ORLANDO, Fla. - Quick quiz: Try to think of the five most elite college football programs in the country right now, based on both recent success and the immediate future.
Did you include LSU in your top five?
If not, you may want to think again.
OK, go ahead and think of Nos. 6 through 10. Surely LSU is, at worst, in that group?
You didn't name Penn State ahead of the Tigers, did you? Come on? Really?
It's no knock on the Nittany Lions, who probably deserve to be somewhere between No. 8 and 12. Penn State has a very good program, but to say it deserves elite status is incorrect.
We're talking about teams that have a legitimate chance to win a national championship every year.
Without a doubt, LSU belongs in that elite category. If you don't believe so, then you haven't paid attention to college football in the past decade.
"We know we're one of the elite teams, and we are a force to be reckoned with whoever we play," standout safety Chad Jones said. "Whenever the Tigers are in town, everybody watches us. We definitely don't feel like we're an underdog in any type of way."
LSU has won two national championships in the past seven seasons (2003 and '07). That's as many as Florida, which probably is - or at least should be - No. 1 on your elite list.
The Gators and Tigers are the only two programs that have won two BCS championships since the adoption of the system in 1998.
"Winning back in '07, we still have some of those same players on our team," Jones said. "We have players that know how to win championships and know how to win big games."
You probably have USC in your top five. The Trojans have won one BCS title (2004), one AP title (2003) and lost in another championship game (2005). Plus, they're always a title contender, save for their tough times this season.
Oklahoma deserves to be in the top five, winning a title in 2000 and getting to the BCS championship game three other times this decade (2003, '04, '08).
Texas also deserves a spot. The Longhorns won the crown in 2005 and have a chance to do so again this season.
So here's my top five:
5. LSU, edging out Ohio State, which has one title (2002) and two other BCS championship game appearances (2006, '07).
Alabama hasn't had a great decade but likely will win the national title this season. The Crimson Tide don't deserve to be in the top five just yet but probably will be soon enough with Nick Saban at the helm.
Maybe your rankings vary slightly, but no matter how you analyze it, be careful not to overlook LSU in the discussion. It's easy to do that when you live in Pennsylvania or love Big Ten football, based simply on regional bias and/or the notion that Southern teams are overrated.
"We're a dominant program, we really are," running back Stevan Ridley said.
Aside from the national title campaigns, the Tigers have finished in the top 10 three other times this decade (2001, '05, 06). That's a tremendous accomplishment playing in the nation's best conference.
The 2008 squad finished a disappointing 8-5 before bouncing back this season to go 9-3.
"Last year was the worst year we've had here in a while," Ridley said. "But college football, you look around and look at USC this year. That's a dominant program, everybody sees them on ESPN all the time and look at them this year.
"I'm not saying that USC's had a bad year; a lot of programs would be happy with an 8-5 season. But when you work as hard as we do and play the teams we play in the SEC, it's kind of hard to stay on top all the time."
The Tigers have a chance to be back in the national championship hunt again next season. Florida is losing star quarterback Tim Tebow and a host of other standouts, so LSU could be pegged as the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC.
"You start off big with a national championship, so that leaves you with high expectations for the rest of your career," said Ridley, a redshirt freshman on the 2007 title team.
The Capital One Bowl pits two programs that had similar struggles not long ago before turning things around. Penn State had its dark years earlier this decade (3-9 in 2003, 4-7 in '04), while LSU's lean years occurred at the end of the last decade (4-7 in 1998, 3-8 in '99).
Saban brought a winning attitude back to LSU in 2000 and won the school's second national title a few years later. Les Miles replaced him in 2005 and claimed his own championship two years later.
Miles flirted with going to Michigan after the 2007 season. The Wolverines have a very good program, but face it, they are not among the elite right now.
"I was glad that he stayed," Ridley said of Miles. "He could have easily left after the national championship, but it says a lot about him."
It also says a lot about LSU.
Miles has a powerhouse program, plays in the best conference, can contend for a national title every few years and a rabid fan base with a stadium that seats 92,000.
Add it all up, and LSU deserves the respect of being mentioned as one of the nation's elite programs.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.