Well, the 2012 regular season is officially in the books. 10-2, and now waiting for the bowl politics to play out for LSU's next destination. How would you best sum up the season overall?
Perspective and context matter. If you had told me in March that we would finish 10-2 and not win the SEC and not go to the BCS, I'd have told you this season was a disappointment. However, by September, the variables completely changed, particularly in regards to the players on the field. I'll write about this later in the week, but this may have been Miles' finest coaching job yet, considering the massive turnover and ushering in more and more inexperienced players and still experiencing massive success.
It hurts that we would stand a chance to be playing for a National Championship right now if we hadn't blown it against Alabama in the last two minutes of both halves. But, in a general down year in college football, we still cobbled together ten wins in the toughest division in the toughest conference in America. You'd be a fool to be too disappointed in that.
Perspective is certainly key for this discussion. Around this time last year, people looked at LSU's roster and realized most of the stars were sophomores and juniors and the expectations for the 2012 season soared. But since then, you lose Michael Brockers a bit unexpectedly to the draft and Rueben Randle too, though his departure was a bit less surprising. You lose the Honey Badger in fall camp. Tahj Jones and some other depth guys are academically ineligible. Your pre-season All-SEC left tackle goes down after one game and your starting running back goes down two weeks later. Your right tackle also leaves the team later in the year. That's a LOT for any team to deal with. But yet, the fan base did not really adjust their expectations. It's like everyone was too invested in 2012 being THE YEAR. And that's OK to a degree because high expectations are a good thing.
On one hand, LSU is 90 seconds away on November 3rd from playing for an SEC title this weekend with a chance to go to Miami. So from that point of view, and considering the circumstances mentioned earlier, I feel OK about how the season turned out. 10 wins is absolutely nothing to scoff at in this league. But on the other hand, I still have a feeling that this team wasn't really able to put it all together and maximize what they did have. No moral victories or losses, I know, and playing to their potential may not have changed the team's record, but the wins at Auburn and Arkansas left a lot to be desired and caused a great deal of frustration....not to mention the loss at Florida. So in that sense, I think "frustrated" may be a more appropriate word than "disappointed."
Focus clearly seemed to be an issue for this team. From the summer, players talked and tweeted about "Miami" and playing for the crystal. I think a lot of what we saw these last three weeks has to do with the fact that the BCS Championship was no longer an achievable goal.
I think you two nailed it. LSU was a very good, but not great team. Yeah, this season wasn't what we all envisioned last spring, but this also isn't the team we envisioned last spring either. There was a massive level of attrition, from the defense's best player to the offensive line -- and the latter is one position no team can ever really afford much attrition at.
If that wasn't enough to overcome, the personnel questions we already had coming into this year didn't quite pan out. The receiver corps never developed that true No. 1 guy to replace Randle, and the defensive backfield missed Brandon Taylor's leadership. Those are two worries we had about this team anyway, and that's even before the other losses piled up. The result was a team with a deep group of backs, a good defensive front-seven, a limited group of receivers, an injured line, a very young secondary, oh and by the way, a brand new quarterback. It just never came together the way the 2011 squad did.
Still, LSU overcame those issues and gutted out its way to 10 wins, including four wins over ranked opponents and two over top-10 opponents. The Bama game was a disappointment, but you couldn't help but be proud of the way the Tigers pushed them to the final minute. But it proved to be a turning point for the passing game that carried through November. Even if youth on the team, especially the defense, didn't seem to rebound the way we all would've liked, they still found a way to close it out. A top-10 ranking still means something and so does the top 5, if LSU can get in there after the bowl season. And with Mettenberger and a veteran offense returning, 2013 holds a lot of promise again.
This year's SEC was the most top-heavy I can remember in more than 15 years of passionately following the conference. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina, and Texas A&M can all make a legitimate claim that they are BCS-worthy. And LSU and Florida had absolutely brutal schedules since they both played four games against the SEC's elite. On the other hand, Alabama and Georgia only had to play two of the conference's best teams. It's not a coincidence that they're the ones facing off for the SEC title on Saturday.
LSU was undoubtedly one of the most talented teams in the country, but there were monumental difficulties before the season even began. I think this team was ready to replace stars like Michael Brockers, Rueben Randle, and even Mo Claiborne, but the loss of Tyrann Mathieu so close to the start of the season was devastating. Then, there was the injury to Chris Faulk before the team began its conference slate. Looking back at the match-up against Florida, it's clear that sub-par play from the offensive line cost us the game. With a healthy Faulk, I think there would have been a different outcome, and we would have been looking at a very different 2012 season.
Considering the injuries, suspensions, and extremely difficult schedule, I don't think this can be considered an unsuccessful season by any means, and Les Miles deserves credit for keeping the team together. However, I can see why many Tiger fans are disappointed, especially with the team's offensive ineptitude in the early part of conference play. Considering the team's track record over the past four years, I think the fanbase expected too much out of Zach Mettenberger initially, but the offense still struggled mightily until the second half of the South Carolina game. And then, once the offense started to get things figured out, the defense began to regress against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Arkansas.
For all the promise the Tigers showed in their dominating win over Washington and on the road against Texas A&M, this team didn't quite live up to its expectations.
A 10-2 record with LSU's strength of schedule is nothing to be upset about, but I understand why some Tiger fans have an empty feeling right now.
I think we've all covered just all of the hurdles this team had to clear. And if you're reading this thinking, "well, LSU is so good, they should win despite losing 7 starters from the start of fall practice", take a look at what happened to other teams with personnel issues. USC had some losses on the defense they couldn't afford, and their season spiraled out of control. Wisconsin couldn't keep a quarterback healthy and lost FIVE games by 7 or less points (3 in overtime), the difference between contending for a national title and going 7-5. Arkansas had some serious injury issues, and a preseason top ten team now isn't even going bowling. TCU suffered some key losses due to the drug scandals, and they found their Big 12 debut did not go as planned. These kind of personnel losses usually decimate a team.
High expectations are good. I'm a big fan of high expectations. I demand that this team competes for national titles. And while this team won't win one, it is really one bad play from being in Atlanta. From a program view, that's all you can ask. Given the massive losses of personnel, this team should have won 7 or 8 games. This had all of the earmarks of a mediocre year. Instead, LSU went 10-2 and is in the top ten. This season, outside of the Katrina year, is the single best coaching job Les Miles has ever done. We should be bragging about this. LSU lost its three best players for the season (Mathieu, Faulk, and Blue) and still contended for the SEC title. Show me any other team that could do that. To keep the positions relatively the same, take Eddie Lacy, Barrett Jones, and Dee Milliner off of Bama's squad and see how their season goes.
I really can't overstate just how great of a job of coaching this was by Les Miles. Lesser teams would have thrown in the towel on this year in September. Hell, lesser teams did. I know we all get obsessed by counting titles and all that, but this is a season that every Tiger fan should be incredibly proud of. This is one of the Tiger teams with the most chest. You don't get a trophy for that, but this team should be praised for a truly remarkable year, given the circumstances. Of my favorite Les Miles teams, this ranks third behind 2005 and 2011. Yes, ahead of the title winning team.
This isn't lowering expectations, this is raising them. The mark of a man is how he reacts to adversity, and this team reacted with grace.
So what are the next steps for LSU in the next 2-3 months?
The obvious note is to put the finishing touches on the recruiting class. It's already a strong class, but there are still big fish in play that could push it over the top.
At this point, it's a given that Miles will get his team prepared for the bowl (okay, let's throw out last season's debacle). We've come into most every bowl game looking like a dominant force and usually perform so well the media is compelled to name us a national title contender the next season. This year, it's about taking that next step with Mettenberger. His play improved in November, but it's still not to that elite level. The rest should do the defense well and hopefully they get back to being stellar. It's time for young guys to step up and take the reigns as this becomes their team. And, perhaps selfishly, I hope Kwon Alexander is able to get back on the field, as he was a major loss to our defense and super fun to watch.
Step One: Win the bowl game. LSU needs to close this season out on a high note to build some momentum and good vibes for next year. It's not critical, but this team can still finish in the top 5, and that's not nothing.
Step Two: Convince some guys to stay. We have a truly staggering number of players contemplating leaving early for the draft, and Miles has got to keep some of them in the fold. Sam Montgomery is gone, as he really has nothing left to prove in college, and we should wish him well. You should never stand in the way of a top ten pick. But Miles has to convince either Logan or Mingo to stay so he doesn't have to completely rebuild the line. Mingo's draft stock is all over the place, I've read everything from top 5 to early second round, but he actually could use another year to become a better football player. Make him the best defensive player in the country so he can get top 5 money. But more importantly, camp out at Kevin Minter's house and convince him to stay. I'm not saying he's making a Trev Faulk like error if he leaves, but he could be a 1st round pick next year, and he won't be one this year. We've got a lot of exciting young linebackers, but Minter could be the Brandon Taylor-like leader we need next season.
Step Three: Rub some healing balm on Alfred Blue, Chris Faulk, and Kwon Alexander. We don't just need those guys back, we need them back to their pre-injury selves.
Step Four: Find a wide receiver. Zach Mettneberger made some great strides towards the end of the season, but he needs a guy he can rely on. Most quarterbacks have a security blanket, a guy they can just throw the ball to when nothing else is open and maybe he'll make a play. He needs to find that guy he can trust. Maybe its Landry. He's not the most talented, but he's got toughness. And toughness goes a long way.
I agree with all of those steps. Getting that 11th win and cementing a spot in the Top-10, possibly the Top-5 is a big deal. It helps build the resume of Les Miles and the program as a whole, and builds momentum into the off-season and will help next year's pre-season ranking. Miles has to find a way to keep some of these juniors on defense. Losing Montgomery, Mingo, Reid, Logan, Minter, and Simon is too big a blow I'm afraid. Hopefully, two or three will stay.
After the bowl game, after the juniors declare for the draft, after any staff changes are made and after Signing Day, the most important thing has to start taking place which is to shape the attitude of the 2013 team. Will they be hungry? Will they be focused? I feel like we saw a bit too much carry over from 2011 this year in that a number of players just assumed they could show up on Saturdays and blow teams out. I'm not implying the guys didn't bust their butts in the off-season. But I question whether the "want" was there each and every week. Will that mindset be purged from the program as the 2013 team emerges and sets their own goals? I think we'll see some very strong leadership from Mettenberger and some of the juniors such as Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, La'El Collins and Anthony Johnson and hopefully they'll lead a group with a renewed focus heading towards spring practice.
Agree. Win the bowl game and set a positive tone for the spring. I'm pretty confident signing day will come and go with success, and it's going to be crucial for there to be something of a positive vibe in this town in the spring. We've seen how that negativity can just linger like a fog. Frankly, it's just no fun.
The junior defections will really set the tone for the defense this offseason. I don't have a ton of faith when it comes to players passing up NFL money -- I can't even say it's the best idea most times -- but if Miles & Co. can find a way to at least keep one of the three defensive linemen, Minter and at least Tharold Simon on hand, you're talking about possible All-Americans on this defense.
But Kris made a really good point about a tone needing to be set -- and I really think this needs to come from the players as much as the coaches. Effort was there in 2012, but there just wasn't the same intensity and focus week-in and week-out. I think a lot of the veterans on this team focused a little too much on one particular game and got it in their heads that the other 11 would be easy, just like they were last season. But part of what makes a season like that so amazing is that those wins almost never come that easy. Learning to play at that level for all 12 weeks is what kept this very good team from being a great team, and that's the next barrier for the Tigers to push through this offseason.
On that note, a popular theory was that the '11 slate, starting off with three big games in the first month, helped that team focus. Do y'all buy into that theory, and does opening next season with TCU in the Jerradome help in that regard?
Absolutely. TCU, while no elite team is no runt. It's a time that requires you to focus on. It's a team that you can't use part o your week game planning for other teams. They've proven they can take down the elite. It will be a game that commands attention and attraction, especially if TCU is able to win their bowl and get to 8 wins, generating some positive momentum heading into the game.
As for all the defections, none of those guys are ready, in my opinion, including Sonic Sam. But some of them will leave. I will say, there's not as much incentive to leave early due to the rookie payscale, but next year's crop of draftees looks much stronger, so that's going to push some of them up the board this year, even if "cosmetically." I do wonder if the taste of never having that MNC will push some of them to return for one more run? Likely dreaming, but I still think there's a shot for that. There are things left to prove for all of them.
I do think everyone's draft stock is hyper inflated. There's no way we have that many 1st rounders on this team, as it would make us the best defense ever assembled. Other schools have good players, too. And if you're not going to be a first rounder, you probably shouldn't leave early. You can make more by improving your draft stock.
And I do think the TCU game helps. There's something to focus on in the offseason as we have to come out of the gates firing. Also, a big win could really set the tone for next season. But I think there needs to be momentum to build on. Win the bowl game, get a few guys back, sign the big class. Make it feel like a snowball rolling downhill in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Poseur, I have to agree with you about the draft stock of some of our top juniors on defense. Have you guys seen this SB Nation Mock Draft? Matthew Fairburn has Sam Montgomery going 2nd and Keke Mingo 3rd overall. It's obviously very early in the draft process, long before all the players run the 40 at the combine, see how many times they can bench 225 pounds, or take the Wonderlic, but I'm surprised Montgomery and especially Mingo are so highly rated at this point. Eric Reid is also projected late in the first round. It's obviously very difficult to gauge the accuracy of these draft placements, but I think there's a reasonable chance all three guys will be gone. I'm more optimistic about the rest of the guys returning, and that will be crucial for the 2013 season.
If Mingo and Montgomery depart, we will have a hole at defensive end. However, the younger players waiting in the wings like Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter should get a lot of help from our elite defensive tackles and linebackers. And the secondary should be mostly intact, even if Reid leaves early. The defense's strengths will be in different positions than in years past, but if Les (or whoever is leading us in a few weeks) can bring back guys like Bennie Logan, Kevin Minter, and Tharold Simon, we will once again have an elite defense.
The other area to focus on is the 2013 recruiting class, but fortunately, most of the hard work is done. This is one of the strongest groups that Les and Co. have assembled in Baton Rouge, and if they can keep everyone committed, I think we'll be in great shape. We might not see an immediate impact from a lot of these guys next year, but the blue-chippers graduating from high school this year should be the cornerstone of teams in 2015, 2016, and 2017. But if there's one undecided player that needs to come to LSU, it's linebacker Kendall Beckwith, the best defensive high school player in the state.
This is something tough to know without being in the locker room. But it's easy to infer. Last season, LSU had to be ready for big things right out of camp, and by the time the conference season opened they were ready to bring that focus ever week. This time around the non-conference schedule was much lighter, aside from a solid Washington team. You saw in that first road game at Auburn that LSU wasn't quite ready to knuckle down the way it needed to, and that quality lingered throughout the season, until the Bama game. So maybe the big stage in Dallas will be the right jump-off point.
As far as the draft talk, I think with a lot of the guys it's a question of risk/reward. If, say, Bennie Logan, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon are second-round guys now, is it worth the risk to come back for one more year to try and get into the first round? It's easy to say ‘yeah' when it's not your body. Montgomery and Mingo play a premium position that tends to get over-drafted, so the talk of them being very high picks isn't a huge surprise. I do agree they could each use some more seasoning, but that's a lot to ask.
Minter, Reid, Simon and Logan are the four keys to me. One is a potential All-American linebacker, and we'll need some sort of veteran presence in that secondary (though I'm not sure LSU would miss Reid nearly as much as Simon). And we all know the value of defensive line depth, especially at DT. Take away Logan and suddenly LSU only has two guys there with appreciable experience.