1 vote.
In the USA Today coaches poll, LSU moved up one spot into a tie for second with Alabama with 1,404 points, 30 points behind that poll’s No. 1, Oklahoma.
The Tigers gained 15 first-place votes in the coaches poll to earn 20 overall. Oklahoma has 32 first-place votes, while Bama has seven.
The Tigers started at No. 4 in both preseason polls but bounced up to No. 2 after beating then-No. 3 Oregon 40-27 on Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas.
LSU dropped to No. 3 after a 49-3 win over FCS-level Northwestern State — the Tigers’ only home game — but returned to No. 2 after winning 19-6 on Sept. 15 at then-No. 25 Mississippi State.
This week, the Tigers surged to the top, though LSU coach Les Miles urged caution after the West Virginia game before the polls came out.
“I am not in any way saying we’re the nation’s best team,” Miles said Saturday night. “I certainly like the position that we’re in. I want to be close enough to the top so that if we can continue to earn our way — if we do what we’re capable — or anybody in our conference comes out of this conference there’s a strong likelihood they could be in the (national title) game.
“I like the position we’re in. I don’t think we’re the best team in college football today.”
One of Miles’ players who helped the Tigers get to No. 1 begged to disagree.
“We think we’re the best,” said cornerback Morris Claiborne, whose 99-yard kickoff return touchdown in the third quarter squelched a West Virginia rally after the Mountaineers pulled within 27-21. “We think we should have been the best in the beginning of the season.”
Perhaps Miles’ lack of comfort with the top spot in the polls is what happened the last two times his Tigers were ranked No. 1 during the regular season.
LSU was No. 1 going into its final game of the 2007 season when it lost 50-48 at home to Arkansas in triple overtime. The Tigers rebounded with a win over Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game to get to No. 2 in the final BCS standings and beat No. 1 Ohio State for the national championship.
Before that, LSU was ranked No. 1 for two weeks in October 2007 before falling 43-37 in triple overtime at Kentucky. It’s those same Wildcats (2-2, 0-1 SEC) who are next up for LSU in an 11:21 a.m. contest this Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
The game will be televised on the SEC Network (WAFB-TV).
Facing their second straight away game in front of a hostile crowd, the Tigers silenced the West Virginia portion of the crowd of 62,056 in Milan Puskar Stadium by jumping in front 13-0 on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Jarrett Lee to Rueben Randle and a 22-yard scoring run by Michael Ford.
The Tigers built their lead to 27-7 at halftime on a 52-yard play-action strike from Lee to Odell Beckham Jr. and a 1-yard pass from Lee to Chase Clement. The latter score was set up when LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu intercepted a Geno Smith pass on a corner blitz and raced to the 1.
Mathieu also forced a fumble from Mountaineers receiver Brad Starks and was credited with six tackles. For his play, Mathieu was named Sunday by the Walter Camp Foundation as its national defensive player of the week.
Getting the ball first to start the second half, the Tigers had a chance to virtually put West Virginia away as they drove to the Mountaineers’ 10. But Randle dropped a sure touchdown pass from Lee in the back of the end zone and Drew Alleman was wide left on a 30-yard field goal attempt.
LSU’s missed chance gave WVU a spark. Smith, who set WVU school records for completions (38) attempts (65) and passing yards (463), drove the Mountaineers to a pair of scores, pulling them with 27-21 late in the third quarter before Claiborne’s kickoff return gave the Tigers a much-needed cushion with 1:00 remaining.
“It was unbelievable,” Miles told ESPN.com. “The momentum of the stadium, you could feel it. It dissipated and went to nothing. It was a great effort on his part. I watched him, and he was worn thin during the return. I was sitting there saying, ‘is he going to have enough energy to score?’ How he mustered it up was a great individual effort.”
The Mountaineers (now ranked No. 22) couldn’t score again as LSU poured on two more touchdowns on a 15-yard run by Ford and an 18-yarder by Alfred Blue.
Led by the play of Mathieu and Claiborne, opportunistic was the Tigers’ watchword in this game. LSU forced four West Virginia turnovers while committing none.
Lee completed 16 of 28 passes for 180 yards and three TDs. Spencer Ware led all rushers with 23 carries for 92 yards.
“It’s not perfect,” Miles said, “but at this point we’re 4-0 with three victories against ranked opponents. I think we’re in position.”
Sunday, it turned out to be the preeminent position.