BATON ROUGE, SEPT. 25 -- Mike Archer's elders have told the youngest coach in major college football that his confident behavior concerning his fourth-ranked Louisiana State team is unseemly. To which he replies, "Look, I'm not going to lie. We're good."

It's a tradition in this part of the country that a coach should talk his team down, not up. Such as: poor inexperienced Tommy Hodson; so what if he is the second-leading quarterback in the nation, he's still a sophomore. True, Harvey Williams is already looking like all-conference and maybe all-America, and he's one of three interchangeable tailbacks, but he's just a sophomore, too.

And then there's center Nacho Albergamo and guard Eric Andolsek, who make up what the offensive line calls the A-Team, an antiterrorist group that specializes in the knockdown block, but that's not an NCAA statistic.

What Archer, 34, should do in these circumstances is mushmouth around like some of his counterparts, bemoaning his youth and that of his players. So when the new coach predicted in clipped tones before even his first game that the Tigers very well could contend for the national championship, the gasps could be heard from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville. One longtime Southeast Conference follower strolled up to Archer that day and told him, half-admiringly, he was different.

"Yeah, I am," Archer said. "Maybe I'm stupid and maybe I'm naive."

Or maybe he is one of those candid rarities, a guy who says what he thinks, does what he wants and doesn't mind being called a rogue or worse. Louisiana State is 3-0 and the defending conference champions have an excellent chance of revisiting the Sugar Bowl; more on that will be known when LSU plays host to seventh-ranked Ohio State (2-0) Saturday at Tiger Stadium (WUSA-TV-9, 2:30 p.m.).

It's just one of many potentially pivotal games around the country, and some undefeated teams surely will fall. No. 2 Nebraska (2-0) travels to No. 13 and defending-Rose Bowl champion Arizona State (2-0) for an ABC game (WJLA-TV-7) at 3:30 p.m. No. 3 Auburn (2-0) travels to No. 12 Tennessee (3-0) for a meeting between LSU's chief conference threats (WTBS, WNVC-TV-56, 12:30 p.m.). No. 5 Miami (1-0) will be at No. 10 Arkansas (2-0) to see which team belongs in the top half of the rankings (ESPN, 4 p.m.).

There is something irksome about a successful upstart, which is why there are those in the Southeast who wouldn't mind if the Tigers were put in their place by the Buckeyes. But first-year coach Archer is looking more and more like an inspired replacement for Bill Arnsparger.

Archer has picked up right where Arnsparger left off, his record including a 17-3 victory over Texas A&M, and if the Tigers can get through the next three-game swing against the Buckeyes, Florida and Georgia, they will, indeed, contend for the national championship, just as he predicted.

Archer, previously the Tigers' defensive coordinator, was chosen partly on the basis of the team's march into a meeting of the selection board, where they strenuously argued for the young assistant and continuity for the program. A strapping former safety for Miami who came to LSU just three years ago, he is mustached, dirty blond and young enough to be taken advantage of by his players. Instead, he has proven an interesting combination of sympathetic listener and deep-voiced authoritarian.

"I win all the arguments," he said.

Archer seems a fitting choice for LSU, which is emerging as an even more flamboyantly talented team than last year's baby squad, which lost to Nebraska, 30-15, in the Sugar Bowl.

Hodson has completed 36 of 56 passes for 607 yards and is a marquee-handsome type who will be pushed for the Heisman Trophy next year. Williams has rushed for 306 yards on just 31 carries while alternating with more experienced Eddie Fuller and Sam Martin. The Tigers have scored 122 points in their first three games, the most in 10 years.

Now, there's Ohio State, with Earle Bruce coaching his 100th game for the Buckeyes. Ohio State has a defense led by linebacker Chis Spielman that has given up just 17 points, with Spielman averaging in double figures in tackles. Quarterback Tom Tupa has thrown for 384 yards and three touchdowns.

A crucial SEC game and perhaps the most intriguing game nationally, as well, will take place in Knoxville, where Tennessee and Auburn go into the game undefeated and untied for the first time since 1979.

Tennessee has become multifaceted with the passing of Jeff Francis and the running of redshirt freshman Reggie Cobb, who has rushed for 291 yards. Auburn's Jeff Burger is the leading passer in the country, but the Tigers surprisingly lack a running game, with freshman Harry Moses (94 yards, 16 carries, two fumbles) the leading rusher. Still, the Auburn defense has given up just a field goal.

"They look the same every year," Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors said. "Strong, physical, tall, big, quick."