I've spent the past several days trying to collect my thoughts regarding not just Saturday's debacle in Auburn, but the overall state of LSU football as it stands. I spent much of my summer arguing with my fellow bloggers, and many of you readers, regarding the type of team we'd field this season. There's no real joy in being right in this case. This team featured a great number of weaknesses, plainly staring us in the face, many of which we all ignored. We've been spoiled by a tremendously successful run that conditioned us to believe things would continue to be that way.
This success fuels a debate that's raged on since that wild night in Tempe a decade ago. The battle lines were pretty quickly drawn:
A) You support Les Miles and all his quirks
B) You don't support the buffoon and all his obvious gaffes
The trouble is, that's painting a complex issue with broad strokes. Team A decries any Miles criticism as "spoiled, non-big picture thinking" while Team B seeks to undermine every bit of success. When Miles wins a big game against a great opponent, Team B isolates whatever faults there were or references past mistakes. When Miles botches a decision, misses on a recruit, fails to make quality coaching hires, Team A is quick to hit the excuses, reminding everyone just how successful Miles has been. When Miles notches another top 5 recruiting class, Team B says they'll surely not meet their potential.
The bulk of this site (writers and readers) sit squarely with Team A, and while that's not a terrible place to be, it's a line of thinking that's as dangerous as any produced by Team B. There's no middle ground on an issue that's highly nuanced and much more gray than the black and white it's painted in.
It's hard to have a reasonable discussion about the subject. A few of you engaged me on Twitter (which I love), on the subject. When I suggested Miles should be held accountable, the response was largely that he's basically earned the right for a bad season. That's a simplification of the discussion, but it's basically stating that we've been good enough for long enough that we can assume this season is an exception, not a rule.
The bottom line is that LSU, in its current state, should not lose by five touchdowns to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Period. Yes, Auburn is a very, very good team. Yes, playing on the Plains is very, very difficult. But the facts of what happened do not jive with the current status of the program. Many quickly dismiss this loss, and this season as "we're young," and "we lack depth," citing early NFL departures. It's a pleasant sounding excuse, but an excuse nonetheless.
If we're going to tout the number of players we place in the NFL, we must also acknowledge our failure to capitalize on such talent. We're leery of the "championship or bust" mentality, but that is the precise standard we play to. LSU doesn't recruit to third place finishes in the division, as they did last season. They certainly don't recruit to last place finishes, as they are headed for this season.
Arguably the best team in LSU history couldn't finish the job in 2011. It's painful to talk about, but we were utterly outclassed that evening, and a narrow victory in Tuscaloosa a few months earlier doesn't make it any easier to stomach.
When fans complain about 10 win seasons not being "enough", it's not wholly myopic. If it is, then it's a position endorsed by our own head coach, who routinely declares that his team will play "championship level football." It's fair to both acknowledge that these are good seasons that were also failures. But this is where we find ourselves talking out of both sides of our mouths. To openly express that we didn't win a National Title, and that that's a disappointment, will quickly get you labeled as short sighted, not thankful for the golden era of LSU football, and not understanding that winning 10 games is hard. Yet, no one walks into a season hoping for anything less than a national title. That is the standard.
Since Saban arrived in 2007, the LSU/Alabama series sits at 5-3, with a scoring margin of 192-144. Alabama has now beaten us in three consecutive match-ups, outscoring us over that span 80-34. Two of those games were never competitive beyond the 1st quarter. Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma and Ole Miss have beaten Alabama in that same span. None of them recruit to the level of LSU, with only Auburn even coming close.
We're forced to ask the difficult question of why haven't we achieved more. College football is largely a talent game. Recruit the best, win the most. If we're producing the highest volume of NFL talent on a yearly basis, something we love to tout, then why shouldn't we routinely be among the five best teams in college football? Why is that too much to expect?
Acknowledging that it's not is also not stating that Les Miles is a terrible coach. It's impossible to argue the results and all the success. Over the past decade, the only program that's clearly outperformed LSU is Alabama. They've outrecruited us (and everyone else), so it makes perfect sense.
What doesn't make sense is that we routinely play down to our competition. There's not much good reason why we should routinely struggle to put teams like Arkansas and Ole Miss away. Arkansas hasn't played Bama even to within three TDs since 2011, twice giving up half a hundred while being entirely blanked. It's evidence of our own poor coaching and preparation.
We'll cover those poor performances with statements like "well the coaches can't make the plays for them!" but they are also paid multi-millions of dollars to best prepare them. That means getting them mentally focused, developing sound gameplans and putting the team in the best position to win. It's fair to question that those three things are not always happening.
There's other troubling aspects, as well. In year 10, we've fielded three competent QBs, only one of which was recruited by Miles and staff. A&M is able to cycle through QBs and pump out monster statistics. Alabama seems to consistently find, at least, a baseline competence, if not much better. Georgia moves through quality QBs year after year, it seems. Yet, we're often hoping our QBs can not turn the ball over and throw for 100 yards and we'll call it "enough." Why are our standards so low? And we've seen this now across multiple offensive coordinators. The parts change and the results stay the same. It's moved far beyond odd bad luck and into poor player development.
Considering all the success we have experienced, it's tough not to wonder what more it could have been with even a Greg McElroy level competent QB. The types of players, at bare minimum, befitting to a school that recruits among the best and produces the highest level of NFL talent.
Here is the average season for a Les Miles recruited and developed QB:
120/202 attempts, 57.6%, 1,550 yards, 7.2 YPA, 11 TDs, 6 INTs.
Abysmal. Here's what Joe Cox, arguably Georgia's worst QB under Richt, did his senior year:
185/331, 55.9, 2,584 yards, 7.8 YPA, 24 TDs, 15 INT.
Cam Cameron is just the latest magic solution to the problem, and we're once again witnessing horrendous QB play. The lack of development is thus far excused because both players are young, meanwhile players like Kenny Hill, Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, Connor Halliday, Huston Mason, Blake Sims, Maty Mauk, and the list goes on, can step on the field and deliver better play than what we produce, on average, despite either youth, lack of experience, or both.
Anthony Jennings ranks in the bottom three in the SEC in passer rating. He's completing barely above 50% of his passes. Brandon Harris has yet to do anything of note in the throes of a competitive game vs. a meaningful opponent, and completely imploded when given the starting nod. Yet Kentucky can start a guy with only 40 career attempts, who is completing 63.4 percent of his passes at an 8.1 clip, while beating superior teams. What gives?
There's also the issue of whether or not we deploy our best personnel. Could Harris' implosion Saturday have been prevented by preparing him as the starter from day one, starting him against Wisconsin and the ensuing cupcakes? I'd have to think it'd at least have mitigated it to some degree. Why is Leonard Fournette suddenly the 4th back off the bench, despite clearly being the most productive? Why does D.J. Welter continue to be trotted on the field? I don't have the answers, and I'm not saying there aren't perfectly good ones. But that doesn't make the questions any less legitimate.
The final question is truly one of roster build and composition. A large reason LSU sits where they are today is due to attrition. We point to the positives of all the draft picks, but that doesn't fully address the problem. LSU's roster currently holds only 80 scholarship players. Two of those are walk-ons that were granted scholarships (Delahoussaye, Neighbors), which suggests we're striking out on many recruits. Here's the breakdown of the number of recruits who have left the program, for reasons other than the NFL, since 2011:
16 players from three signing classes who would have eligibility right now are no longer in the fold. It's tomfoolery to expect a 100-percent success rate in terms of talent evaluation, but that's a pretty high miss rate. In an ideal scenario your misses would be players like Chancey Aghayere, and Evan Washington, who may never reach potential, but stick around as decent depth. Instead, we're cycling a high number of players entirely out of the program. Add to that the 22 early entries in the NFL draft, and you are talking about the loss of 38 scholarship athletes in a three year span. That's a full recruiting class and a third of another simply evaporated.
So what blame to the coaches, then? Well, it's fair to question the evaluations they've had on a number of these players. Three of those 38 were QBs. Many of the 16 non-NFL departures were dismissed for disciplinary reasons, not the typical, "Well, I wanna play so I'll go somewhere else" path. Gambling on high-risk kids will always be a part of major college football, whether we like it or not. It's not all bad, as many times college football gives a vehicle for escape to otherwise at risk young men. But it also comes with the price of sometimes not working out. Does the staff need to do deeper character evaluations?
Anticipating a Change
Miles' seat is not even slightly warm right now. And it shouldn't be. The point of this isn't to proclaim that Les Miles should be fired. That's silliness.
The point is that there are problems. And problems not limited to 2014's team. Issues we've seen occur in the past. Every program has them, yes, so the question is how to address them?
It's both fair to say LSU is extremely young this season, but to also question why the coaches recruited/coached in a manner that lead to LSU being in this position. It's both fair to defend Miles past on his history and question the decision making of the man making $4 million a year. It's both fair to celebrate the success and wonder if it could have been more.
At some point, Miles' tenure will be done. We all assume he'll likely retire, probably as the winningest coach in LSU history, get a statue on campus and ride off into the sunset. Unless things go totally awry the next two to three years, this is almost certainly what will happen.
Could 2014 be a sign of bad things to come? Is there good rationale for anticipating the need for change and being ahead of the curve?
There's been far too much premature prognostication about the demise of Miles at LSU. Many wanted him fired after 2008 and 2009. Then LSU rebounded in 2011 with the best season in school history. Perhaps we should all accept the uncertainty? The path with Les Miles will never be as clear, nor as straight, as we would like for it to be. But that doesn't mean we should cut it off halfway before we arrive at the final destination.