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We’re Still Talking About the Decline

Eventually, we might actually do it.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Notre Dame vs Louisiana State
Falling backwards, right?
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most common debates among the LSU faithful, other than the quarterbacks, is about what direction is the program trending? It’s been a topic fiercely debated for nearly a decade, and we’re really no closer to resolution.

Seriously, we’ve been debating the trend of LSU’s SEC win totals since 2010. In 2010, Devin White was in seventh grade. And he was still a running back. The 2010 season has about as much bearing on this season as what I had for breakfast this morning. Heck, you can find a thread on the Rant about the Decline dating back to 2009.

In Bill Connelly’s excellent LSU preview, he also indulges in the narrative of the Decline. It’s the framing device for the piece, before he gets into his actual analysis:

Most of the league’s best-supported programs appear to have their arrows pointed in the right direction. Ed Orgeron’s LSU, though?

It’s too early to deem the second-year head coach a failure. But it does seem the program has fallen into neutral gear. And to paraphrase Ricky Bobby, if you’re not moving forward, must be moving backward.

I’m using Bill C neither to diminish his work or pick on him. I’m using Bill C precisely because he’s about the best there is: a fair-minded, data-driven analyst who bases his preseason prognostication pretty much on wherever the numbers take him. And even this facts-first writer is trotting out the narrative of the LSU decline, or at least stagnation relative to everyone else’s improvement.

But that ain’t the truth.

Let’s look at the SEC wins of the entire SEC West over the past four seasons, which would capture the entire tenure of the most experienced players on a team’s roster. And let’s look honestly at who is trending where.

SEC wins 2014-2017

Okay, Auburn is on a massive upward trajectory, but part of that is because of how much room they had to climb. Auburn had just two SEC wins two seasons ago, and last year they were winning the SEC West. The question for Auburn is this sustained improvement or is this simply a continuation of Team Chaos sponsored by Football Loki.

In 2012 and 2013, Auburn won zero and seven games, respectively. This is a program that famously has only had consecutive double digit win seasons once in its entire history (back in 1988-89). And it’s not like that volatility has lessened since SEC expansion. If anything, its gotten worse.

Auburn has two seven-win SEC seasons since expansion in 2012. No other SEC West team not named Alabama has one. But if you look at the overall win total since 2012, Auburn is tied for third with Texas A&M at 25 SEC wins… six wins behind LSU.

Now, it’s possible Auburn has put their wild swings behind them, but this recent upsurge could also just be part of the program’s usual volatility. But we can at least concede the possibility that Auburn is trending ahead of LSU right now.

Other than that, there is not a single other SEC West program that is trending in a more positive direction than LSU. Bama can’t really trend up because its bumping against the ceiling, and they have largely left the rest of the division, and let’s be honest, all of college football in their dust.

But four seasons ago, LSU was staring up at Ole Miss and Mississippi St’s win totals. Since then, Ole Miss has utterly collapsed and State has declined from its peak of six wins to hovering around four wins.

Arkansas had a brief high in 2015 of five wins and has since declined even more precipitously than Ole Miss. And Texas A&M seems stuck in neutral since Johnny Manziel left. Yes, they hired the hot name in coaching, but let’s see actual on the field improvement before we anoint them the next team trending up. Winning the press conference is easy, winning games is hard.

LSU had one less win than Auburn last season, and has all of one less loss than Auburn over the past two seasons, but on a longer time scale, the advantage shifts to LSU. LSU has 16 wins over the past three seasons, ahead of Auburn’s 14 and A&M’s 12. Over the time covered by this chart, LSU 20 wins, ahead of every program not in Tuscaloosa. Since SEC expansion, LSU’s advantage grows to six games over the rest of the field.

LSU’s win totals have, factually, increased over the past four seasons. LSU is trending from four wins to five to five to six. The arrow is pointed up when we look at actual on-field accomplishments, but everyone is acting like the team is trending down.

Even by the advanced metrics, LSU has been fairly consistent in its quality. Here is LSU’s S&P+ overall rankings by year, starting in 2012, the first year of SEC expansion:

11 – 13 – 20 – 11 – 4 – 19

That is not decline, it is sustained quality. The mere fact we keep having this debate over the impending decline demonstrates that the decline hasn’t happened. If there were a decline, LSU would have a losing conference record and the debate would no longer be about when the decline, but when the team could ascend again.

It’s not just LSU fans, but the entire football establishment has simply taken LSU’s sustained success for granted. It’s gotten boring that the team has settled into a plateau of quality play, but beneath the world conquering performance of Bama. People want to write a new story about LSU, and no one has gotten to write about a bad LSU team in two decades.

Sorry to disappoint everyone. But this team is still really good. And we ain’t declining until these teams supposedly trending up match LSU’s performance at the very least. LSU won six SEC games last year, its highest total since 2012. That’s literally the opposite of declining.