KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - It’s said that every national championship contender has at least one game that it’s lucky to win.
Tell that to the No. 1-ranked LSU Tigers, and you’re likely to get a puzzled look.
Through seven games, the Tigers have played physical, dominant football that has followed a familiar pattern:
Feel out the opposition, let them hang around for a half or so, then pull away and pound them into submission.
LSU’s 38-7 victory over Tennessee on Saturday was the latest variation on the theme, as the Tigers used a suffocating second-half performance to strangle the life out of any halftime hopes the Volunteers harbored for a massive upset.
The Tigers (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) have now won all of their games this season by 13 or more points, extending a school-record stretch of double-digit dominance to start a season that actually extends back to a 41-24 January romp over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
Saturday’s demolition of the Vols was LSU’s fifth this season by 26 points or more, its third by 31 or more.
It’s been unprecedented.
It’s been impressive.
It’s been, frankly, a little boring at times.
But while most of the Tigers’ victories have lacked drama, collectively they have only served to heighten rampant, nationwide anticipation for LSU’s epic showdown Nov. 5 against Alabama.
After the Tigers were done with the Vols, the Crimson Tide (also 7-0, 4-0) also moved relentlessly along its collision course with the Tigers thanks to a 52-7 drubbing of Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss.
Now, both teams each have just one hurdle remaining before what would be the first 1 vs. 2 regular-season matchup in LSU history.
Sunday, it was LSU at No. 1 in the initial BCS poll with Alabama at No. 2. The Tigers and Crimson Tide continue to be ranked 1-2, respectively, in The Associated Press Top 25.
LSU returns home to Tiger Stadium to host No. 19 Auburn (5-2, 3-1), the reigning national champion, Saturday in a 2:30 p.m. game on CBS. Alabama will host Tennessee (6:15 p.m. ESPN2) in Tuscaloosa as the Volunteers (3-3, 0-3) get no breather from the SEC schedule-makers.
Then, it’s the season’s only open date for both teams, a break that will only serve to crank up the hype even more for what could well be a winner-take-all encounter with a shot at the national championship at stake.
“It all boils down to winning a championship,” said cornerback Morris Claiborne, who provided one of Saturday’s signature moments with a balletic 89-yard interception return to set up the Tigers’ first touchdown. “We’re going out each week and every week and we’re playing hard.
“We know what we are trying to do at the end of the season.”
LSU stayed in position for that showdown by overwhelming a Tennessee team that gave the Tigers more fits - for a half - on both lines of scrimmage than any team so far this season.
The Vols appeared to briefly control the momentum late in a scoreless first quarter when Matt Simms hit Rajion Neal with a 38-yard pass on a play that was initially ruled an incompletion.
Simms then went deep down the LSU sideline for Zach Rogers, but admitted he misread Claiborne’s coverage. The man they call Mo ran it back to the Tennessee 5 - LSU’s longest interception return since 1988 - setting up the Tigers’ first touchdown on a 5-yard pass two plays later from Jarrett Lee to Rueben Randle.
A 13-yard Lee to Spencer Ware screen pass for a touchdown put LSU up 14-0 moments later. The Vols responded with their only sustained drive - a 10-play, 80-yard march culminating with a 2-yard TD run by Tauren Poole - before the Tigers took a 17-7 lead into intermission.
Any dreams the Vols had of victory quickly evaporated as LSU pounded out successive scoring drives of 66 and 99 yards to burn a combined 15:45 off the clock, taking a 31-7 lead on a 1-yard run by Ware and a 3-yard keeper by Jordan Jefferson.
LSU completed the scoring with 1:35 remaining on a 14-yard lateral from Lee to Russell Shepard, his first touchdown of the season.
All told, LSU held the ball for 21:59 in the second half while Tennessee had it for 8:01 on a total of three possessions as the Tigers outgained the Vols 222-66 in the final two quarters.
LSU held a 196-47 edge in rushing yardage after halftime as it beat Tennessee for the fourth straight time and just the third time in 15 trips to Knoxville.
“Late in the game, with the opportunity to run the football, I don’t know that we were perfect, but I felt like we did the things we needed to do,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
“We did some good things.”
One more good thing - one more win - and the Tigers can settle in for as much drama as anyone could want.