Spoiler Role a Familiar One in LSU-Ole Miss Rivalry
By David Steinle
Special to LSUsports.net
For the 11th time in the 11 years since the Southeastern Conference instituted the football championship game, the Ole Miss Rebels will not be representing the Western division. Every other team in the West has reached the title game at least once, including LSU, which is the defending SEC champion after last year’s upset of Tennessee.
Although the Rebels can’t make the title game, they certainly can throw a monkey wrench into LSU’s hopes of repeating as West champions on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. An Auburn victory over Alabama on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa along with an LSU loss to the Rebels would KO the Tigers’ hopes of facing Georgia on Dec. 7 in Atlanta, regardless of what the Tigers do in Little Rock the day after Thanksgiving the Battle for the Boot against Arkansas.
An LSU loss means the best the Tigers can hope for is to play spoiler for the Razorbacks, that is, if the Hogs don’t stumble in Starkville. If that happens and LSU loses, Auburn heads to the Georgia Dome and the Tigers must beat Arkansas to avoid a likely berth in the Independence Bowl.
Two of the greatest plays in LSU football history have come against Ole Miss in Death Valley, but this series has also been known through the years as being a “spoiler,” where one team’s hopes of glory have been dashed with an upset loss.
The spoiler role — it’s one that both teams have relished through the years of this southern football rivalry, and more than once, the stakes have been a lot higher than they will be this weekend.
The genesis of the spoiler role in the LSU-Ole Miss series can be traced back to the glory days of the Fighting Tigers and the Chinese Bandits.
It first occurred in 1958, the year LSU would go on to a perfect 11-0 season and win its only national championship on the gridiron.
When the Rebels paid a visit to Baton Rouge for a critical SEC showdown, the Tigers had just assumed the nation’s No. 1 ranking, while the Rebels were 6-0, ranked fifth and harboring title hopes of their own.
In the end, the Tigers hung a 14-0 shutout on John Vaught’s club, the fist SEC shutout suffered by the Rebels since Bear Bryant’s Kentucky team did so in 1950. LSU used that win over the Rebels to beat Duke, Mississippi State and Tulane in succession to wrap up the national championship.
The same scenario existed the next year, when Ole Miss came calling Death Valley on a warm and muggy Halloween Night. LSU was still in possession of the top spot in both polls, but third-ranked Ole Miss was a slight favorite thanks to a defense that had allowed a staggering total of seven points in six games. Only a solitary touchdown by Tulane in the fifth game of the season kept the Rebels from being “un-scored” upon entering Baton Rouge.
Of course, every LSU and Ole Miss fan by now knows the story of that game all too well. With 10 minutes left and LSU down 3-0, Vaught had Jake Gibbs punt to LSU on third down. Billy Cannon picked up the bouncing ball on the right sideline, got by a wave of blue-shirted Ole Miss tacklers, and was on his way to an 89-yard touchdown and the Heisman Trophy.
Cannon’ s tackle of Doug Elmore in the final minute on the LSU 1-foot line preserved the 7-3 victory, LSU’s No. 1 ranking (for one week, at least) and denied what has been called Ole Miss’ greatest team a national championship (NOTE: Ole Miss didn’t even win the SEC title that year; it went to Fran Tarkenton and Georgia), which it most certainly would have earned had it beaten the Tigers. Instead, Ole Miss had to settle for a 21-0 rout of the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl and second in the polls behind Syracuse.
The next two years would continue the agony for the Rebels. LSU came to Oxford in 1960 a wounded 3-3-1, but escaped Hemingway Stadium with a 6-6 tie and leaving the Rebels’ national title hopes in the mud. The next year, Ole Miss was again undefeated and ranked in the top five, but the Tigers prevailed, 10-7, sending LSU to the Orange Bowl.
Three years, three perfect seasons ruined by LSU. Vaught had to be wondering if the football gods were punishing Ole Miss for its segregationist ways (something that would change in 1962 with James Meredith, but not before a violent uprising). Vaught would have to wait the rest of the 1960s for his turn for the chance to deny LSU greater glory.
It came in 1969 on a chilly afternoon in Jackson. The Tigers entered Memorial Stadium at 7-0 and ranked seventh, with a run defense that to this day is still the finest in LSU’s 109-year football history. Ole Miss, meanwhile, was coming off of a one-sided loss at Houston following earlier one-point losses to Kentucky and Alabama, but the Rebels had an ace up their sleeve better known to the college football world as Archie Manning.
Manning had left the Tigers broken-hearted in 1968 with his last-second magic in Tiger Stadium, and it would happen again to LSU this time, as the Rebels claimed a 26-23 victory to hand LSU its only loss of 1969. Had the Tigers won, a likely invitation to the Cotton Bowl awaited for a match with Texas and the AP national championship (the UPI poll was still taken before the bowl games, and the Longhorns had that wrapped up). Instead, Archie made his first of many appearances in Tulane Stadium as the Rebels beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, while LSU stayed home after Notre Dame ended its 45-year postseason ban and got the Cotton invite.
Nearly three decades later, a largely unknown coach named Tommy Tuberville led the undermanned Rebels into Death Valley and shocked the eighth-ranked Tigers with a 36-21 decision in 1997. Yes, it was a morning game on Jefferson-Pilot, but the Rebels caught LSU basking in the glow of their upset of top-ranked Florida the previous week. Had LSU stayed the course and taken care of business against Ole Miss, they would have reached the SEC title game, but instead, Auburn used its 31-28 victory over the Tigers the previous month as its invite to Atlanta. Instead, LSU had to settle for a rout of Notre Dame in the dreaded Independence Bowl.
Speaking of the I-Bowl, should LSU lose to Ole Miss, Arkansas lose to Mississippi State and Auburn beat Alabama, the Tigers of the Plains are headed to Atlanta. In that case, the LSU-Arkansas game next Friday possibly means a Cotton Bowl berth for the winner, an I-Bowl berth for the loser.
If LSU should lose and Alabama beats Auburn, then the Tigers will have a chance at redemption the next week in Little Rock, something else that has become a theme for LSU following losses to Ole Miss.
It happened last year, of course, when LSU recovered from a 35-24 loss to the Rebels to reel off six straight wins to close the season, including the SEC title game and the Sugar Bowl against Illinois. It also occurred in 1986, when a 21-19 loss to Ole Miss served as a wake-up call for LSU, who reeled off four consecutive victories to claim the SEC title, including a big win at Alabama in Birmingham and a triumph over Notre Dame and Lou Holtz.
LSU-Ole Miss may not have the national implications it had in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but nonetheless, the Tigers and the Rebels will put out their best efforts on Saturday night in Death Valley, with one team hoping to stay alive for a bowl bid and the other looking for greater glory in two weeks. It should be another great edition of a series that has seen more than its share of memorable moments.