We've all seen the punditry talk. The message board posts. The "anonymous SEC coaches" comments and the various preseason magazine prognostications. LSU is down. "In decline." Tough schedule. Too many early departures. Too many starters lost. That word.
It's become some sort of dirty word amongst major college football programs. Largely because we associate it with the professional sports idea of deconstructing a roster and starting over with younger, less-experienced players. Not with the college games, where the best teams are constantly restocking, and largely get to select their own talent.
In fact, somewhere, right now, there's a message board humanoid somewhere saying "but the great programs don't rebuild -- they reload."
Can I tell you how much I HATE this phrase? It may be the single most overused cliché of the internet age of college football. The height of message-board fan hubris. Every football program on the face of this planet has had a rebuilding year, in every era. The differences are all about relativity.
In the NFL, a few key personnel losses are the difference between a .500-ish or worse record and 12-4, because a handful of players (or a quality quarterback) is usually the difference between the middle of the NFL pack and the top every season. Take a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees away (or in the Saints' case, a Sean Payton), and suddenly a playoff team looks fairly mediocre. But in college football, the difference between the top and the bottom of most BCS conferences is typically much, much greater. A top-tier SEC program like LSU, Alabama, Florida or Georgia's rebuild doesn't look like a rebuilding year for Kentucky or Vanderbilt. And therefore, when a team in the top tier plays one in the bottom, the rebuilding doesn't always show up (there are always exceptions, of course). Schedules are a factor. Some top-15 programs may only see a handful of teams all year that can even come close matching their talent on the field.
Take the 1990 Miami Hurricanes. In the midst of some of their most loaded years as a football dynasty, and sandwiched in between national titles in '89 and '91. A 9-2 regular season record is hardly a one to be ashamed of (and capping it with one of the all-time bowl game shit-kickings versus Texas certainly helps). But consider that the Canes saw just three ranked opponents that season, and went 1-2. Were 4-loss plus squads like Kansas, Texas Tech, Pitt or Boston College going to threaten a team that was loaded with studs like Craig Erickson, Russell Maryland, Randall Hill, Lamar Thomas, Michael Barrow and Leon Searcy? No, but a top-10 Notre Dame squad and a BYU team led by Heisman winner Ty Detmer could.
For other examples, look at Oklahoma or Alabama during their run of loaded wishbone teams under Barry Switzer and Bear Bryant. The 1981 Sooners went 0-3-1 versus ranked opponents, and the 1976 Crimson Tide was 1-2, with a third loss to Ole Miss (point of reference, losing to Ole Miss is something that's only happened to Bama NINE times in the history of EVER). The Sooners were coming off a string of 10 consecutive Big 8 titles (including shared ones), and would come back with a few more 4-loss seasons, before rattling off another four titles (including a national championship in '85). Alabama followed up their relatively down year with three more conference titles, and national championships in 78-79.
Rebuilding can also be relative in certain areas of the team that may otherwise seem incredibly talented. The 2006 LSU Tigers are often remembered as one of the most talented squads the program's ever fielded. But they were starting 4 new offensive linemen, including a freshman left tackle in Ciron Black. They lost two games, both in the first half of the season, to Auburn and Florida teams that featured outstanding defensive fronts, including stars like Sen'Derrick Marks, Quentin Groves, Jarvis Moss, Ray MacDonald and Marcus Thomas. By the end of that season that offensive line played much better football, but in those first six games, that's what you call a perfect mismatch.
Or take the 2010 Bama team. Loaded with talent, enough so to bludgeon almost every team they faced. But the three losses all featured breakdowns at key moments by a defense that was breaking in eight new starters.
In most instances, a team that loses a couple of games on the mistakes of inexperienced players sounds a lot like a rebuilding year. The difference is that in college football, the top-shelf programs don't typically see enough teams that are good enough to take advantage of those mistakes.
Now, I told you those stories to tell you this one. Is this a rebuilding year for LSU? Probably. Sure, LSU will face at least five teams that will be ranked in the preseason top 25. But of that group, only Bama and TCU return more starters than LSU (13 and 16 respectively, compared to 12 here). And all of these teams have talent coming in, but so does LSU. Some of the matchups might fall their way, some might fall LSU's. But make no mistake, there's still the talent to win championships now and in the future, with a coaching staff that has shown that it knows how to win at the highest level.
The LSU football program is going to be fine.