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History Class: Worst Defensive Days Ever

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Well, maybe not ever.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Missouri
We’ve had better days. And not many worse ones.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

One of my least favorite things about sports commentary is the lack of historical perspective. The arc of history is long, and LSU has been playing football for over a century. I hate when we label something the best ever or the worst ever right in the moment.

But these defensive performances really have felt like the worst ever, so the question is, how bad were these games, really? Part of what makes these games so shocking is how rarely LSU has had a bad defense, even when the teams have been bad.

LSU allowed 632 yards, 8.3 YPP, and 44 points to Mississippi St. Then the defense followed that one up with the recent Missouri game: 586 yards, 8.6 YPP, and 45 points.

The first thing we can check is LSU games in which they allowed more yards or yards/play. Now, we do have some problem with the data. Sports-reference.com only goes back to 2000 in its game logs, and paging through the LSU websites, the box scores which used to go back to the 60s now only go back to 1996. Damn you, site redesign, eliminating archival data.

Now, offenses are more prolific these days, but without adjusting for era or opponent, has LSU ever given up more yards or YPP, or at least since 1996? Well, yes. Twice. LSU gave up 638 yards on 7.9 YPP in a 56-13 loss to Florida in 1996 and 632 yards on 9.4 YPP in a 44-15 loss to Florida in 2001. But if the question is, has LSU ever allowed this many yards in a loss to a team that was not the Fun n Gun Spurrier-coached Gators? Then, no. And we don’t have the data for the 58-3 thrashing from 1993.

LSU has only allowed 600+ yards on one other occasion: last year’s Ole Miss game. The Rebels gained 614 yards on 8.6 YPP, but LSU won that game 58-37. It’s hard to get too riled up about the Worst Defensive Game Ever, when you won by three touchdowns.

But let’s expand our search a bit, to account for the offensive explosion in this era. If 600/8.0 is the relative benchmarks for defensive futility nowadays, let’s lower the threshold to 500 yards and 7.0 YPP and see what we get.

Only 7 games hit both of those markers. Now, to expand our sample, let’s bring in some close calls, especially if the defense allowed 40+ points in a loss. From there, we can bring in more contenders for Worst Game Ever.

Again, this is post-1996. This means we skip over some famous disasters, such as 1993 Florida (58-3), 1991 Texas A&M (45-7), 1988 Miami (44-3), 1981 Tulane (41-7), and 1980 Mississippi St (55-31). Also, some entire years get ignored, like 1983, 1956, and the 1948 season in which LSU allowed 40+ on three separate occasions.

Here’s our 20 contenders for worst defensive game since 1996, ranked by yards allowed.

20. 1999 Auburn, 41-7, 426 yards, 5.8 YPP
19. 1999 Ole Miss, 42-23, 426 yards, 5.9 YPP

The 1999 defense is probably the worst defense until this year’s edition. Scoring rates were lower, as were total yards, but this was really bad. However, this was actually an improvement from 1998, which we’ll get into. Auburn finished 5-6 and Ole Miss was an 8-4 team. Neither game was competitive.

18. 2004 Georgia, 45-16, 430 yards, 5.7 YPP

LSU’s 2003 title defense was already wobbling due to a close loss at Auburn, but LSU still looked like a legit top ten team when it arrived in Athens. The Bulldogs ripped off the first 24 points of the game, but LSU got it within 14 at the half. Georgia would tear threw LSU for the next three scores. David Greene threw 5 TD passes and took the fourth quarter off. He only threw for 172 yards because that’s all Georgia need to score 40+ points. A total ass kicking from what was at least a really good team.

17. 2015 Arkansas, 31-14, 440 yards, 7.9 YPP

“Fire everybody,” I wrote in our postgame review. The defense gave three touchdowns of 50+ yards and generally played dead in the wake of the Bama game. This was the death knell for the Les Miles era, so it gets some bonus points for that. But at the time, we were more focused on the pitiful offense rather than the atrocious defense.

16. 2008 Georgia, 52-38, 443 yards, 7.1 yards

It was close at the half, as UGA built a 24-17 lead. But LSU simply could not keep pace in the second half, as Georgia built a 38-17 lead en route to scoring 52 damn points. Matthew Stafford was at least an NFL talent, but 14 of the points came from pick sixes because… Jarrett Lee. LSU actually had more yards of offense (497 to 443) and a similar YPP (7.0 to 7.1). This came just two weeks after allowing 51 points to Florida, so it felt like the defense caving in at the time. But the defense kind of rallied the rest of the year and this was as bad as things got.

15. 2010 Ole Miss, 36-43, 470 yards, 8.0 YPP

Hey, we won this one! This game nearly meets the benchmarks of lots of yards with a 8.0 YPP, but this one doesn’t feel like a defensive clunker so much as an offensive shootout. Maybe its because LSU won, but its not like the 2010 team was plagued by defensive issues. Sometimes, you find yourself in a shootout. This is one of those times.

14. 2000 Florida, 41-9, 473 yards, 7.2 YPP

This was still a bad team in Saban’s first year. LSU was 3-2 thanks to an overtime win but also the infamous UAB loss. Expectations were about as low as they could get, and Jabar Gaffney caught three touchdown passes and Ernest Graham unintentionally ran up the score in the fourth because LSU couldn’t stop the run. Florida easily could have crossed the 500 yard mark if it was trying in the fourth quarter, which they weren’t.

13. 2008 Florida, 51-21, 475 yards, 7.7 YPP

This was part on of the 2008 duad of awful games. LSU defense also had a good outing in between the two pastings, just like they did this year. There’s a lot of similarities between the 2008 Florida/Georgia performances and this year with one major exception: Florida and Georgia were both really good. Those 50-point games are tough to swallow, but objectively, its better to get beat by Tim Tebow than CJ Costello.

12. 2002 Alabama, 31-0, 477 yards, 6.0 YPP

A thorough and complete ass-kicking, on both sides of the ball. LSU came into the game with the #1 ranked defense in the nation so in context, this is probably the most disappointing effort of the past 25 years, but not the worst. Bama simply ran the ball down LSU’s throats while Marcus Randall went a shocking 6-17 for 39 yards. If you thought terrible offensive performances started with Miles, you’re wrong. Bama rushed for 300 yards on 54 carries. It was a smash and bash job.

11. 2013 Georgia, 44-41, 494 yards, 7.1 YPP

The 2013 defense is not as bad as you remember, but it was bad in this one. However, I tend to view this game as another shootout in which the last team with the ball wins. Until Mettenberger failed to convert in the two minute drill. Look, Aaron Murray was good. But really, the 2013 defense would only have one other truly bad game, and it held seven teams under 300 yards. Sometimes, you lose the shootout to the NFL QB.

10. 1998 Arkansas, 41-14, 509 yards, 6.4 YPP

Arkansas won the SEC West in 1998 and the LSU defense was… well, it was pretty horrific in 1998. Lou Tepper’s reign of terror was in full swing, and LSU would finish the season ranked 91st in the nation in total defense and 55th in scoring defense. He somehow didn’t get fired for helming a lousy defense on a team that failed to post a winning record after being in the preseason top 10. If you’re looking for a 2020 comp, 1998 is a good place to start. But even here, in one of its worst games… still not like losing to Mississippi St and Mizzou. Arkansas was good.

9. 2013 Ole Miss, 27-24, 525 yards, 6.3 YPP

OK, I gave the 2013 defense a pass for the Georgia game, but this one… this was bad. Jarvis Landry scored the game-tying touchdown with 3:19 left to get LSU out of the 17-0 hole it dug itself in this one, only to then allow a 14-play, 61-yard drive to set up the game winning Ole Miss field goal. Bo Wallace went 30/39 for 346, which is mind-boggling if you ever watched Dr. Bo operate. LSU allowed three drives of 10+ plays, and then others of 9, 8, and 7 plays. Ole Miss marched the ball up and down the field all game, and LSU was exceedingly lucky to not be down larger. All of that said, LSU came back to tie, and the defense promptly laid an egg. This is one of the worst defensive performances in LSU history.

8. 2019 Alabama, 41-46, 541 yards, 8.0 YPP

LOL. Don’t care. Let’s watch CEH tear through Bama’s defense. Sometimes the numbers mislead you.

7. 2014 Auburn, 41-7, 566 yards, 7.6 YPP

OK, now we’re into the serious contenders. Look, the rest of this list is just an exercise in pointing out that truly bad LSU defensive games are rare. If this is the worst of the worst, you’re doing really well. But now we’re getting into the undeniable turds in the punch bowl. Auburn pulled the emergency brake in the second half so this one could have gotten far more out of control. Nick Marshall threw just 22 passes, though this game is far better known as Brandon Harris’ first start, which was practically designed for him to fail.

6. 2014 Mississippi St., 34-29, 570 yards, 7.8 YPP

The Dak Prescott game. Brandon Harris mounted a furious comeback to make the score look close, but the Bulldogs absolutely crushed LSU. Both Josh Robinson (197) and Dak Prescott (105) rushed for over 100 yards as they averaged over 6.2 yards per carry, and that’s with the 24 yard demerit for the ball snapped over Dak’s head. Without that play, they are dangerously close to 600 yards. State turned out to be a pretty good team that year, but man… this felt like one of the worst defensive performances in LSU history at the time. It still ranks up there.

5. 1998 Kentucky, 39-36, 573 yards, 6.7 YPP

Break out the era adjustments! Though Tim Couch could sling it, as he led the SEC in attempts, completion, completion percentage, yards, passer rating, and touchdowns. Hal Mumme and his OC, a pirate named Mike Leach, unleashed the Air Raid on an unsuspecting conference. LSU, an already poor defensive team, was caught flat footed. This was one of four games in which LSU allowed 30+ points in 1998. But the difference wasn’t that Couch threw for 391 yards, but that the Wildcats also ran the ball for 182 yards. Another last-minute drive allowed and a game-winning field goal as time expired allowed completes the portrait of a miserable defensive outing. I humbly submit this is actually the worst LSU defensive performance prior to this season.

4. 2018 Alabama, 29-0, 576 yards, 7.3 YPP

Bama killed LSU both ways: 295 yards passing and 281 yards rushing. This was an incredibly demoralizing loss, as Ed Orgeron built this one up and refused to minimize the importance of the game. The Devin White suspension didn’t help, but Bama completely dominated this game and the LSU defense, which had played so well all season was hapless. But again… it’s Bama.

3. 2019 Ole Miss, 37-58, 614 yards, 8.6 YPP

Yes, the numbers are bad. This is 2019’s second appearance on the list, but both of them were in wins (and Texas was a contender). But it is hard to get too panicked about a defensive performance made while protecting a three-touchdown lead. Yes, you could argue this defensive performance was as bad as those starting this season based upon the numbers and the opponent, but it does remove the context. Game score matters, and this one was never close. It’s certainly a bad defensive game, and maybe it’s the canary in the coal mine for 2020, but on its own, it was fairly meaningless.

2. 2001 Florida, 44-15, 632 yards, 9.4 YPP

Florida passed for 504 yards, 464 of them by Rex Grossman. LSU likely avoided the SEC record in this one just because Brock Berlin played most of the fourth quarter and went 4 of 9. This game presaged the LSU defense giving up 14 unanswered fourth quarter points to lose to Ole Miss, 35-4. That felt like the end of the season, but instead LSU wouldn’t lose again for the rest of the year and shocked Tennessee in the SEC championship game. They had to outlast Arkansas 41-38 to get there, a game in which LSU allowed 412 yards and again allowed the final 14 points of the game. The 2001 defense never got all of the way to good, but they figured out how to keep teams to 20 points. That was enough.

1. 1996 Florida, 56-13, 638 yards, 7.9 YPP

LSU went 10-2 and won the West in 1996. They still lost to Florida by 40+ points. This is another one that could have been worse. Florida jumped out to a 42-6 halftime lead, and spent the second half taking the air out of the ball. Florida mercifully milked the clock and ended the game with the ball on the LSU 9, if you want to know if they could have cleared 60. Very rarely is “they could name their score” taken so literally. The thing is… the 1996 LSU defense was good! Even with this game, it allowed 17.5 PPG, fourth in the SEC. They simply couldn’t stop Florida.

Seeing as we’re choosing 20 games from 25 years, it’s not notable if a year is included. What is notable are the years not included, or those with multiple entries on the list. So first, what years don’t appear?

Years No Appearances: 1997, 2003, 2005-2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2016, 2017

No real surprises. Two national title teams as well as the 2011 squad failed to put up a real defensive stinker. The worst team on this list is the 2016 squad, which went 8-4 (though 2017 went 9-4 because it got to play its bodybag game).

What is interesting is that of our 25 year sample, ten years do not have an entry for our worst defensive game. Les Miles coached at least part of 12 years in our sample, and he accounts for seven of the ten teams on that list. Orgeron has not has had at least one defensive clunker every year, starting in 2018. Is the era of terrific LSU defenses over? It’s not an unfair question? Les may not have been able to run an offense, but his defenses were amazing.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the years with multiple entries. The real contenders for the worst LSU defense of modern times:

Years With Two Appearances: 1998, 1999, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2019

1998-99 was the era of the Drop Linebacker and Lou Tepper’s era of misrule. There’s no way around it, the 1998 defense was truly atrocious. It allowed 20 points to Idaho, for godsakes. LSU allowed 37 or more points in four of the last six games, but did somehow stiffen up to hold State to just 6 points. 1999 was bad, but the defense slowly dug itself of 1998’s hole.

2008 had that twin Florida-Georgia 50+ point debacles. The defense somewhat righted the ship and allowed 31 points exactly in three consecutive games, two of them losses, before regrouping for a 38-3 Peach Bowl win.

I’ve somewhat defended the 2013 unit, but let’s not pretend it was a good defense, it just wasn’t as bad as you remember. They allowed 400+ yards 4 times in 5 games, before suddenly finding themselves after a Bama thrashing to close out the year with three relative good defensive performances.

2014 looked like a disaster early on, after getting thrashed by both state and Auburn. But the following week, the defense allowed 306 yards in a 30-27 win over Florida, and from there it wouldn’t allow more than 20 points again until the bowl game. Maybe history repeats itself?

And yeah, 2019 had two all-time clunkers, and a third contender in Texas. It’s important that these were all in wins, but also it shows the explosion in offensive capability. When it mattered, that defense shut down, or at least slowed down, some of the nation’s best units. Maybe it shows that we should grade on bit more of a curve, or maybe it shows the defense was already pretty flawed in 2019, and the bottom simply fell out this year.

Where would you place Missouri and Mississippi St on this list? I don’t see how you cannot put them one and two. Maybe 1998 Kentucky was worse, as it also came from a legitimately poor defense. But these two, even with an era adjustment, are probably even worse performances.

No team had more than two entries on our list for worst defensive games of all time, so LSU will be forging new ground with its next poor defensive effort. It would put it in contention, legitimately, for the Worst Defense in LSU history. 2008 and 2014 started this bad, but they regrouped. 1998 is probably still the standard for lousy LSU defenses, unless we look back even further to 1983 or especially 1948.

It’s not a knee jerk reaction. This is the worst LSU defensive performance ever. Or at least since 1996.