Following a title winner is a tall task. It’s rare to see repeat champions in college sports. When you assume the target, you also assume the weight of unrealistic expectations. Typically, title winners are veteran laden teams and typically their follow-up acts are depleted, not so much in talent, but very much so in experience. It varies sport to sport, but obviously what Kentucky accomplished under Calipari with a gaggle of freshman 5-stars is nearly unprecedented. A team built around a bevy of true freshman contributors will almost certainly never win the college football playoff for a variety of reasons.
After LSU won the title in 2007, they hit reset on the roster, on the coaching staff, on many of the things that Miles built his team around in his first three seasons in Baton Rouge. There was a lot of talent coming back, but a lot of it unproven. The heart of the 2007 squad (Hester, Dorsey, Flynn) were gone to the pros. Other stalwarts (Highsmith, Steltz, Doucet) were off as well. Though LSU returned talents like Tyson Jackson, Richard Dickson and Brandon LaFell, they needed to find a QB and an identity on defense. Turns out, they couldn’t find either.
The Greatest Game from 2008: Auburn
It’s easy to forget that Jarrett Lee was thrown into an unfortunate situation. Once a promising QB recruit, Lee came to LSU with the expectation of sitting behind a stable of QBs, including superstar recruit Ryan Perrilloux, maturing for a couple of seasons and then taking the mantle. Instead, Perrilloux’s indiscretions finally wore thin and Miles made the difficult decision to boot him off the team. Suddenly, it came down to Lee, a talented but green RS Freshman and Andrew Hatch, a not so talented but more experienced transfer from Harvard. Together, they probably would have made a single decent QB. Apart, both were terribly flawed players. Naturally, the coaches opted to split their time to start the season.
After two weeks, no one really knew what the 2008 squad had. They romped Appalachian State, who had upset Michigan in the big house the season before, and a hapless North Texas team. Still, it somehow felt the team wasn’t truly dominant in either effort. The QBs combined for a respectable stat line:
33/59, 55.9%, 402 yards passing, 3 TD, 2 INT, 61 rushing yards
Hatch offered the ability to make plays when the pass protection broke down, while Lee presented the opportunity for big plays in the passing game. Hatch protected the ball better, but Lee offered explosiveness. So the yin yang philosophy continued heading into Auburn. While the QB debate was only beginning in Baton Rouge, and sucking up most of the air space, quietly the LSU defense, now co-coordinated by position coaches Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto, didn’t nearly resemble the dominant units under Bo Pelini. While they had only allowed 16 combined points after the first two weeks, it still felt like the unit was simply lacking a killer instinct present from the previous seasons.
Auburn ranked no. 10 at the time and also struggled to distinguish themselves, particularly in an infamous 3-2 slugfest against a Mississippi State squad that would only win four games in Sylvester Croom’s final season. Still, you never underestimate an Auburn team, especially in their house.
The game started innocuously, with both teams doing a bit of feeling one another out. Both offenses looked stuck in the mud. LSU drove for 10 yards and punted. Auburn drove for 25 and punted. LSU drove another nine and punted. Auburn drove five more and punted as well. Ultimately, LSU won the punt swapping, pinning Auburn back into their own territory to give the offense strong starting field position, at the LSU 44, on the next drive. LSU couldn’t do much again, progressing only 26 more yards, but it was enough to get them in field goal range for the excellent Colt David, who booted through a 46-yard FG.
The offensive explosion proved only momentary, when the teams closed out the first quarter swapping punts again. Neither team sustained a drive even up to 4:00 minutes long. It wasn’t entirely clear if this was a showdown of two superb defenses or a matter of two inept offenses in a staring contest. (You win, you always do). LSU’s final drive of the quarter bled into the 2nd, but only went 16 yards, giving Auburn the ball on their own 31.
Finally, the Auburn offense found life through a single big completion by QB Chris Todd and a heavy dosage of RB Ben Tate, right at the LSU defense. Eight plays and 69 yards later, Tate punched it in to give Auburn it’s first lead of the game 7-3.
LSU returned fire trying a similar formula with Jarrett Lee and Charles Scott. The offense again only managed 25 yards, putting LSU into FG position for Colt David, who this time missed the 50-yard attempt. Suddenly, LSU seemed in trouble, perhaps even on the verge of losing control of the game. Starting at their own 33, Auburn went back to the running game, picking up a couple, before dropping Chris Todd back to pass on 2nd and 8. Todd found LSU CB Chris Hawkins, who managed to lose nine yards attempting to return the pick, giving LSU the ball back at their own 31. The pick helped halt Auburn’s momentum, but the LSU offense couldn’t capitalize and punted the ball off after failing to pick up a single yard. Auburn wasn’t able to do much either and quickly punted back to LSU.
With 1:39 left and starting from their own 27, Miles decided to be aggressive with his young QB. This decision, and the many that would follow it in the coming months would ultimately be the undoing of the Miles era in Baton Rouge.*
*Ok, I know that sounds superfluous, especially considering LSU would wind up having the greatest regular season in school history just three years later, with the same QB, but a lot of the Miles philosophy of the later years ties back to how poorly every risk went in 2008. Yes, LSU opened things back up a bit in Mettenberger’s final season, but even then, they very likely could have passed the ball even more considering the two best players on the team were definitely Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry. The Lee season in 08 poisoned Miles in ways that are difficult to explain. If you followed Miles’ coaching career, “conservative” isn’t necessarily a word you would have tacked onto his resume after his time at Oklahoma State and his first three seasons at LSU. Hell, LSU’s 2007 offense with Crowton could at times be labeled downright innovative. Even in his final years with Jimbo, while running a very Jimbo-esque offense, LSU threw the ball quite a bit. Sure, they went conservative at times, but they were also very aggressive in passing the ball. It’s not until after 2008 that the “Flinstones offense” memes start to take shape. Miles took risks with Jarrett Lee and paid the price with a series of turnovers immediately converted to points that may not ever be replicated in college football history again. It’s my opinion that you could trace back the offensive conservatism and stubborn resistance to change to that 2008 season where every risk came up bunk.
1:39 left on the clock and Miles wants to throw. Lee drops back and tries to find something short underneath, a swing pass. Lee double clutches and then tries to drop the ball over Auburn DE Gabe McKenzie who reaches up and plucks it out of the air for an easy interception and clear path to the end zone. Just like that the Auburn lead blossomed to 11 points, 14-3.
LSU took back over with 1:31 remaining, and, Les put QB Andrew Hatch back into the game. This time, rather than trying to get some points to close out the half, Miles wanted to get out without any further damage. After a few runs, LSU broke into Auburn territory, but Hatch couldn’t convert on a pair of downfield passing attempts and the game went to the half.
14-3 seemed, in some ways, an insurmountable deficit for this particular LSU offense. To make matters worse, Auburn would start the 2nd half with the ball, and even a FG might put this game totally out of reach. Naturally, the Auburn offense found their best drive of the day, driving pass midfield and working their way into LSU RZ. On 1st and 10 from the LSU 19, Auburn lost yardage on three consecutive plays, pushing them back out to the LSU 34. Lacking faith in their kicker, they foolishly opted to punt. As if frowning upon the decision, the football gods forced a shank, netting only seven more yards.
Though it was a miserable strategic decision by Tuberville, Auburn had successfully flipped the field already. LSU started from their own 27. In came Andrew Hatch, who rushed for 12 on 1st down. He handed to Scott on the next play before calling his own number again on 3rd down, this time taking a massive hit to the head from Jerraud Powers, after picking up five yards. Hatch was removed from the game for good, and Lee came in on a 3rd and 4 near midfield, with LSU in desperate need of some type of points. Lee found Richard Dickson for a gain of 16 to keep the chains moving. After tossing a pair of incompletions, Lee again found himself in a 3rd down situation. On 3rd and 10, Lee stepped back, as the rush got to him he released the ball, a high looping pass. WR Chris Mitchell broke free crossing the field, a defender trailing. In what can only be described as a moment of sheer terror converting to joy, Lee’s pass lollipopped to Mitchell who did the rest of the work finding the end zone for a massive 39-yard TD. At 14-10, suddenly, this felt like LSU had a chance. The fun had just begun.
Feeling frisky, Miles decided to follow the TD drive up with an onside kick. Of course it paid off, LSU recovered. But the offense couldn’t find its way and quickly punted after gaining only three yards. Auburn took over from their own 13 and worked their way to midfield after Todd found WR Robert Dunn for a 29-yard gain. A balance of runs and passes pushed them to the LSU 32 and a 4th and 1 situation. The LSU defense was fighting but seemed unable to shut the drive down. On 4th and 1 from the 32, Auburn again illustrated no trust in their kicker, opting to go for it. Todd play faked and rolled right and LSU sent Curtis Taylor on a safety blitz. Feeling the pressure, Todd fired the ball haphazardly into the arms of the leaping CB Chris Hawkins again, who this time went down right at the LSU 11.
Suddenly, the explosive version of the Jarrett Lee offense returned. On first and 10, Charles Scott busted free for 11, followed by a 33-yard completion to Brandon LaFell. In two plays, LSU worked to the AU 45 and looked to be in business. Keeping the pressure on, Crowton dialed up another pass play, and Lee found LaFell again, this time for another 23 yards. Now flirting with the RZ, Crowton dug into his bag of tricks and called a halfback pass. Lee tossed to Williams who scooted right before pulling up to launch the ball to a wide open Demetrius Byrd in the endzone. Touchdown LSU. In just about 5:00 of game clock, LSU converted an 11-point deficit to a 3-point lead, 17-14 heading into the 4th quarter.
Auburn couldn’t do much on their opening drive, tallying only 17 yards before punting the ball away. LSU took over from their own nine, where Lee and Scott went to work again. Scott pounded a clearly beaten down Auburn for a gain of 12 and then nine more. Lee found LaFell for 18 before going back to Scott who busted free for 31 yards, leaving Auburn defenders crumbling in his wake. Now at the AU 21, LSU went back to Scott, who was stopped for no gain. LSU would gain six more yards before opting to kick the FG to open the lead to six total points, 20-14.
Down six, Auburn took over with 8:39 to go, their first time trailing since early in the 2nd quarter. QB Chris Todd again opted to go after Chris Hawkins, this time connecting on a 58-yard pass pushing Auburn deep into LSU territory on a single play. Three plays later, he found Robert Dunn for a TD, giving Auburn the lead back at 21-20 in just under 2:00 of game time. Suddenly, the two offenses that could do little more than swap punts for the bulk of three quarters looked like the greatest show on turf for a couple of drives.
LSU couldn’t muster much on their next drive, going three and out and burning only 1:08 of clock. Similarly, Auburn only managed a three and out of their own, killing only 1:32 of the clock. LSU took over again, this time with 4:00 remaining and starting from their own 46. This could be their last chance, but they started in prime position to at least get a FG for the lead.
Lee gave to Keiland Williams for six, before finding Jared Mitchell for gains of seven and nine more yards to put LSU at the AU 32. Scott carried for three more and then Lee found him in the middle of the field for another nine. Now in the RZ, LSU was in prime position. The Scott catch lead to a 2nd and 1, which LSU converted with a quick handoff to FB Quinn Johnson. On 1st and 10 from the Auburn 18, Lee stepped back with just over 1:00 to go in the game and found an outbreaking Brandon LaFell for an 18-yard TD, giving LSU the lead, 26-21. The two-point attempt was no good.
Auburn had just over a minute to go, but they needed a touchdown to win. Ben Tate returned the kickoff to the AU 36, solid starting field position. On 1st down, Auburn managed only a short gain but Rahim Alem was flagged for a foolish personal foul, giving Auburn 15 free yards they desperately needed. On the very next play, Alem atoned for his mistake by sacking QB Chris Todd for a 15-yard loss, putting Auburn right back where they started. Auburn took a timeout, looking to reset the offense. Needing big plays in the passing game, they came out throwing, but Todd was unable to find an open target on 2nd and 3rd down. Now facing a 4th and 25, with only :32 remaining, Auburn took another TO. On a desperate 4th down attempt, Todd scrambled out of the pocket and found WR Rodrigues Smith down the field, cloaked in defenders, but he could only pick up 23 of the 25 needed yards before being dragged down and Auburn turned the ball over on downs. LSU ran the clock out and Jarrett Lee, for a moment, looked an iron-willed leader of the offense.
L 21-27 (OT) vs. Alabama
L 30-31 @ Arkansas
W 38-3 vs. Georgia Tech
The Alabama game was a thriller and LSU should have won, but Lee’s freshman mistakes piled too high in that one. You could make an argument of it being the best game of the year, but the finish was fairly lackluster. Arkansas was the collapse of the LSU defense and yet another game the 2008 team shouldn’t have let get away, after they held a 30-14 lead midway through the 3rd quarter, before yielding big TD passing plays to… Casey Dick of all people. The Tech game was a nice cap to the season and an illustration that maybe Miles hadn’t really lost touch after all. LSU entered as underdogs and totally outclassed the Yellow Jackets, thanks in part to the efforts of freshman QB Jordan Jefferson, who offered all kinds of promise for the future.
What’s the Greatest Game of 2008?
This poll is closed
Beating Auburn on the Plains
Nail Biting Loss to Alabama
Blown lead vs. Arkansas
Bowl Game Beatdown of Georgia Tech