The one where I forget I don’t cover LSU and college football anymore …
So, by my rough calculations (and I’m not a scientist), with zero penalties this season, the LSU football team would be 7-0 right now, Leonard Fournette would have 1,593 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns, and the Very Important Committee that decides the four teams that will compete for the national championship would have to find something else to do this fall. The trophy would be awarded by acclamation. At least that’s what I heard someone with a thick Cajun accent say inside my head this morning as I sipped Community Coffee and remembered the anything-is-still-possible optimism of September in college football.
But OK, maybe there’s some exaggeration in that conclusion. Reigning champion Ohio State is No. 1, one of four teams in the top five of the AP Top 25 from a Big conference. The one that isn’t, “Mississippi” (as it’s known here in the Pacific Northwest), was recently called the nation’s best team in a piece by Business Insider. In the Midwest, people are waking up echoes talking about Notre Dame. Also in the top 10 is Georgia; is it too much to ask for a rematch of the first national championship game I saw in person, the 1981 Sugar Bowl? Then there’s the matter of LSU’s defense, which does not feature a Leonard Fournette.
Conventional wisdom says LSU needs to cut down on its penalties. The Tigers had 14 against Syracuse in a 34-24 victory Saturday, and through four weeks of the regular season, they are one of the worst offenders in the country in littering green fields with yellow flags. Coach Les Miles and his players said a penalty-free game is the goal after that performance. But being penalty-prone does not commit a college football team to a dystopian world in which championships are mere rumor, like maybe clean drinking water or safe city streets.
Now, don’t misunderstand: I’m not telling you LSU can win the national championship (I’m also not telling you it can’t). But after hearing and reading about how much better the Tigers would be with fewer penalties, I remembered something I discovered as an LSU beat writer preparing for the second BCS national championship game I covered (in the same venue where I watched Herschel Walker and Georgia soar over Notre Dame). Research the day before LSU’s 38-24 victory against Ohio State for the BCS title on Jan. 7, 2008, revealed an often-overlooked truth: You can have a lot of penalties and win a national championship.
Don’t believe me? Take a look:
Let’s put aside the anomaly that is Alabama coached by Nick Saban. We’ll get to that later. Note that LSU was 117th in the country in the 2007 season in fewest penalties per game at 8.36, an average of more than four flags per game worse than national-best Army (4.00). That’s 117th out of 119 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, so only two teams (South Florida and Cincinnati) were penalized more. In fewest penalty yards per game, LSU was 97th.