Charles McClendon came to Baton Rouge in 1962 and inherited an LSU program that was thriving. The Tigers had won a national title as recently as 1958, with the legendary Billy Cannon in the backfield. That was part of a run where LSU finished in the national top 5 three times in four years. And while McClendon didn’t quite win at that level, he certainly continued a run of solid success. In his first eleven years as head coach, McClendon had taken the Tigers to five major bowl games. The 1973 LSU football team would be the sixth that McClendon took to one of college football’s marquee stages. But it would also be his last.
Most teams in this era were built on the running game and LSU was no different. Brad Davis was the leading rusher, going for a little over 900 yards and averaging better than five yards a pop. Davis’ offensive line was led by All-American guard Tyler Lafauci.
Mike Miley was the primary quarterback and while he didn’t throw a lot—107 passes over the course of an 11-game regular season schedule plus a bowl game—he was effective when doing so. Miley’s 56 percent completion rate was pretty good by the standards of the era. His 9.1 yards-per-attempt was excellent by the standards of any era. He had the SEC’s best tight end, Brad Boyd, as his primary target, along with some big-play threats outside in Norm Hodgins and Ben Jones.
The LSU offense still only ranked 54th in the country for points scored, a weakness that would show up dramatically in the season’s biggest games. They would need their defense to shoulder the load. A Tiger D that ranked 22nd nationally was led by All-SEC performers in Binks Miciotto at defensive end and Warren Capone at linebacker.
LSU was ranked #16 to start the season and had a quick early test. Colorado would end up having a mediocre year in 1973, but the Buffaloes had been a national contender in the first few years of this decade and were ranked #10 when they came to Baton Rouge. LSU’s 17-6 win was impressive and moved them up to #11.
Home victories over two more mediocre opponents followed, 28-23 against Texas A&M and 24-9 over Rice. LSU was 3-0 when the first stretch of conference games began.
Florida and Auburn were both headed for winning seasons, but the LSU defense was in command against both. The Tigers shut down the Gators at home, 24-3. The Auburn game was LSU’s first on the road, but it didn’t faze the Tiger D, who produced a 20-6 win.
The home-heavy schedule resumed on October 20 against Kentucky. The Wildcats would finish 5-6, but they had an electric talent in running back Sonny Collins. Collins would win the SEC rushing title and capture league MVP honors. But LSU stayed undefeated with a 28-21 win.
South Carolina was an independent and their joining of the SEC was still nearly twenty years into the future. LSU went to Columbia to face a Gamecock team headed for a solid seven-win campaign. And the Tigers were up against it late, trailing 29-26 with just over three minutes to play.
Miley showed he could throw when he had to. A 48-yard pass to Jones put LSU in business and the quarterback finished it off with a two-yard touchdown run that pulled out a 33-29 win. The Tigers were still unbeaten, ranked #7 in the country and both the SEC and national titles were very much in play.
The schedule never gave a real breather, with a decent Ole Miss team up next on the road. Davis ran for a 13-yard touchdown early in the game. Miley threw for one TD, passed for another and was able to take some time off in the second half because the rout was on. LSU won 51-14. They came home and beat Mississippi State 26-7, containing running back Wayne Jones, who only finished twenty yards behind Collins in the race for the league rushing title.
At 9-0, LSU was still only at #7 in the polls. There were several undefeated teams out there. But the Tigers were in good position to work their way to the top. They would get a crack at Alabama, undefeated and ranked #2, on Thanksgiving Day. The winner of that game would go to the Sugar Bowl, where they would play Notre Dame, who sat on top of the polls. Oklahoma was unbeaten, but also on probation and ineligible for a bowl.
There was still Michigan and Ohio State, both undefeated and set to play head-to-head on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Penn State was also undefeated. But if LSU knocked off Alabama and Notre Dame—to say nothing of their regular season finale with a good Tulane team—it’s hard to see how voter sentiment wouldn’t have gone hard to the Tigers. That argument looks even stronger in the rearview mirror, because we now know the Michigan-Ohio State game ended in a tie and knocked both teams out.
But making the argument for #1 on paper is one thing. Winning those aforementioned football games is another. And the hard reality is that LSU had won for the final time in 1973. They fell behind Alabama early on and were kept at arm’s length in a 21-7 loss. The Tigers still got an Orange Bowl bid to play Penn State, but there would be no national title implications.
LSU then went to Tulane, who was en route to a 9-2 season, and lost 14-0. That defeat sent the Tigers out of the Top 10. In the Orange Bowl, LSU took a 7-3 lead on Penn State on the second quarter. But a couple of Lion touchdown drives in the second quarter made it 16-7. The Tiger defense hung in, shutting down Penn State in the second half and even getting a safety to give their offense a shot, at 16-9. LSU drove the PSU 26-yard line deep in the fourth quarter. But facing 4th-and-3, Davis was stopped cold. The game and the season were over.
The Tigers finished #13 in the final polls. In spite of the ending, this still has to be considered a nice season. LSU never had a truly easy opponent—not a single opponent finished more than a game under .500 and they beat four winning teams. They just weren’t up to snuff against the nation’s top teams, scoring only 16 points in the final three games.
Moreover, this 1973 campaign was McClendon’s last major bowl trip in a career that lasted through 1979. This was the end of an era in Baton Rouge.