Google Maps tells us its 649 miles from the steps of Tillman Hall to the base of the War Memorial Tower on LSU’s campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But 649 miles from Clemson will also get you to Memphis, Indianapolis and the Mason-Dixon Line.
The true distance between Clemson and LSU is measured in more ways than just miles. For almost forty years the two schools were members of the same conference, first the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association then the Southern Conference. LSU won the SIAA twice, in 1896 and again alongside the national championship in 1908. Clemson’s best years in the SIAA were championships in 1900 and 1902. As members of the Southern Conference, LSU won it once and Clemson won it twice (albeit after LSU and other schools had left for the SEC), including an undefeated 11-0 season in 1948 where the Pickens Tigers finished eleventh in the AP poll behind seven other teams with at least one loss or tie.
Although conference brothers for thirty-six years, the two schools never met once on the football field. A number of reasons factored in to this, including distance and mammoth size of the conference. There were upwards of twenty-one other teams in the SoCon at times. In the early twentieth century, college football was popular, but the organizational structure of conferences and at the national-level was much looser than it is today. Try as they might, the Southern Conference had a tough time keeping twenty plus schools in check year after year. Eventually this led to LSU joining a group of members in creating the Southeastern Conference, and later Clemson joining the remaining teams to form the ACC.
Once LSU left to help form the Southeastern Conference in 1932, the two schools would remain at distance for over twenty-five years until the 1959 Sugar Bowl. That year the undefeated LSU Tigers under the leadership of Coach Paul Dietzel brought their 10-0 record to the Sugar Bowl to face Coach Frank Howard’s ACC Champions, the 8-2 Tigers. Scoreless through the first half, LSU would score the games only points on a nine-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, securing their first ever national championship. It was the second-lowest point total that season for LSU.
From 1959 to 1996 the two schools combined for fifteen conference championships (Clemson 11, LSU 4). In 1995 Gerry DiNardo had been hired by LSU to help resurrect a program that hadn’t had sustained success in over a decade. Clemson’s Tommy West had come on board in 1993 to help turn around a proud Clemson program that had suffered under Danny Ford’s successor, Ken Hatfield. 1996 was a good year for LSU, they finished the season 9-2 and ranked in the Top 25. It was the best finish for an LSU team in over ten years. Clemson finished 7-4 and was fresh off a stinging 34-31 loss to South Carolina in the last week of the season. These two teams looking for relevance and momentum met for the second time in their history in the 1996 Peach Bowl.
The game was one of the more defensive battles in Peach Bowl history. Clemson started the scoring with a touchdown in the first quarter only to be answered by one by LSU. Right before the half LSU would hit a field goal to go up 10-7 and that would prove to be the winning margin. Neither team scored again in the second half allowing LSU to walk away with their first ten-win season in nearly a decade and only the fifth one in school history.
But the biggest tale between these two schools has been the fifteen years from that last meeting until now. LSU has prominently jumped to the national stage, winning five division titles, four conference championships and a pair of BCS national championship trophies. Clemson has won an ACC championship and three division titles, but it pales in comparison to LSU’s success. The SEC has emerged as the premier football conference in America and the ACC has found itself struggling for relevancy. It can be argued Clemson hasn’t beaten a relevant team on the national stage in years. This edition of the Chick-fil-a Bowl will be an opportunity for Clemson to prove that 649 miles is a lot closer than the map says, or that the gap between the top teams in the ACC and the top teams in the SEC is widening at an alarming pace.
There are no championships on the line, but for Clemson, the third-ever matchup with LSU will be the most important.