SEC teams have won the last seven national championships. Alabama has won the last two.
The last two weekends Mississippi fans have taken a sobering look at the SEC’s top-shelf power and speed when Alabama dumped Ole Miss 25-0 and then LSU routed Mississippi State 59-26. These days, Bama and LSU are part of the national championship picture every season.
Only older fans will remember, but there was a time when a Mississippi team was annually in that national championship conversation. John Vaught’s Ole Miss teams were once a fixture in the Top 5. Younger fans can get a history lesson over the next few days.
The 1963 Rebels – the last Mississippi team to win the SEC title – will hold their 50-year reunion and be honored this weekend in events surrounding the Texas A&M-Ole Miss game at Oxford. Then, on Oct. 17, the 1959 Ole Miss Rebels, surely the best college team ever in this – and most other states – will be honored at the Renasant Bank Toast to the 1959 Ole Miss Rebels at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
The 1963 Rebels won the last of Vaught’s six SEC championships, going undefeated during the regular season and not losing until Bear Bryant and Alabama used four field goals to defeat the Rebels 12-7 in the Sugar Bowl. That Ole Miss team finished No. 7 in the Associated Press poll.
The 1959 Ole Miss team, if not for one freakish 89-yard punt return by LSU’s Billy Cannon, surely would be considered the best college team in history. Try to wrap your brain cells around these achievements:
• The ’59 Rebels outscored their opponents 350-21, despite the fact that John Vaught often rested his starters during the third and fourth quarters of games.
• The longest touchdown drive allowed by Ole Miss that season was eight yards. That right: eight yards, not even enough for one first down.
• The 1959 Rebels produced 12 – count them, an even dozen – future Mississippi Sports Hall of Famers.
• In the rematch of the 7-3 loss to LSU on Cannon’s punt return, Ole Miss routed the Tigers 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl, allowing Heisman Trophy winner Cannon only eight yards rushing.
It was my great fortune to work with Vaught on a biography before his death in 2006. The old coach believed down to his DNA that the 1959 team was the best ever.
“If there was a better team than that one, I never saw it. We did not have a weakness,” Vaught said.
Charlie Flowers, a All-American fullback and linebacker, was one of the team’s captains. He led the SEC in rushing and scoring and surely would have won the Heisman, if not for Cannon’s punt return.
“Most games I spent the second half begging Coach Vaught to let the starters play some more,” Flower said.
Ironically, it was Vaught’s confidence in his defense that led to the Rebels’ only defeat. At Tiger Stadium, LSU never crossed midfield other than on Cannon’s punt return. Vaught often punted on first, second or third downs, preferring to put the game in his defense’s hands. In fact, Cannon’s punt return came on a third down punt.
On Jan. 1, 1960, those ’59 Rebs unleashed all their fury in the Sugar Bowl. “I still can’t believe they agreed to play us” Vaught said all those years later. “That was the dumbest thing anybody ever did.”
Believe this: Paul Dietzel, the late coach of the LSU Tigers, did not want the rematch. Segregation and Louisiana politics forced his hand. It wasn’t so much a rematch as a mismatch.
“Ole Miss was so much bigger than us and so fast,” Dietzel said in 2009, 50 years after the fact.
Sagarin Ratings – the computer-generated service used by USA Today – ranked the best college football teams of all time. The 1959 Rebels checked in at No. 3 behind the undefeated Nebraska teams of 1995 and 1971. If not for one play, well, you know…
Rick Cleveland is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.