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Looking Back to Look Ahead

How close is this team to being a contender again?

The key to last season's sudden improvement
The key to last season's sudden improvement
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We have moved into complete summer mode at ATVS. School is out and we've busted out the flip flops. The ATVS crew is currently hanging out by the pool at the palatial SB Nation college complex, sipping on fruity drinks with umbrellas in them. We're taking it easy after a long college season.

Unlike the pro sports, there really isn't a while lot of offseason news for college teams. There's almost no player movement, and Signing Day was way back in February. These are truly the dog days for college sports fan. There is no news, except for the occasional very bad news.

So before we look ahead to the next season, let's take one final look at last season. It's hard to appreciate the shape and contours of a team's performance when you are busy living it. We tend to focus on the week to week during the season, but now, with a little bit of distance, we can take stock of the 2014 football campaign.

LSU went 8-5 in 2014 and 4-4 in the SEC. It is tied for the worst single-season record in Les Miles' tenure, and he did it with one of the softest schedules his team has faced. It is not the worst SEC mark, as he went 3-5 in 2008. However, in 2008, LSU played the top three teams in the East with a combined SEC record of 17-7. In 2014, LSU's East opponents went a combined 6-10.

For a program used to competing for titles, this is a major failing. LSU finally had a favorable schedule, and responded by having arguably the worst season in a decade. Worse yet, the team kept setting marks for futility: losing to State for the first time this century, losing by 34 to Auburn, and getting shut out at Arkansas. It's hard to say a .500 season in conference is a total disaster, but this stands as the low ebb of the Miles era.

LSU was outscored in SEC play by the mark of 153-166, or an average score of 19.13-20.75. However, the first half of LSU's season involved twice as much scoring as the second half. Over the first four games, the score of the average LSU SEC game was 26.75-26.25. In the second half of the SEC slate, it was 11.5-15.25

Only once in the final four conference games of the season did either team in an LSU score at least 20 points in regulation (LSU scored 23 against A&M). The offense absolutely dried up in the second half of the season, and the defense turned into near world beaters.

The defense allowed 539 less yards in the second half of the season on only 11 less snaps. The average yards/play allowed shrank from 6.21 to 4.38. Let's just say the decision to bench Welter and start Beckwith paid near immediate dividends.

This was a defense that radically improved from the first half to the second half. Actually, that improvement came in game three, right when Beckwith entered into the starting lineup. LSU allowed 7.81 and 7.65 yards/play against State and Auburn, respectively. In the next game, the defense allowed 5.37 yards/play to Florida, which would be the most the defense would allow for the rest of the season. The next worst average wouldn't come until the final game against Texas A&M, when the defense allowed 4.75 yards/play.

Despite the defense's massive improvement, there was no corresponding improvement in the standings. In fact, LSU stayed the same, going 2-2 in both the front and back halves of the SEC slate. The offense went from 5.33 yards/play to 4.49 yards/play, a definite decline, but not as pronounced as the defensive improvement. So how did LSU fail to improve at all in the win column?

Because Anthony Jennings was just that bad. Jennings' season-long line is awful: 111/227 for 1611 yards, 48.9%, 7.1 yds/att, 118.33 RATING, and 11/7 TD/INT. Among qualifying players, he ranked 57th in yards/attempt, 86th in passer rating, and outside the top 100 in yards/game, completion percentage, and touchdowns.

However, it's not his season-long numbers which doomed the season, but his individual performances in the losses in the back half of the season. He went 8/26 for 76 yards against Alabama, and with a crippling interception leading to a score. LSU would lose the game in overtime, and had the team simply gotten below average QB play, the Tigers win the game. He followed that up by posting 12/22 for 87 yards line against Arkansas. No picks this time, but his performance doomed a team that admittedly, didn't play well in any phase of the game.

LSU was left for dead in the SEC race after losing its first two games, but rallied back with three straight wins. It was still unlikely, but LSU was still alive for the SEC title if the team could win out. The defense had improved its play dramatically, giving LSU a real shot in every game it played. Jennings responded with back to back performances with a combined line of 20/48 for 163 yards with 1 TD and a pick. With merely competent quarterback play, LSU likely wins both of those games and maybe the SEC title.

Now, every team can play the "what if?" game. LSU was just as close to going 2-6 as 6-2, as it needed Florida to drop an easy touchdown pass and a late Ole Miss interception to eke out two wins. You are what your record says you are, and there's no reason to think LSU's 4-4 SEC record was dishonest.

This is just to demonstrate how much poor quarterback play has held back Miles' LSU tenure. We tend to expect it at this point, but those compare Jennings to Jefferson or Lee are being unfair to those guys. Jennings' performance was much worse. This is the worst quarterback play we've seen at LSU in quite some time, and that's a pretty lofty standard, as LSU has become the veritable gold standard of terrible QB play.

It's also to point out that if the worst season of your tenure is also a season in which you were fairly close to winning the SEC title that maybe your program is in pretty good shape. Last year's season was incredibly frustrating, particularly because the team couldn't turn its very real defensive improvements into more wins. Those lofty final defensive rankings are not a mirage: LSU was that good, particularly in the back half of the season. That's a real foundation to build on.

The biggest thing holding back this team from competing for titles is quarterback play. Jennings played abysmally last season and given his off the field troubles, there is virtually no chance he will start at quarterback next season. We don't know if Brandon Harris is the answer, but Jennings certainly was not.

Looking at LSU's performance last year, it is fair to say that this team was a quarterback away from being a contender. The question going forward for next year is whether Brandon Harris can be that guy. Because the rest of the team does not need to improve very much to get LSU back to the championship level. Last year's performance is a good one to build off, particularly the improvement in the second half of the season.

Is Miles caught in a quagmire or is this program ready to make big improvements in the standings? It depends on whether you look back on last year and see rubble or building blocks.