When LSU won the national title in 2003 under a guy named Nick Saban, it didn’t just snap a title drought that stretched back 45 years. It gave birth to a unique tradition that thrust the spotlight onto the No. 18 jersey, which quarterback Matt Mauck proudly wore that year as he helped lead the Tigers to where they hadn’t been since Billy Cannon starred there.
While Mauck was merely one of the many reasons LSU was finally on top again, his selfless attitude was something the school believed should be celebrated every season thereafter. Starting in 2004 with running back Jacob Hester, the No. 18 at LSU would be synonymous with success on and off the field, and it would be seen as a sign of ultimate respect to whichever player was picked to wear it. Simply put, it went to the guy who most exemplified what it meant to be an LSU Tiger, and its honorable effect has even been felt at the next level.
It doesn’t necessarily go to the best player the Bayou Bengals boast in any year — Derrius Guice won’t be wearing No. 18 this fall, for example, and most would agree that Mauck wasn’t LSU’s best player during that magical 2003 run. But 18 annually goes to LSU’s heart-and-soul guy, as Mauck was in 2003 when he returned from a foot injury that ended his 2002 season and tossed 28 touchdown passes to propel the Tigers to glory.
Thirteen years after Hester, there are two players who’ve been given the honor, as senior fullback J.D. Moore recently joined senior defensive end Christian LaCouture in the No. 18 Club for this season. As long as Moore and LaCouture aren’t on the field at the same time, and they won’t be, NCAA rules allow two players to wear the same number.
Now, what if each of the other 13 SEC schools applied the same exact tradition that LSU does each season? What number should each program choose, and in honor of whom?
Alabama: Derrick Thomas, 55
Nobody embodies heart and soul in Tuscaloosa like the late, great Thomas, who only differs from the prototypical No. 18 recipient in that he most definitely was Alabama’s best player during his illustrious ride there. Thomas was an All-American, a Butkus Award winner and the most feared man lining up opposite queasy SEC quarterbacks in pretty much each game he played. Alabama has always prided itself on having ferocious defensive players, and Thomas was that. He was a dominant force in crimson and white (Thomas highlights heat up at the 14:00 mark of the video), and he was a tremendous leader as much as he was a tremendous player.
Arkansas: Darren McFadden, 5
Like Thomas, McFadden might have been one of the best Hogs ever, but he also had a spirit about him each time he took a handoff during his All-America career. In 2006 and ’07, McFadden won the Doak Walker Award and was SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Hogs fans can close their eyes a decade later and see No. 5 streaking down the field, blazing a trail to the end zone. McFadden’s 4,590 rushing yards trail only Herschel Walker on the all-time SEC list, and there’s hardly a better compliment or a better example of excellence than to be second to Herschel on any list. McFadden was and is the best example of Arkansas football, and those who’ve worn his No. 5 since have been given a gift, even it isn’t official like at LSU.
Auburn: Bo Jackson, 34
This one was pretty obvious, and it’s no insult at all to Cam Newton and his No. 2 or Takeo Spikes and his No. 55. But Bo was Bo, and he’ll always be the heart and soul of Auburn football. He just happens to be the best player ever to wear a Tigers uniform and the one who best exemplifies LSU’s No. 18. Once Jackson soared “over the top” of Alabama’s defense to beat the hated rivals as a freshman in 1982, he immediately became an Auburn icon. If the No. 18 is synonymous with being an LSU Tiger, then the No. 34 epitomizes everything it means to be an Auburn Tiger. Bo’s number is retired at the school. Nobody will wear it again. But imagine how proud one deserving Tiger would be each season to don the legendary 34? Gus Malzahn would never have to give that player a pep talk.
Florida: Tim Tebow, 15
These days, kicker Eddy Pineiro proudly wears that No. 15 jersey that was once owned and immortalized by Tebow. He was arguably the best college quarterback of all time, but it went way beyond that with Tebow. He was all heart and fire and will, and his message to his fellow Gators after they lost that game to Ole Miss in what turned out to be a mad dash to the national title in 2008 can now be read against a plaque that’s set against a brick wall outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. That’s Knute Rockne-type stuff there. Tebow’s No. 15 is indeed retired, but the Gators make their retired numbers available for current players. But if Florida did exactly what LSU does with 18, who would possibly argue that 15 wouldn’t be the number that carried the most acclaim?
Georgia: Herschel Walker, 34
Probably the best pound-for-pound SEC player of all time, if not college football player of all time, it would be shameful for Georgia’s most special number to be any one but 34. There could be no more esteemed number to award a most-worthy Bulldog each fall than the one donned by Walker, who arrived in 1980, bowled over Bill Bates and put Georgia on top of the college football world. Herschel’s number 34 is safely retired in Athens, for Uga and every loyal fan to see and admire. But how stunning would it be for the Bulldogs to run on the Sanford Stadium field on a sun-splashed early September Saturday with some well-deserved player wearing 34 in Walker’s honor? It would be like jumping into a time machine back to the early 80s, and you wonder if Walker would even mind at all.
Kentucky: Tim Couch, 2
At a school dominated by basketball lore, very few football players immediately come to mind, and Couch is one of them. In fact, he is the one who can dominate a conversation on Wildcats sports that don’t involve the legends of Rupp Arena. Couch was an All-American and the SEC Player of the Year in 1998, when he threw for a jaw-dropping 4,611 yards and 38 touchdowns. His No. 2 (and a list of others) has been retired by the school, but they still allow current players to wear retired numbers at Kentucky. So why not honor Couch, Kentucky’s ultimate football standout who was savvy enough to lead the Wildcats to a last-second victory in Death Valley in 1998, by giving out his number to a deserving player each fall? Couch was born right outside Lexington, and plenty would have wanted to wear that No. 2 like he did so splendidly.
Mississippi State: Dak Prescott, 15
Prescott wouldn’t just be the perfect candidate for the Bulldogs’ version of No. 18 because of what he did on the field in Starkville. He further honored the school just one season after he left it by becoming one of the centerpieces of the Dallas Cowboys. Each time Prescott takes the field for the Cowboys over the next decade, it will be an advertisement for Mississippi State football and how greatness can be achieved there. For future Bulldogs who were influenced in coming to Starkville because of Prescott and who admire him as the quarterback for America’s Team, you can bet an annual prize to wear No. 15 in maroon and white would be looked at as the ultimate honor.
Missouri: Kellen Winslow, 83
With all due respect to Chase Daniel, who owns a ton of Tigers passing records and who lit up the sky in Columbia for three amazing seasons, Missouri’s number in LSU’s tradition would be Winslow’s No. 83. Winslow’s number has long been retired at Missouri, and we are talking about one of the greatest tight ends of all time who as a pro with the San Diego Chargers was famously helped off the field after a playoff victory in Miami because he literally had nothing left to give. It was the same thing at Missouri for Winslow, and it would be the highest honor for a Tigers player to don that No. 83 each fall.
(Note: Mizzou already has a similar tradition, handing out the No. 25 jersey to a young linebacker with promise in honor of former LB Aaron O’Neal, but Winslow’s number could be handed out to players at different positions.)
Ole Miss: Archie Manning, 18
The Rebels do a touching ceremony each spring that’s somewhat like LSU’s tradition, giving out the Chucky Mullins Courage Award to a defensive player who has the honor of wearing Mullins’ retired No. 38 that fall. So with 38 certainly being Ole Miss’ version of LSU’s 18, we’ll throw out Manning’s retired No. 18 as an annual prize for an offensive player. It would be hard not to shed a tear watching a No. 18 on offense to go with the emotions that seeing a No. 38 bring back to all Rebels fans each fall.
South Carolina: Sterling Sharpe, 2
Sharpe didn’t star for the Gamecocks when they were in the SEC, but if you’re old enough and a true college football fan, you will remember how Sharpe made defenses and special teams units look foolish on a weekly basis during the mid-80s. Sharpe’s No. 2 jersey is retired already, but let’s bring it back with an annual gift to an offensive dynamo who would watch one YouTube clip of Sharpe and have his hand raised high to wear the uniform in his honor. Sharpe and George Rogers are the only Gamecocks to have their numbers retired while still in college.
Tennessee: Reggie White, 92
Yes, of course Peyton Manning and his No. 16 could have been the choice here, but remember this honor doesn’t have to go to the best player in that school’s history. White was an amazing college player, too, and he wins out slightly when you consider the spiritual aspect. Manning will always be The Man in Knoxville, but White carried an aura with him in college, all throughout his pro career and straight through until his death at a way-too-young 43. LSU’s No. 18 tradition was made for someone just like Reggie White, and what a sight it would be to see a current No. 92 run through the “T” at Neyland Stadium.
Texas A&M: Von Miller, 40
Like Sharpe, Miller wasn’t an SEC player while starring with the Aggies, who joined the conference just after he left. But SEC fans know exactly who the two-time All-American and Butkus Award winner was, before Miller became the ferocious linebacker for the Denver Broncos who was the Super Bowl MVP just two seasons ago. In the land where the 12th Man lives in the stands at Kyle Field, Miller always made it feel like the Aggies defense had an extra man on the field. He was the epitome of Texas A&M’s no-nonsense reputation, and his No. 40 would look great on an Aggies defensive player each year. Dat Nguyen and his No. 9 is a strong honorable mention here.
Vanderbilt: Ralph Webb, 7
Yes, the choice for Vandy is still at Vandy, as Webb chose to return for a fourth season in Nashville despite practically owning the Commodores record book already. So Vandy could start honoring a player in 2018 by giving out the No. 7 jersey to someone who not only excelled on the field for an underdog program like Vandy but also had the will to want to finish what he started, as Webb is doing this fall. The annual chosen No. 7 would honor Webb’s mixture of self-confidence and pride in his program in believing he can conquer all at the SEC’s ultimate underdog football school.