This season has been the single most frustratinging year of the Les Miles era at LSU. It hasn't been the most stressful, I'm naming my first ulcer "2007"; nor has it been the worst, an honor that goes to 2008. This has just been a season of pent up frustration that never quite got that release.
Part of what made 2008 easier to swallow was a shiny national championship trophy from the prior season. Also, Miles bought himself some time and goodwill by kicking the troubled Ryan Perrilloux off of the team. He had a built in excuse for the post-title struggles, and there wasn't much hand-wringing over figuring out what the heck just happened, even if people hated the decision.
2009 had its issues, but it was obvious that the team was steadily improving. In fact, it was that season's promise that birthed Delusional Optimism in the first place prior to the 2010 season. The top level success wasn't quite there yet, but you could see the foundation for big years being built. It didn't make the Ole Miss game any less frustrating, but you could see the bright, blue, beautiful tomorrow.
2013 may go down as one of those all-time second guesses as time marches on. LSU had Mettenberger and Hill in the backfield and Beckham and Landry at the receiver slots. That is an all-time great offense at the glamor positions, and LSU ranked 35th in total offense and 23nd in scoring. This is mitigated by the fact that LSU was seventh in yards per play, but still this team will always feel like a missed opportunity. People blame the defense, but it ranked 15th in yards allowed and 21st in scoring.
The thing is, that's not Les Miles football. He never seemed comfortable with a high-powered offense and a pretty good but not elite defense. So even as some serious talent departed for the NFL, 2014 promised to be a return to Miles football: a ball-control offense backed by a killer defense. This is the formula he is comfortable with to win football games.
Here we are at the season's end, 8-4 overall and 4-4 in conference. The wins didn't really come and worse yet, this team adhered to the Les Miles formula. While LSU never seemed comfortable in its 2013 identity, this team is the Les Miles ideal down to a T. LSU ranked third in the nation in scoring defense and eighth in total defense. LSU ranked 4th in the nation in time of possession, slowly cranking out long drives designed to rest the defense while breaking the will of yours. This team did exactly what you want an LSU team to do...
... and finished tied for fourth in the SEC West (the SEC only breaks ties for the division lead, otherwise, it's an official tie, but feel free to slot us in fifth if it makes you feel better). We talk about building an awesome team for next year based on a killer defense and ball-possession offense, well, we have that right now. No need to build it. And we see the results.
So what's holding the team back? Why has the formula suddenly stopped working?
I've hammered this point home quite a bit, but it still bears repeating: LSU got horrific quarterback play this season. LSU ranked 116th in the nation in passing yards. Anthony Jennings ranked 92nd in passer rating and didn't crack the top 100 in yards per game. He only cracked 50% in completion percentage in two games against Power 5 teams and only cracked 200 yards once.
Worse yet, he got worse as the season went on. His three worst games in yards/attempt against Power 5 teams were his last three: 2.9 v. Bama, 4.0 v. Arkansas, and 5.1 v. Texas A&M. LSU could have not only salvaged this season after its rocky start, but made the SECCG had it won out. After the big Ole Miss win made this a possibility, LSU dropped its next two games behind Jennings combined 20/48 for 163 yards line. With simple mediocre quarterback play, LSU wins those games and the standard Miles formula of defense and an offense just not screwing it up works. The problem here is the offense screwed it up.
LSU is a quarterback away from being a national title contender. This team would have won the SEC West this year with a simply bad quarterback instead of a catastrophic one. That's not on Jennings, that's on a staff that has shown itself almost completely unable to develop a decent quarterback. This is not a problem that magically solves itself. It torpedoed this season, and very likely could do it to the next. I don't care if it's Jennings, Harris, some JUCO transfer, or a walk-on from open tryouts held on the Parade Grounds. No more excuses. Find a f#*%ing quarterback.
The secret sauce of Les Miles' success at LSU has been dominant special teams. LSU destroys teams in the battle for hidden yards and while it's never a good idea to play for field goals, LSU will beat you in a battle of the kickers.
Jamie Keehn shanks a few here and there, proving he's not perfect, but LSU ranks seventh in the nation in punt average at 45.1. Great, right? The problem here is the second part of the equation: returns. LSU allows over 10 yards per return, 101st in the nation. LSU has a good not great return game in their own right, so the team is no longer picking up those yards in the special teams, nor striking fear into opponents when the punting units take the field.
I don't even know what is wrong with Colby Delahoussaye's sudden inability to kick a short field goal. But 11 for 15 is terrible, especially when you consider he is 4 of his last 8. This probably is not a systemic issue and just a case of the yips, but coupled with the sudden decline in the coverage units, LSU needs to change course on special teams. This is part of the identity of the program, and it is slipping away.
LSU ranked second in turnover margin in 2011 and fifth in 2012. This was an opportunistic, ball hawking offense that forced well over 30 turnovers a season. While recovering a fumble is luck, forcing one is not and it seemed LSU found some sort of secret to winning the turnover battle.
Not so much. LSU was dead even on turnovers in 2013, and is now slightly above average this season. LSU has forced 20 turnovers on the season, so what is driving the number down is the defense. In fact, the offense has been pretty consistent with protecting the football year by year since 2010: 24, 10, 17, 19, 16. OK, that 2011 number is a huge outlier, but you can see that LSU does a good job protecting the football. It's the forced turnovers that have dropped from the 30s to the 20s.
Short of the return of the Honey Badger, I'm not sure how you fix these numbers. LSU's forced turnovers proved to be unsustainable. Or, now that the LSU defense has gotten back to top ten in yards, it can keep that performance and add some turnovers to the mix. Time for some guys to turn into playmakers.
The Bama Obsession
This doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but bear with me. It's one thing for the fans to be obsessed with Bama because, hey, we're fans and what else are we going to do? But the coaches seem to be mentally back in Tuscaloosa way too often.
The Bama hangover seemed to last all of 2012. The team has a bit of a reputation for mailing things in after a Bama loss, so much so that we patted the team on the back last year for not going into the tank to close out the season.
But it's just little things. It seems the Bama game just sticks with the players and the coaches a bit too long, like they are trying to get a second chance at a game that is already in the books. In this year's Arkansas game, defensive players tried to scoop and score instead of jumping on a fumble, as if they were still thinking about the final minute of the Bama game. Trey Quinn drops three key third downs against Bama and disappears from the offense, as if the coaches can make up for feeding the ball to a guy with a case of the dropsies by stunting his future development. It just seems like the coaches are much like the fans, unable to move past the obsession with Bama.
Youth Catches Up
LSU may have ended up with a top ten defense, but it didn't start with one. It took the defense a few weeks to ramp up the speed, or about the amount of time it took Kendall Beckwith to take DJ Welter's starting gig.
LSU starts a freshman or sophomore at six offensive positions and five defensive ones. Every special teams returner is a freshman or sophomore, as is the kicker. The primary listed backup is an underclassman at seven offensive positions and seven defensive. That's 25 freshmen and sophomores in the two deep, not counting special teams.
You can win with youth, but you need some senior leadership. LSU has some seniors in the running back rotation which, not coincidentally, is the most effective part of the offense, running behind the offense's best player in senior La'El Collins. However, no upperclassman quarterback throwing to a bunch of underclassmen receivers doomed the offense. Seniors accounted for 32 of the team's 131 catches, all by running backs and tight ends (and the TE's were 8 for 63). Not a single junior caught a pass all season.
The defense was extremely young, as the seniors not named Jermauria Rasco accounted for 2.5 TFL's. The problem here is that two of team's best defensive players are Danielle Hunter and Kwon Alexander, both of whom are the biggest risks to declare early for the draft. The cycle of looking for experienced production never seems to reach its final stage.
Looking to Next Year
So is this a failure of the formula, rendered outdated in this era of HUNH offenses? Are these massive systemic issues which means LSU will be on the 4-4 treadmill for eternity?
Probably not. The formula is still fundamentally sound. LSU can still compete for, and win, conference and national titles by playing ball-control offense coupled with a killer defense. The pieces are in place for most of the same on these fronts next year. The offensive line loses Collins and maybe Vadal or Hawkins, but the unit should be in good shape next season.
The defense should be great again, only without the September growing pains. The one player LSU really does not want to lose early is Kwon Alexander. He led the team in total tackles, as well as solos and assists. Kwon was second in TFL's and fifth in sacks. That, and he led the team in QB hurries and forced fumbles. There will always be another edge rusher if Hunter leaves early, but replacing Kwon will be a tall order. The top priority this offseason on the defensive side of the ball is convincing Kwon to stay.
The turnover situation likely won't change too much or if it does, it's not something one can plan on. Special teams should be a huge priority this offseason, as the performance was decidedly un-LSU. The team needs to put all of its talent back on coverage again, and make it a point of pride.
But in the end, nothing improves unless the quarterbacks do. We don't need the second coming of Tommy Hodson, but we can't afford the new Melvin Hill either. A merely decent quarterback means this team can win the SEC title, and if you can win the SEC title, you can make it to the playoffs and play for the national title. This isn't speculation, this is what happened this very season.
Delusional optimism had a rough year. The team went back to the formula, but not to the winning ways. This team had the excuse of youth, but next year, that is excuse is gone. This team is good enough, right now, to win titles.
Stop whining about Alabama and go do it.