No team had ever won college football’s national championship with two losses. The 2007 LSU football team became the first, surviving a chaotic and crazy season and a pair of triple-overtime losses to become the first, thanks to some come-from-behind mojo and dominance of the running game on both sides of the ball.
LSU arrived as a consistent national power with the turn of the calendar into the 21st century. Nick Saban became the head coach in Baton Rouge in 2000, coached through 2004 and won a piece of the national championship in 2003. Saban took a shot at the NFL and Les Miles was hired as the new head coach. The success continued, as Miles went 22-4 over the next two years, finishing sixth and third in the final AP rankings.
The Tigers were stacked coming into 2007, with defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey leading up a defense that would be terrific against the run. Dorsey ultimately won the Outland Trophy. Matt Flynn was at quarterback, and his balanced corps of receivers included Brandon Lafell, Early Doucet and Demetrius Byrd. LSU got a consistent running game from Jacob Hester and Keiland Williams. The expectations were sky-high with a preseason #2 ranking in the national polls.
LSU’s stout rush defense made an immediate statement in the opener at Mississippi State, holding the Bulldogs to ten rushing yards in a 45-0 win. It set the stage for a visit from ninth-ranked Virginia Tech for a showcase non-conference game. The showcase was all about LSU. They produced 297 rushing yards against a good Hokie defense, with Hester and Williams each sharing the load. Lafell caught seven passes for 125 yards and the Tigers won 48-7.
Flynn suffered a modest ankle injury and gave way to Ryan Perriloux for the next week’s game against Middle Tennessee State. Perriloux completed 20/25 for 298 yards in a 44-0 rout. The next test came with a visit from #22 South Carolina. Flynn returned and did not play well, 8/19 for 70 yards. But the rush yardage differential was 290-17 in LSU’s favor. They led 28-7 after three quarters and the 28-16 final wasn’t as close as the score makes it sound.
LSU was slugging the following week at Tulane, leading only 13-9 after three quarters before scoring three fourth quarter-touchdowns. But Miles’ team couldn’t be blamed for needing to catch their breath, because Florida—the defending national champion and ranked #9 in the country—was on their way in to Baton Rouge.
Tim Tebow was on his way to a Heisman Trophy this year and he ran for two touchdowns and passed for another, giving his team a 24-14 lead after three quarters. LSU was again controlling the battle in the trenches though, ultimately winning rush yardage 247-156. It helped the Tigers finally breakthrough in the fourth quarter. Flynn led a pair of touchdown drives, capped by Hester’s 2-yard run with 1:09 left for the 28-24 win.
LSU moved to #1 in the country with the win, and but to be high in the polls in 2007 was a dangerous place to be. The Tigers found that out when they went to Kentucky. This time it was LSU who held a 24-14 lead in the second half and couldn’t hold it Flynn was a little erratic, 17/35 for only 130 yards and Andre Woodson threw for 255 yards for Kentucky. The game was tied 27-27 after regulation and three overtimes later, the Wildcats had a 43-37 upset.
There was no rest for the weary though. LSU, still #5 in the polls and very much alive, hosted Auburn and the most dramatic finish yet awaited. LSU trailed 17-7 at the half, 17-13 going into the fourth quarter and 24-23 when they reached the Auburn 22-yard line with time for two more plays. Eschewing conservatism, Miles took a chance for the end zone. It worked—Flynn found Byrd on a 22-yard scoring strike to win it 30-24.
LSU finally got a bye week at the end of October. They had played three ranked opponents, several close games without the benefit of catching their breath and now they had a chance. They were still ranked #3 and a much-anticipated visit to Alabama awaited.
The Crimson Tide weren’t what they would be a year later, when they became the consistent nationally dominant team that we know in 2014. The ’07 Tide were ranked #17 at kickoff and would finish 7-6. But this was the first year of Saban’s return to the collegiate ranks and his first game against the program he had restored to glory.
And LSU again had to come from behind. They trailed 27-17 in the third quarter and rallied to tie it. Then Alabama got a punt return for a touchdown with 7:33 left to go up 34-27. Flynn again came through. He hit Doucet on a 32-yard touchdown pass with less than three minutes to go. LSU got the ball back and Hester ran for the winning score. LSU had again dominated on the defensive front, allowing only 20 rushing yards, helping offset their 14 penalties.
The Tigers were #2 in the polls and after blowing out Louisiana Tech 58-10, they elevated back to #1. A 41-24 win at Ole Miss clinched the SEC West title. All that remained between LSU and a date in the BCS National Championship Game—in New Orleans no less—was the regular season home finale against Arkansas and the SEC Championship Game a week later.
It was Black Friday when the Razorbacks came to Baton Rouge, and the moods would be dark in LSU by day’s end. Arkansas had three running backs with NFL futures ahead of them—Darren McFadden, Peyton Hillis and Felix Jones. McFadden was electric, running for 206 yards. Hillis ran for 89 more, and Jones chipped in 85. It was still a back-and-forth game that LSU tied on a short Flynn-to-Byrd touchdown pass with 57 seconds left.
The game went to overtime tied at 28-28. Three overtimes later, Arkansas was able to convert its two-point play, while LSU could not. The final was 50-48. No team had ever lost so late in a regular season and recovered to win a national championship. With LSU now at #5 in the polls, it would take a lot for them to be the first.
LSU seemed to play the SEC Championship Game against Tennessee with a bit of a hangover. Flynn was hurt, though Perriloux played pretty well in his stead , going 20/30 for 243 yards. Hester ran for 120 yards, but the Tigers trailed the #14 Vols 14-13 in the fourth quarter. Jonathan Zenon made the big play, intercepting Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge deep in Vol territory and bringing it back to the house. Dorsey and the defense made the 21-14 lead stand up.
The Tigers needed a lot of help to elevate to the top two spots and a berth in the national title game though. Missouri was ranked #2 and lost to Oklahoma. That wasn’t a big shock, but Ohio State was ahead of LSU and it looked like the Buckeyes would play West Virginia in New Orleans. Then West Virginia, coached by Rich Rodriguez was stunned by Pitt and the door was open.
LSU still needed to vault over Georgia in the polls, but with the Bulldogs having not won their division in the SEC East, it was no surprise that the Tigers got the nod as the #2 team. After the long season, the triple-overtime losses, the second-half comebacks, LSU had what it came for—a chance for a national championship in a home-neutral environment.
Ohio State was officially the #1 team in the polls, but didn’t carry a lot of respect from observers, at least at this level. The Buckeyes had been blown out by Florida in the previous year’s BCS National Championship Game. They came out and scored quickly, on a 65-yard touchdown run by Beanie Wells and then following it up with a field goal. But they had started quickly against Florida too, before SEC speed took over. The same thing happened here.
Flynn threw two second-quarter touchdowns and LSU had a 24-10 lead by halftime. Then Flynn hit Doucet for a third-quarter touchdown pass and it was 31-17 after three quarters. Flynn tacked on one more touchdown in the final quarter and LSU won 38-24. The game was never competitive after a quarter and a half.
LSU had its second national title in five years. Miles had his first ring. With college football’s expansion of the postseason to allow four teams into a playoff, it’s a virtual certainty that someone else will win it all with two losses. The 2007 LSU football team was the first.