When historians look back on the crazy, unpredictable college football season of 2007, they might conclude it featured the most memorable season in LSU history.
The Tigers blew out opponents early, reached No. 1 in the polls after five games, played five down-to-the-wire Southeastern Conference games, lost only in triple overtime — twice — and stayed on the national map throughout the calendar year.
There’s one more game — No. 2 LSU (11-2) plays No. 1 Ohio State (11-1) for the BCS national championship on Monday — but even an unfinished season has experts and old-timers struggling to find a more compelling season involving the Tigers.
“It’s been an amazing year,” said LSU senior associate athletic director Herb Vincent, a former sports information director at the university.
Playing its first Thursday night ESPN game, LSU was the network’s season opener after its “25-hour countdown to kickoff” leading into the Tigers’ 45-0 victory Aug. 30 at Mississippi State. LSU’s next game, a 48-7 thrashing of Virginia Tech on ESPN, put a convincing stamp of legitimacy on its preseason No. 2 ranking and its national championship hopes.
Seven appearances on CBS, an LSU record that matched an SEC record, gave the Tigers even more exposure.
“I think this year there has been more visibility for Louisiana State University than at any other time in its history,” LSU Athletic Director Skip Bertman said.
Bertman coached LSU baseball teams to five national titles. He said there’s nothing to compare to a season like the one enjoyed by the 2007 LSU football program.
“You can win some baseball titles and get some national press or go to the Final Four and get some national press, but this football team has been on CBS seven times, and CBS has much higher ratings than ESPN,” Bertman said.
“These games were amazing, going into overtime or going down to the last play. Nobody’s seen anything like this.”
Statistics provided by CBS Sports show 64 percent of U.S. households have wired cable television, and another 22 percent have an alternate delivery system — primarily satellite.
Fourteen percent have neither, receiving most of their television over the air.
As an over-the-air network, CBS put LSU football into a lot of living rooms where people don’t have access to ESPN or pay-per-view options.
“I’d say millions of people saw LSU that didn’t see LSU before,” Bertman said, “or at least got to know LSU better because of the constant visibility on television.”
That is one of the attractions of the CBS television contract with the SEC, Commissioner Mike Slive said.
“Anyone with rabbit ears can get the SEC on CBS,” Slive said.
The SEC had three teams in the national championship conversation — Florida and LSU early, Georgia late. LSU was the only one from start to finish.
With that setup, CBS had its best college football ratings since 1999 and was the sport’s only network to show a ratings gain in 2007.
“If you have a team or teams that remain in the national championship hunt all season, it’s going to have a pretty big impact on your ratings,” said Mike Aresco, senior vice president of programming for CBS Sports.
LSU had five appearances on CBS in 2003, when the Tigers went on to win the BCS national championship. The seven appearances in 2007 set a school record.
“Normally, we cap our appearances at six,” Aresco said. “LSU’s seven this year included the SEC Championship Game. Alabama had seven in a regular season (2005), but there were some unusual circumstances.
“Nobody’s had more than seven.”
LSU had the benefit of extra exposure well before the 2007 season began.
Its 41-14 thumping of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl gave the LSU brand high visibility to open the calendar year. Having four players selected in the first round of the NFL draft in April — including No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell — gave LSU more attention.
LSU coach Les Miles kept the Tigers on the sports front page and among sports radio talking points in the summer when he said USC had an easier road than LSU to the national championship game.
Then the Tigers routed Mississippi State and Virginia Tech on national television. National columnists said LSU made a convincing case for itself as the No. 1 team in the country.
LSU’s 1-2 punch to start the season left a lasting impression.
“I think that played a significant role in where we were and where we stayed (in the polls) throughout the season,” Vincent said.
“It had a lot to do with us not falling very far when we lost to Kentucky and with keeping us in a position to get back to No. 1 again.”
Michigan’s 0-2 start — beginning with its shocking loss at home to Appalachian State — began the season-long talk about Miles being a candidate to succeed Lloyd Carr as coach of the Wolverines.
Then came the dramatics and highlight-video moments of the heart of LSU’s conference schedule.
A 2:34 p.m. kickoff for a home game against South Carolina denied LSU a chance to play a Saturday night game in Tiger Stadium, but it helped keep the program in heavy rotation on “SportsCenter” and other highlight shows.
Matt Flynn, the holder on placement kicks, casually tossed the ball over his right shoulder to Colt David to begin the most enjoyable fake field goal of the season. David sprinted to the corner of the end zone, foiling Steve Spurrier and helping LSU win, 28-16.
“How many people saw that over-the-shoulder flip to Colt David who may not have seen it had that been a night game?” Vincent said. “Everybody saw it. They played it over and over and over because it happened early in the day.”
Florida, the reigning national champion, played LSU in Tiger Stadium in prime time on CBS. The network had its eye on that game long before the season.
“LSU was a terrific team last year, and but for those two tough losses could have been a national championship contender,” Aresco said. “Everybody saw what they did against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, so they were a team on our radar screen from the beginning.”
Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corporation, gave the approval for an October prime-time game. The network had previously reserved only September games for Saturday night prime time, before the fall lineup of entertainment shows, or games in late November (such as with Florida vs. Florida State).
“It turned out to be wonderful for us,” Aresco said, “as we had one of the really great games of the season — or any season. There were the five fourth downs LSU made, and there was tremendous drama. It was a great game.
“It was a calculated risk, and it really worked out well.”
Late in the season, Bertman laughed about the perception that Miles was a gambling coach with a reckless style revealed in that victory against Florida.
“No. 1, he was close enough on those five plays to consider going for it,” Bertman said. “People don’t give you credit for that. No. 2, he picked the right guy to handle the ball, and No. 3, he picked the right play and the weakest part of the defense to run it against.
“When you put the three things together, it isn’t so astonishing that he made them all.”
No matter. The Mad Hatter was the talk of college football after the Florida game and after Flynn’s touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd to defeat Auburn with the now-famous 1 second showing on the Tiger Stadium clock.
Between those games, LSU lost in triple overtime at Kentucky, losing its No. 1 ranking. The Tigers had become No. 1 after a less-than-sparkling 34-9 victory at Tulane thanks to Stanford’s upset of USC on the last weekend in September.
By extending to three overtimes, the LSU-Kentucky game ended in prime time and saw a spike in CBS ratings near the end.
The SEC signed its deal with CBS in 1994, and the network began televising games in 1996. That came after CBS lost the rights to NFC football and Major League Baseball.
Aresco said the partnership keeps getting better for CBS.
“The SEC has become far more of a national package than it was when we first began doing it,” Aresco said. “We felt it was a very strong conference when we did this deal years ago and that it could carry a package itself. It generated huge ratings in the Southeast, but we knew the ratings outside the region obviously wouldn’t be quite as strong.
“It still does enormous ratings in the region, but because of the BCS and because of all the drama and all the attention focused on the BCS, people from all around the country are taking an interest in the games who might not have in the past. I think we’re seeing it become a truly national package.”
Florida helped by winning the national championship last season. Arkansas running back Darren McFadden finished second in the Heisman Trophy race in 2006.
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow won the Heisman this season as a sophomore. McFadden finished second again. LSU has a chance to win the national championship.
Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno will be an early Heisman candidate in 2008, as will Tebow. LSU quarterback Ryan Perrilloux could figure in the mix.
The SEC has four coaches who have won national championships — Spurrier, Phillip Fulmer, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer — and another, Tommy Tuberville, who coached a 13-0 team that didn’t get to play for the title in 2004.
Miles could become the conference’s fifth coach with a national title.
“I think I can say this categorically: You have probably the greatest roster of coaches that any conference has ever assembled,” Aresco said.
Another dramatic ending for LSU, its 41-34 comeback victory at Alabama, was another CBS game that benefited from a juicy storyline: Saban coaching the Crimson Tide against his former team for the first time.
After losing in triple overtime to Arkansas the day after Thanksgiving, LSU was seemingly out of the national championship picture. The Tigers entered the SEC Championship Game as less of a ratings draw as a result.
That changed on the morning of the game. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit cited an unnamed source in saying Miles would soon be the next coach at Michigan.
Miles called an unprecedented news conference before the game and called the report “misinformation.” He went on to say throughout the day and night he would remain as coach of the Tigers.
LSU defeated Tennessee 21-14 for the SEC championship. After Pitt upset No. 2-ranked West Virginia and Oklahoma knocked off No. 1-ranked Missouri, the possibility of LSU climbing from No. 7 in the BCS to No. 2 was suddenly on the table.
“Even at the most important time,” Vincent said, “when people were trying to rank the teams on that Saturday night, what had been on TV all day long? Les Miles, Les Miles, Les Miles.”
Columnists and analysts said the all-day LSU talk-a-thon kept the Tigers’ visibility high.
“It’s the same old adage, ‘Say what you want about us, but spell our name right.’ This year, probably more than any other, was about exposure in a bizarre year,” Vincent said.
Bertman, looking at the season from the perspective of a former coach, said nobody could question LSU’s effort. He insists the Tigers were more consistent than their reputation.
“You can play well and win,” Bertman said. “You can play well and lose. You can play poorly and win. You can play poorly and lose.
“We played well for every quarter except that first half of the Tulane game. We’ve made penalties and missed tackles, but we’ve played hard.”
The final chapter will be written — and nationally televised by Fox — Monday night.