I would like to start off by humbly thanking those of you who invest the time to read this. It is an admittedly overly comprehensive look into the current state of our beloved LSU Tigers. As this is my first attempt at such an undertaking I had to go back in order to clearly paint the picture of where I believe we are headed. Your patience and interest is appreciated.
"Content makes poor men rich; discontent makes rich men poor."
Since January 9th, 2012, football has simply not been very fun for many citizens of Tiger Nation.
Before that night, the LSU Tigers had just run through arguably the most difficult schedule in college football history and finished 13-0 as undefeated SEC Champions for the first time since 1958. Only one of those games was decided by less than two touchdowns, and the Tigers fielded a Heisman finalist for the first time in 33 years. 2011 was without question the most impressive season in the history of LSU football.
But The Rematch on 1/9/12 erased all of the season's accomplishments in the minds of many Tiger fans, one painful three and out at a time.
Without question, the opponent in that game, and more specifically the head coach of that team, made the loss feel even more catastrophic than it might have had it happened against anyone else. Our championship run ended at the hands of our most heated competitor on and off the field, under the guidance of our former leader, in what we had considered our Dome away from home.
All this as Alabama won their second National Championship in three years, positioning themselves to be hailed as the top program in the country. But the media bias which created the unprecedented BCS Championship Rematch clearly showed that The Crimson Tide had already been handed that honor. According to ESPN and the rest of the media, The Rematch had simply "restored order" after LSU's upset victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa only 3 games before.
Just five days later, many LSU fans who also root for the New Orleans Saints had the added misery of watching the Saints' outstanding 13-3 season come to and end as they choked away the opportunity to host their second NFC Championship Game in three years. That the game ended by giving up two touchdowns in less than two minutes against former NFC West rivals San Francisco 49ers only added to the disappointment.
The offseason that followed was perhaps the most tumultuous in history. Months of endless criticism over Les Miles' game plan and handling of the quarterback position in The Rematch was made even worse by the loss of high profile recruits before and on National Signing Day. Finally, there was the shocking dismissal of the Heisman Trophy finalist who was the heart of the 2011 defense just weeks before the 2012 season began. And just for good measure, there was the all too familiar threat of a hurricane, Isaac this time, disrupting game week practice and threatening to postpone or move the season opener similar to 2005 and 2008. In short, nothing seemed to be going right in Baton Rouge.
The chaos in Baton Rouge was exceeded only by the shock in New Orleans as Saints head coach Sean Payton and several players were scapegoated out of the NFL by the Commissioner in the unfathomable injustice that was the "Bounty" scandal.
For months, virtually every conversation about sports in the state of Louisiana started and ended with either Roger Goodell, or Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide. With the Saints season seemingly over before it even began due to the theft of their unquestioned leader and offensive guru, the only way to end the Mayan Apocalyptic nightmare that had been 2012 was for LSU to BEAT ALABAMA.
The Elephant in the Room:
November 3rd was circled on calendars, Mayan and otherwise, throughout Tiger Nation the day the schedule was released. The preceding games seemed an inconvenient formality distracting us from Our Rematch in Tiger Stadium on the way to an expected return to the championship.
That sense of entitlement was magnified when LSU was selected as the preseason #1 team in the country despite losing five starters to the NFL from a historically disruptive defense. Two of those were first round draft picks, and perhaps most importantly, the offense also lost it's #1 wide receiver and only deep threat. The somewhat irrational optimism was primarily due to the LOSS of our two quarterbacks from 2011. After 4 years of mind boggling frustration from the position, most considered their departure as addition by subtraction.
Tiger Nation, myself included, heaped suffocating expectations on "The Mettsiah", who had never even started a Division 1 football game. Nevertheless, we simply assumed he could be nothing short of a savior that would bring us right back to the National Championship to exercise the demons of The Rematch. That illusion was shattered in the first quarter of the first game against North Texas, when an untouched blitzer's helmet exploded into Zach Mettenberger's chin, knocking him out of the game.
As scary and sobering as that moment should have been, Mettenberger returned to the game after a brief trip to the locker room and played well enough to ease any concerns. The bad news, however, was that the play foreshadowed the struggles in pass protection and blitz recognition that would haunt the team all year long, making his development much more frustrating than expected. The offensive line became even more of a concern the following week when preseason All-American LT Chris Faulk was lost for the year to a knee injury suffered in a non-contact practice drill.
Despite the inconsistent play of the OL, however, Mettenberger played nearly perfect in the following weeks averaging a 179 passer rating. This included a 40 point blowout over the Pac 12's Washington Huskies. The only problem was that all six of his incompletions in that game were clearly dropped passes by the supposedly sure handed LSU receiving corps, yet another sign of season long struggles to come. There was also a noticeable lack of a true deep threat to take the place of Rueben Randle and his over 17 yards per catch.
Still, Tiger Nation couldn't bring ourselves to see the writing on the wall. We became more frustrated every week comparing our Tigers to Alabama as they ran through blowouts of six consecutive unranked teams after taking the #1 ranking from LSU after week 1. In stark contrast to Alabama's dominance, the LSU offense unraveled in a 12-10 win over an Auburn team that would fail to win a single game in the SEC, and Tiger Nation had to suffer through an early deficit in a sloppy win over FCS Towson State in Tiger Stadium.
While Mettenberger's numbers had been good despite poor play from the OL and WRs up to that point, his play dropped off drastically over the next three SEC games, including in LSU's first loss of the year at #10 Florida. Still, LSU was able to earn hard fought wins over #3 South Carolina and on the road against eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel's Aggies.
So despite the all too familiar struggles on offense, LSU had managed to bring a 7-1 record into the much anticipated showdown with Alabama in Tiger Stadium. While their SEC and National Title hopes were very much alive, the team had looked like anything but a championship team in the first two months of the season.
After 10 months of waiting, Our Rematch had finally arrived. But after focusing on this game all year, the games already played showed the harsh reality: The 2012 LSU team just wasn't on quite the same level as the 2012 Alabama team. LSU was a double digit underdog despite playing in the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night, something that hadn't happened in over a decade. But what the oddsmakers didn't understand was that the LSU Tigers had played all season long suffocating under the pressure of this pending matchup. Finally, the 2012 LSU Tigers would face the opponent that had their full attention.
What followed should have been one of the most memorable games in recent history. Les Miles had his Tigers mentally and physically prepared to impose their will against the heavily favored #1 team in the country. Against all odds, LSU dominated Saban's #1 Crimson Tide for 58 minutes of the game. To that point, LSU had amassed 435 yards against the #1 defense in the country, while limiting Alabama to only 250. The Tide had not scored or picked up a single first down in the second half.
"The Mettsiah" completed 70% of his passes throwing for just shy of 300 yards in the best game of any LSU quarterback since Matt Flynn dissected Ohio State to win the National Championship. Freshman sensation Jeremy Hill ran for over 100 yards on the vaunted Alabama defense, and Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham caught everything thrown their way, including Landry's leaping TD grab to give LSU a 17-14 lead in the 4th quarter.
Unfortunately, points proved hard to come by in the red zone, as expected. And in the final minute, LSU's defense couldn't derail Alabama's championship collision course with Notre Dame.
Once the game that they had waited for 10 months to play was over, the Tigers seemed to lose the sense of purpose on display that night against Alabama, especially on the defensive side of the ball. A defense loaded with 7 players that would be declaring for the NFL Draft began to play as if their minds were perhaps already focused on the next step in their football careers.
But Les Miles began building toward the future. He focused on the development of the passing game that LSU had lacked for the previous four seasons. Mettenberger began to blossom into the complete quarterback LSU had been missing, throwing for nearly 1,100 yards and 4 TDs with only 2 INTs in LSU's last four SEC games. He became the first LSU quarterback to throw for 250 yards in three straight games against SEC opponents since, shockingly, Tommy Hodson in 1989. So LSU leaned on the offense for a change and closed out the season with 3 wins to finish the season 10-2, the sixth time in Miles' eight year tenure the Tigers had won double digit games.
Still, despite the strong finish to the season, the negative vibes from another heartbreaking loss to Alabama lingered all the way through the frustrating last second 1 point bowl game loss to a top 10 Clemson team.
Despite being labeled one of the most exciting bowl matchups of the year, much of Tiger Nation saw the Chick Fil-A Bowl bid as an insult to begin with since SEC newcomer Texas A&M, a team LSU had beaten, received a bid to the traditionally more prestigious Cotton Bowl. Understandably, the frustration was even worse given the continued feelings of unfairness over the bowl selection process of 2011 which gave us The Rematch. This led to an uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm for the New Year's Eve bowl game.
How We Got Here:
Of course, it's important to understand that it wasn't simply The Rematch that had Tiger Nation feeling like the sky was falling. The doubts went back much farther than that. 2011 was a remarkable surprise after three frustrating seasons following the 2007 National Championship. This led many to believe that the disaster of The Rematch may have been a better representation of the direction of the program following the Jefferson/Lee era than the historic success of the 2011 regular season.
After dismissing star QB Ryan Perilloux in the months following the 2007 National Championship, 2008 was an 8-5 season defined by an overwhelmed Jarrett Lee's interception bonanza. Lee threw 13 TDs but a stunning 16 INTs, with an unbelievable 7 pick sixes. This debacle occurred as Gary Crowton moved away from Jimbo Fisher's basic scheme that he used so effectively in 2007 once he had a full offseason to fully implement his own offensive design. Just as critical in 2008 was Miles' failed experiment to replace defensive coordinator Bo Pelini from within utilizing Co-DCs.
While Miles immediately fixed the defense the following season with the homerun hire of John Chavis, the offense continued to regress. While quarterback play became much more reliable under Jordan Jefferson in 2009, throwing 17 TDs to only 7 INTs, the running game was shockingly bad. As Crowton's convoluted scheme was easily exposed by SEC defenses, LSU ran for a measly 1,596 yards, nearly 600 yards less than in 2008, and an astonishing 1,200 yards less than in 2007. So the improvement from a regular season 7-5 record to 9-3 was overshadowed by the overall lack of faith in the offense, which seemed confused and unorganized. This chaotic mess was epitomized by the infuriating late game meltdown against Ole Miss.
Miles' first bowl game loss to 11-2 Penn State on a last minute field goal made the 2009 season even more disheartening as LSU finished 9-4. After the bowl loss, Miles sought to bring in Steve Kragthorpe as a replacement for Gary Crowton, but health issues of his wife led him to take a year away from football. This led to a grudging relationship between Miles and Crowton, who knew he was a lame duck OC.
The volatility of that relationship in 2010 contributed to a drastic regression of Jordan Jefferson's play at QB, and another late game breakdown against Tennessee. Although the Tigers were able to escape that game with a win, that embarrassment was the low point of Miles' tenure in Baton Rouge. For the first time, Miles' job security appeared to be in realistic jeopardy if things didn't improve quickly.
As a result, Miles took matters into his own hands and effectively removed Crowton from the offensive equation. The Hat was able to get his mojo back the following week with a dramatic last second upset win over Urban Meyer's Gators in The Swamp, equipped with a classic Miles fake FG call at the end of the game, and vital contributions by both Jefferson and Lee at quarterback.
Miles then pulled off the upset he needed to fully regain his swagger by beating Nick Saban's defending National Champion Tide. The defining moment of that critical game was Miles' famous reverse call for a huge gain on a key 4th down conversion, which was made legend by The Hat's nibble of Tiger Stadium grass before the play. The win was crucial for Miles, as beating Saban was something many of Tiger Nation honestly believed he may never be able to do again after Alabama's rise to power.
With Crowton focused on finding a new job, Miles led the offense to their best game in years in a blowout of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. The Tigers were led by a dominant performance by Jordan Jefferson, which capped off an impressive improvement to 11-2 in 2010.
Miles was finally able to get his wish as Steve Kragthorpe was brought in as offensive coordinator for 2011 to officially replace Crowton, who seemed bitter and arrogant as he moved on to OC at Maryland. He was fired less than a year later after a disastrous collapse on offense by the Terps, and was recently fired from the CFL.
But stability on offense just didn't seem to be in the cards for LSU, as Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease just months after being hired. This led to him being repositioned as QB coach and set up a tenuous 3 pronged OC by committee between Miles, Kragthorpe, and OL coach Greg Studrawa. Adding to the chaos was Jordan Jefferson's arrest stemming from a barfight just weeks before the season opener against #3 Oregon, which made the 2011 run even more unlikely.
But Jarrett Lee responded beyond all expectations as the OC brain trust was able to design a near perfect attack that played to Lee's strengths, unlike in 2008 under Crowton. Lee established a strong connection with Rueben Randle, which stretched the field and made teams pay when they stacked the box to stop the run. Lee was allowed to rely on LSU's exceptional running game, defense, and special teams, while limiting his potential for mistakes. Lee was a model of efficiency, throwing 13 TDs to only 1 INT, but was never asked to do too much, as he only threw for over 180 yards once all season.
As a result of his success, Lee kept the starting job after Jefferson was reinstated in week 5. Jefferson was used sparingly, only attempting 10 passes in his first four games, but did throw 2 TDs and ran for 2 more, as LSU played it's most dominant games of the year building toward the showdown between #1 LSU and #2 Alabama.
In The Game of the Century, however, when matched against an elite defense for the first time all year, all of Lee's progress came crashing down. He looked like the former unsure and intimidated freshman all over again as he threw 2 interceptions on only 7 pass attempts. Luckily, Jefferson was available to provide a steady presence as the inspired defense and special teams wore Alabama down. Jefferson made just enough plays with his arm and legs to help LSU escape from Tuscaloosa with what should have been a historic win.
But the media began pushing their agenda literally before Miles even got off of the field, as the post game reporter shamelessly questioned Miles about the possibility of a Rematch before he even got to celebrate with his team. With the likelihood of facing the Alabama defense again, Miles decided Jefferson would have to be the quarterback if LSU was going to have a chance to beat that historically great defense for a second time, and began to prepare as such. In their careers, Jefferson had great success against Saban's vaunted attacking defenses, while Lee played the worst games of his career.
Jefferson's career numbers against Alabama before The Rematch were 26/40 for 322 yards, 2 TDs and most importantly 0 INTs, also rushing for 86 yards. Lee's numbers were a disastrous 24/58 for 316 yards, 1 TD and an inexcusable 7 INTs.
As much as it upset Lee's fans, many of whom booed and ridiculed him mercilessly in 2008, Miles knew that Jefferson's ball security gave the Tigers the best odds against one of the best defenses of all time. So Jefferson regained the starting role, and LSU rolled on to 4 straight blowouts to end the season.
Jefferson played the best game of any LSU quarterback of the year against #3 Arkansas with the SEC West on the line in the final game of the regular season. While he and the offense started painfully ineffective against another elite Georgia defense in the SEC Championship Game, Jefferson was at least able to avoid turning the ball over, the same way he did against Alabama. This once again gave LSU's ferocious defense, special teams, and running game the time it needed to take over in an eventual 42-10 blowout to cap a remarkable 13-0 SEC Championship season.
Miles decided that ball security, the same strategy that worked to perfection all season long, gave LSU the best odds to win against perhaps the best defense of all time for a second time in The Rematch.
At the end of the year, the unanimous #1 Tigers had beaten Pac 12 Champion #3 Oregon at a neutral site by 13 points, the Big East Champion #16 West Virginia on the road by 26 points, SEC East Champion #16 Georgia in Atlanta by 32 points, #3 Arkansas by 24 points, and #2 Alabama on the road in "The Game of the Century". All of that was disregarded, however, as the unprecedented Rematch was arranged for the media's darling, Alabama.
Big 12 Champion #3 Oklahoma State, boasting the #2 offense in the nation at just under 49 points per game compared to Alabama and LSU's 35, was deemed unworthy to take on the undisputed SEC Champion. Fans of college football were denied the chance to see how the SEC's defensive prowess would match up against the offensive firepower of the Big 12.
It's worth noting that Oklahoma State's defense also matched Alabama's sack total of 30 (LSU had 39), and nearly doubled the Tide's 13 interceptions with 24 (LSU had 18). The Cowboys had beaten 5 teams ranked at the end of the season compared to Alabama's 2 (LSU also had 5). And yet, the media refused to allow the SEC and Big 12 Champions decide the championship on the field.
All of which goes a long way in explaining why the 2012 season may have seemed like such an afterthought to LSU fans, and perhaps even the players and coaches. If the Alabama game was the only thing anyone else cared about, why should Tiger Nation be any different?
A Little Perspective:
Throughout the past five seasons, it's been easy to forget that Miles was leading LSU through the greatest run in Tiger history, even despite all of the perceived chaos. While the media takes great joy in presenting Miles as a "Mad Hatter" who flies by the seat of his pants and wins without rhyme or reason, Miles has consistently and methodically guided his teams to overcome major adversity both on and off the field at key positions and has continued to build LSU's national reputation while competing at the highest level of the most dominant division in college football.
Miles has led LSU to 85 wins in his eight seasons as head coach. Miles' teams climbed in the final rankings every season in his first era with Jamarcus Russell and Matt Flynn as quarterbacks. LSU finished the 2004 season at #16 in Nick Saban's final year at LSU, and Miles improved that team all the way to #5 in his first year in 2005. LSU then climbed to #3 in 2006, building to the #1 finish and a National Championship in 2007.
With nowhere to go but down, taking a step back in 2008 was inevitable after the dismissal of Perilloux began the second era of Miles' tenure with Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson as quarterbacks. But once again Miles' teams improved every year after finishing unranked in 2008. LSU climbed to #17 in 2009, #8 in 2010, and #2 after LSU's 13-0 SEC Championship season in 2011 led to a second National Championship Game appearance. The improvement of that era occurred in the midst of arguably the most tumultuous quarterback situation in LSU history, a challenge that has destroyed countless programs over the years, all while playing the most consistently challenging schedule in the country.
Amazingly, LSU has played the eventual National Champion every year since 2006, excluding 2007, obviously, when LSU won the crystal ball, and even played them twice in 2011. In the past three seasons since Jefferson and Lee were no longer in their first years as starting QBs, LSU has gone 34-6. Alabama went 35-5 in the same period. Three of LSU's six losses were to the eventual national champion, 5 were against BCS bowl teams, and all 6 were against top 10 teams, 5 of which were away from Tiger Stadium.
Notably, in that same time period LSU is also 2-2 against Alabama, the current powerhouse in college football. Of course, Miles would be 2-1 against Saban if not for the unprecedented Rematch. Obviously Alabama would also not have the 2011 National Title, while LSU certainly might.
Despite that constant gauntlet, Les Miles has led LSU to the highest winning percentage in the country among BCS conference teams since becoming head coach in 2005. Only Boise State and TCU have won at a higher rate, usually facing only one or two ranked teams a year.
Instead of marveling at everything LSU has been able to overcome, however, it has been easy to focus on the negatives. Lee's disastrous 08 season under Crowton, the embarrassing meltdowns at Ole Miss in 09 and Tennessee in 2010, and of course The Rematch in 2011.
So the heartbreaking last second losses to Alabama and Clemson in 2012 were understandably difficult to put into perspective, at least initially.
Since the season ended, however, the emotion of those losses began to subside. Miles made the exceptional addition of Cam Cameron as OC, and secured yet another stellar recruiting class on Signing Day. All signs also point toward one of the best recruiting classes of any team in college football history heading to Baton Rouge in 2014.
As perspective began to sink in, it became clear that the demise of the LSU Tigers under Les Miles had been greatly exaggerated, and that LSU was still neck and neck with Alabama as the best college football program in the land.
Turning the Tide:
Even on a national level, the focus finally turned to the scheduling disparity of yet another season in which Alabama would face one of the easiest schedules in the SEC, the same way it had the year before. This at the specific direction of the SEC Director of Scheduling, who happens to be an Alabama alum. Alabama's Eastern Division opponents in 2013 had a combined SEC record of 1-15 (the only win is against each other), while LSU's Eastern Division opponents were 14-3 in 2012.
Even more of a scheduling advantage, is that Alabama will never play more than 3 SEC games in a row. Alabama's most difficult SEC stretch is a road game at Kentucky, followed by home games against Arkansas and Tennessee, none of which went to bowl games last year. Alabama will only play 2 preseason ranked teams all season.
LSU, on the other hand, will play 5 SEC games in a row, 4 of which were bowl teams, 3 of which are on the road. LSU will play 5 preseason ranked teams in 2013, 4 of which are ranked in the top 10.
So with the odds stacked so firmly in Alabama's favor, there are pleasantly mild expectations for this LSU team. The fact is, LSU could beat Alabama, and still not even win the SEC West given the rest of their brutal schedule compared to Alabama's cakewalk to a third national title game.
While not conceding anything, realizing the reality of the situation seems to have led to a refreshingly peaceful sense of optimism throughout Tiger Nation. Anything is possible, but nothing is expected.
With 2012 being the beginning of Miles' third era, this time under Mettenberger, the 10-3 record and #12 final ranking bodes well for Tiger Nation. In 2012, in what should have been another honeymoon year after his second SEC title and national championship game, LSU was vastly farther along than the 2008 post National Title team that finished unranked.
If Les Miles continues to improve each year as in his previous two eras, there is little doubt that the best is yet to come under what is already the greatest coach in LSU's history.
Again, I would like to thank all of you patient Tiger fans who chose to read this in it's entirety. I hope you found it was an enjoyable stroll through the past few years of LSU football, and perhaps even gained a bit of a new perspective on how lucky we are to be witnessing the Golden Age in Tiger Nation.
If nothing else, hopefully it helps you pass the time until Gameday on Saturday.
Most gratefully, your eternal comrade in purple and gold arms.
"Take time for all things: great haste makes great waste."