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LSU Delivered A Little Piece Of History

An overhauled, high-scoring offensive machine introduced by an outsider. A head coach in his fourth season and an unexpected, undefeated title run. A national championship trophy hoisted in New Orleans, less than 100 miles from campus, with a tiger of purple and gold stripes triumphing over one of orange, purple and white.

The year was 1959, and LSU had just claimed its first national title and beaten Clemson, which decades later would ascend to a position among college football’s preeminent powers.

Sixty-one years after that showdown, an eerily similar series of events unfolded in a city notorious for its enduring love affair with stories that blur the lines between myth and reality. Following an unprecedented 16 days of rest, LSU beat Clemson 42-25 to put the finishing touches on the second season in which it went undefeated to win a national title, with the latter arguably usurping the former as the greatest team in school history.1

Head coach Ed Orgeron and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow kept the seasonlong party going Monday night, overcoming a dismal first few possessions to establish a pulse on an offense that has scared opposing defenses all season. Defending LSU in 2019 was a challenge no team truly solved. Sit back in coverage, and the Tigers could rip apart a defense down to the studs. Send pressure, and the process would merely be expedited.

On Monday, Burrow wrapped up what might have been the most efficient QB season of all time. Months before he’s likely to be the first name called at the NFL draft, the senior broke the single-season record for passing touchdowns. He did it largely against the gauntlet that is the SEC, and in the national title game, he faced the most efficient defense Clemson has had since coordinator Brent Venables and head coach Dabo Swinney came to South Carolina. The LSU offense, in its first season under passing game coordinator Joe Brady, set the single-season record for expected points added, expected points added on passes and passing efficiency.

Burrow and his receivers, according to Clemson safety Tanner Muse, are capable of making defenders “look like clowns trying to cover everyone.” And they did precisely that, with Burrow carving up the Clemson defense for 463 passing yards and six total touchdowns. They’ve been playing college football in Baton Rouge for more than a century, and Burrow finished his career with seven of the top 10 single-game passing performances in school history.

The tight end is at peak value in college football, and LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss was one of 20 at the position with more than 500 receiving yards this season. In the playoff semifinal, he had a career-high 99 receiving yards and four receiving first downs. He followed it up Monday with a two-touchdown performance in which he was the ultimate red-zone weapon.

It had been 742 days since Clemson last lost, and with the Tigers in line for a third national title in four years, LSU made them seem disoriented after the opening quarter.

Trevor Lawrence entered unbeaten as a college QB, with a 70-1 record in games he played in dating back to his sophomore year of high school. He hadn’t accounted for a turnover since mid-October2 and was in the midst of a school-record 202 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. And yet, LSU’s defense dialed up relentless pressure, and the sophomore never truly established a rhythm.

But Lawrence can rest easier knowing he squared off with arguably one of the best teams in college football history. Burrow capped a season in which he transformed into something akin to a folk hero in his final year of eligibility.

LSU’s 1958 national championship team is forever linked to the 2019 champions. As a child in rural Louisiana, Orgeron shared a backyard fence with a player from the 1958 national title team, Lynn LeBlanc. LeBlanc later recruited and signed Ed to play for LSU.3

Like Orgeron, Paul Dietzel was in his fourth season at the helm in Baton Rouge when he led the Tigers to a national title in 1958. Behind the Wing-T offense and an innovative three-platoon substitution system, the Tigers clawed to the top after opening the season unranked. “His 1958 national championship,” LSU vice chancellor and athletics director Joe Alleva said in a statement after Dietzel’s death in 2013, “set LSU on a path of being what it is today.”

Stylistically, football looks a lot different now. The sport is now largely governed by the air rather than on the ground.4 LSU starting QB Warren Rabb finished with a whopping 505 passing yards and seven passing TDs in his 1958 campaign, numbers that Burrow nearly eclipsed in the College Football Playoff semifinals alone. “Oh God, I would’ve loved it if I could have played on a team like this,” Rabb told the Lafayette Daily Advertiser. “I would’ve been in heaven in this offense.”

Footnotes

  1. The title won Monday was LSU’s fourth.

  2. A streak that ended in the fourth quarter when he fumbled.

  3. Orgeron later transferred to Northwestern State.

  4. Although it should be noted that the Tigers’ lone score in the 1958 Sugar Bowl was “a pass the Lord threw.”

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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