Let's take a quick look at the SEC season that was, and some quick thoughts on LSU.
What a Season It Was
The SEC regular season concluded yesterday evening, with Alabama making a furious comeback to overcome Gus Malzahn's high-powered Auburn squad. It's been a bit of a strange year in the SEC. The SEC East performed like a proverbial waste dump, engaging in a game of "who can suck the least" to crown eventual champion Missouri. The West spent moments of looking like world beaters, only to trade blows enough that four teams remained in play for the division title deep into the season. Texas A&M beat Auburn who beat Ole Miss who beat Alabama who beat Mississippi State who beat Arkansas who beat LSU who beat Texas A&M. Strange loss/victory computations of each of those teams trickled through as well. Auburn took LSU to the woodshed, but inexplicably lost to a bad Texas A&M at home. Alabama lost to Ole Miss, who eventually dropped three straight conference games. Ole Miss beat both Alabama and Mississippi State, but will finish fourth in the division. Meanwhile neither Auburn nor LSU could beat either of them, but both will finish ahead of Ole Miss.
This ranks up there with the weirdest SEC seasons in a long while. I get the feeling you could replay many of these games and get an entirely different subset of results.
There's really no argument for a dominant SEC team this season, as there has been the previous decade or so. Even Alabama spent large swaths of the season looking exceedingly mortal, including limping to victory at LSU, allowing 44 points to Auburn, and getting upset by what proved to be a pretty average Ole Miss. There's an outside shot they could get upset next weekend and the SEC could be completely blanked out of the inaugural college football playoff, and that's an odd feeling.
Really, though, this is true of most of college football. The nation's lone undefeated squad struggled to put away nearly every opponent they faced this season. Credit to them for pulling it out, I guess, but excuse me if I'm not impressed. Beating a bad Florida with an exiting head coach... at home... by five points, doesn't bowl me over. ACC marks will trump how both their division winners beat the SEC this weekend and the rest of college football will collectively sigh. The Noles are a talented bunch, but I'd be highly surprised if they weren't completely smothered by Alabama or Oregon... if they even get that far. They've shown a weakness to getting run smooth over, and their ACC title game opponent specializes in doing exactly that, averaging 338 rushing yards a game.
Oregon looks the part of the best team in the country, but they also dropped a game, at home, albeit to a very quality Arizona team... who they will match up with again next weekend. If Arizona springs another upset, then what? Oregon's also looked far more mortal when they match up with teams that can smother their athleticism, like 2010 Auburn and 2011 LSU. I think the "is the Oregon for real" question is a fair one.
TCU seems the least remarkable of all probable playoff teams, which says a lot, really. They dropped a road game to a good Baylor team, who turned around and took a beating from an okay, but unremarkable West Virginia team. That TCU limped to victory against a hapless Kansas, makes their already weak resume look even weaker. How can you justify putting them in over a team that, you know, beat them, and sports a comparable resume? Such is college football 2014.
Then we have Ohio State, the college football playoff contender with easily the weakest resume and easily the worst loss of all them. They lost, at home, to a no good, terrible Virginia Tech team that stumbled into bowl eligibility, narrowly beating a team with a coach whose job remains in limbo. And oh yeah, they just lost their Heisman-candidate QB for the season too. Color me uninspired by their performance.
People relate this season to 2007's rough and tumble year of upsets and general lack of domination, but while I'm biased, that 2007 LSU squad was far superior to any team that's taken the field this season. LSU, that year, suffered from some unfortunate injuries, and hey, undefeated in regulation, y'all! So yes, while LSU holds the distinct honor of being the only two-loss title team of the BCS era, it was pretty clear they were the best team in college football that year.
This year, no team has nearly such a compelling case.
If I could summarize the Les Miles era at LSU in two words it might just be "what if."
"What if Hurricane Katrina hadn't ravaged our state in 2005?"
"What if Miles stuck with Jarrett Lee in 2011?"
"What if LSU tackled T.J. Yeldon in 2012?"
"What if LSU's defense played like typical LSU defense in 2013?"
"What if Trent Domingue hadn't kicked the ball out of bounds vs. Alabama in 2014?"
Then again, you have to ask yourself why it's always something. You make your own luck and LSU hasn't done a good job of doing so. 2014 is clearly a rebuilding year for our Tigers, and when you look at programs like Florida, Michigan, Texas and the like, it's pretty clear that things aren't that bad. But then, there's always the what if? We seem perpetually on the doorstep, but never walking through the door.
Meanwhile, Alabama is similarly rebuilding, but will be likely playing for a National Title after this weekend. Let's be clear, pretty much everyone in college football is looking up to Alabama and their unbelievable collection of talent. It's nearly become narrative here for us to gripe about all the breaks that go their way, yet I can't help but acknowledge this isn't all some big fortuitous confluence of events that occurs year after year after year. Alabama is again in pole position, despite playing a QB that even they don't seem to believe in, while replacing a boatload of early NFL departures, and ushering in a new offensive coordinator. The variables change for Alabama, but the results remain the same.
LSU is one of the few programs in the nation that can lay claim to a talent collection that's nearly as impressive as Alabama's, yet our level of success since Alabama hired Saban doesn't match theirs. I'm not just talking national titles, either. Here's the numbers, since 2007.
6-3 Alabama, including four straight victories.
If Alabama is able to secure another SEC Title next weekend, they will hold every possible winning advantage over LSU since 2007. It's a difficult pill to swallow, namely because this team stares us in the face on a yearly basis. They are not only in our conference, but in our division. It's further fueled by the fact that Saban was once our coach, something many fans still haven't gotten over.
Meanwhile, we're left standing here with a handful of what ifs and another set of serious question marks heading into next season.
Is Good the Enemy of Great?
Les Miles will retire at LSU. Frankly, he's earned the right at this point. He will go out as the winningest head coach in program history, get a big fat statue on campus and may even get the distinct honor of having the field named after him. Les Miles Field at Tiger Stadium has a ring to it, no?
I think the "what if" question is the one that sticks in the craw of the staunchest Miles critics. They take it to absurd lengths, at times, but they also have very valid questions to ask. A decade into his tenure, I think we can now safely say that Miles is a very good, but not great, coach. I'm sure many will disagree. How we measure greatness is the essential question.
Is LSU one of the most talented teams in the nation?
Has LSU performed up to the level of talent it fields on a yearly basis?
Could LSU have accomplished more, considering their talent level?
The counter point would be to question who has accomplished more? It's a somewhat disingenuous question, because few coaches sit in as favorable of a position. Only a handful of jobs in the nation offer the talent base and the resources that LSU does. Miles inherited a very healthy program, already stocked with tons of talent. Jimbo, Urban (2x), even Saban, all walked into worse situations and accomplished as much, or more. There's no logical way to justify the "fire Miles" crowd, and that's not at all what I'm suggesting. But I do think it's fair to ask why we haven't been even better.
I think it's very realistic that LSU is destined to be a very good, but not great, team for the remainder of the Les Miles era. Disdain the championship or bust attitude as you may, but that is the established standard set both by our program and our coach.