MULE': Going Where No Team Has Gone Before

Let's acknowledge – and it's now three weeks since they left the field and entered the history books – that the 2007 Tigers went where no LSU team had gone before.

The third LSU squad in a 114-year football history to be generally recognized as the best in the land, Les Miles' Bayou Bengals are the first to be unanimously acclaimed. The 2003 Tigers, remember, were No. 1 in the most important ranking, the quasi-official BCS final poll, but shared the title with Southern Cal, the top team in the AP poll. The 1958 LSU were a consensus champion with an 11-0-0 record. But one poll, the five-member panel of the Football Writers of America, voted for Iowa, with a gaudy 8-1-1 record, as its champion.

So for the first time, the BCS, the AP, and the Football Writers agree: the Fightin' Tigers are on top all by themselves.

But where to rank this bunch in the pantheon of outstanding LSU teams? It is a deserving national champion, but does it deserve to carry the mantle of a "great'' Tiger squad?

Almost always the calling card of a great football team is a great defense. Times – and the game – have changed, so absolute comparisons can't be made, but consider this: the 2007 Tigers gave up 279 points, an average of 19.9; they gave up 50 in one game.

There have been LSU defenses in which that would have been a season's worth of points for the opposition.

Yes, the 2007 Bengals outscored 12 of LSU's 14 opponents, but, given those numbers, was LSU a truly complete team? Or just better than average in a season where there were no great teams?

The bottom of modern LSU football was the team that Curley Hallman put on the field in 1992. Those 2-9 Tigers yielded 261 points for the season, an astonishing average of 18.6 points – 1.3 (italics) better (end italics) than the 2007 LSU squad.

Over the decades, of course, conditions have changed. Before SEC teams had to play a set schedule, when SEC teams could just pick out five league opponents of their own choosing and a champion was named based on winning percentage, it was difficult to truly judge the great from the good.

But there are a handful of noted LSU teams that didn't stand alone atop the SEC standings but might merit the "great'' label as much or more than the 2007 Tigers:

1969: (9-1) – An incredibly balanced squad, these Tigers averaged almost 35 points (34.9) offensively and gave up a mind-numbing total of 384 rushing yards – for the season! Four Tigers from this defense made All-American: linebackers George Bevan and Mike Anderson, tackle Ronnie Estay, and safety Tommy Casanova.

1961: (10-1) – This team did share the SEC crown with Alabama, though the Crimson Tide played an extra league game. LSU was upset in its opening game, then ran off 10 victories in a row, averaging 29 points offensively and giving up just 5.2, and beating heavyweights Georgia Tech and Ole Miss in the process. Three All-Americans – in an era when players went both ways – sprinkled the lineup: guard Roy Winston, halfback Jerry Stovall (1962), and tight end Billy Truax (1963). Coach Paul Dietzel said this team had more talent than his 1958 national champions.

1946: (9-1-1) – The late Voice of the Tigers, John Ferguson, who died in 2005, always said, given its time and circumstance, this was the best LSU team ever to take the field. With a quarterback by the name of Y.A. Tittle and a roster filled six deep with returning war veterans, to say the Tigers were loaded was an understatement. Ferguson loved to relay the story of Joe Glamp, a running back dissatisfied with his third string status. Coach Bernie Moore told him there were just too many better backs ahead of him, so Glamp left school and went to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he started for three seasons. Fifteen members of this team, which averaged 22 points offensively and gave up 11.2, eventually went on to play professional football.

1937: (9-2) – Stocked with three of LSU's all-time greats (end Ken Kavanaugh and backs Charles "Pinky'' Rohm and Young Bussy), no one scored on the Tigers in their first four games. When an opponent did manage to dent the Tiger goal, it was on Vanderbilt's infamous "hidden ball'' trick, triggering LSU's only regular season loss. The stung Tigers went on a binge in their last five games, outscoring their last five foes 174-20. Former Baton Rouge State-Times sports editor Dan Hardesty always maintained this was one of LSU greatest teams, but its luster was when it was by-passed for the Rose Bowl and the disappointed Tigers turned in a half-hearted performance in the Sugar Bowl, a 6-0 defeat to Santa Clara, then a West Coast power.

1959: (9-2) – Hardesty, an astute observer of LSU football from the 1930s through the 1990s, made a similar case for this senior squad that won the national championship as juniors. Hardesty wrote: "That the 1959 Tigers played defense was obvious. The 1958 team scored over a hundred points more than the '59 squad (275-164), But in '59 LSU did not allow its goal line to be penetrated until the eighth game. In all, this team gave up only 29 points and three touchdowns; one on an intercepted pass run back, one on a punt return, and one on a drive of 26 yards after a lost fumble.'' This team also suffered because of a 21-0 loss to Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl, a rematch in which LSU felt pressured to play, and was not physically ready to play, missing the services of three key athletes from injuries during the regular season. Hardesty wrote in 1975 (long before the 2003 and 2007 seasons) that the 1959 Tigers, when they were at their best and at full strength, may have been the best team ever to represent LSU.

The main point is, not one of these notable teams had an unshared championship to hang their helmets – and reputations – on.

And not one gave up as many average points, or lost more games, than the 2007 Tigers, a reminder that a lot depends simply on the vagaries of the bounce of the ball, the changing times – and, to a degree, the alignment of the stars.

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Marty Mule' can be reached at MJM981@Bellsouth.net


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