Back when the world was young, LSU and Ole Miss may have been the best rivalry in college football. Billy Cannon, streaking through the night like a Halloween phantom in 1959. Archie Manning, darting and scrambling and reducing LSU’s otherwise perfect 1969 season to ruin. Bert Jones’ touchdown pass to Brad Davis on the last tick of the clock in 1972, when time for the Rebels stood heartbreakingly still.
Someone put up a sign on the Louisiana-Mississippi state line back then that read, “You are now entering Louisiana. Set your clocks back four seconds.” The reference was to the fact LSU got off two plays in the final four seconds that night, in Tiger Stadium, of course. Four seconds Rebels fans have never forgotten.
Alabama and its turncoat coach, Ol’ Nick What’s His Name, may be the team LSU fans love to hate — and beat — the most. And they’ll get their chance to do both two weeks from now when the Crimson Tide comes calling.
But nothing summons up the blood and brings the memories flooding back like LSU versus Ole Miss.
“Go to hell, Ole Miss!”
“Go to hell, LSU!”
You know the words.
For years, decades even, the rivalry lay fallow, well off college football’s radar.
Then came a blockbuster game in 2003 right out of the sepia-tinged sports pages from four decades earlier. LSU went to Oxford and had to beat the Rebels 17-14 to keep on track for its first BCS national championship and keep the Rebels out of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. It was a victory only secured when Chad Lavalais shoved Rebels guard Doug Buckels into quarterback Eli Manning, who tumbled to the ground on fourth down to end the last Ole Miss threat.
If it’s Ole Miss threats you want, you’ve come to the right game.
Just three years ago, LSU went to Oxford and turned Ole Miss into so much crushed ice for its own postgame (hotty) toddy. The Tigers’ 52-3 domination was so embarrassing for the Rebels, so complete, Les Miles had Zach Mettenberger take a knee four times at the Ole Miss 1 rather than run up the score even more.
That was in the dying days of the Houston Nutt era. How things have warmed up for the Rebels under their third-year coach, Hugh Freeze.
In the name of Johnny Vaught, this is the best Rebels team to visit LSU at least since the days of Eli. The No. 3 Rebels are 7-0 for the first time since 1962, gunning for their first SEC title since 1963.
Into the Valley of Death the Rebels ride sporting the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense (it may surprise you to know LSU ranks eighth). Ole Miss ranks in the top 10 in rushing defense, top 10 in total defense and sports an offense that doesn’t beat itself, having turned the ball over just 10 times.
The Rebels remind ESPN analyst David Pollack of someone.
Oh, yes. LSU.
“LSU’s defensive line is improving,” Pollack said Friday as he and ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew set up camp to broadcast from the LSU Parade Grounds. “But Ole Miss’ defense looks like LSU’s defense used to look.”
Set against such a dread image of déjà vu, the No. 24 Tigers (6-2, 2-2 SEC) look like a bigger underdog than the field goal margin by which the Rebels are favored.
But LSU is coming, or at least its players and coaches feel like they are.
The 2014 Tigers may not be among the best LSU teams to come down the pike over the program’s past 15 remarkable years, but they are improving. And say what you want about their deficiencies at quarterback or the defensive line or middle linebacker; this team has resilience.
The Tigers fought back from a 34-10 deficit against now-No. 1 Mississippi State to come within an answered prayer late pass of an unspeakable comeback. They got off the mat after being pummeled 41-7 at Auburn to win two straight, first at Florida 30-27 and last week 41-3 over a Kentucky team being hailed as an up-and-comer in its own right.
Now they get the Rebels where they want them, before what should be the biggest crowd in Tiger Stadium history, at night, when the darkness seems to trap the din from LSU’s fans like a cast-iron lid, even if those fans have been implored by LSU coach Les Miles not to leave early this time.
“I never doubt the LSU crowd,” said Chris Fowler, who will host “College GameDay” on Saturday morning and call the game Saturday night.
Never doubt the emotion and drama this rivalry can conjure up, a rivalry in which the next great game seems as close as the next time they tee it up.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.