May 10, 2016
For the most part, the talk was directed elsewhere in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this spring, at least on the surface.
LSU football fans know that they have a good team for 2016. The offense might have the best player in college football, running back Leonard Fournette. The defense has all the markings of potentially being terrific, again.
Overall, the Tigers return nearly every starter, and they might have as much overall talent as any team in college football. Last year, LSU was fifth in team talent in the 247Sports composite rankings, which were based on recruiting results, and Matt Miller’s early big board for the 2017 NFL draft lists six LSU players in the 50.
“I like our personnel on offense,” head coach Les Miles said during the league’s recent spring coaches’ teleconference with reporters. “I think the offensive line will be a strength.”
Actually, the two things Miles has talked about the most this offseason have been the passing game, which LSU has worked on nearly nonstop to improve (and yes, it did look better during spring practices), and the three new assistant coaches.
He regularly praised new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who was hired away from Wisconsin, saying that after the departure of Kevin Steele, he wanted to hire “the best” coordinator out there and might have done just that.
“We’re still going to play some 4-3, and have 4-3 personnel, but we’re also going to be a 3-4 as well,” Miles said. “It’s going to give opponents a bit of a scheme issue that they’re going to have to prepare for.
“But the defense looked like a very fast, very talented defense.”
Yet everyone also knows that this is pretty much an all-or-nothing year for Miles, who came extremely close to being dismissed at the end of the 2015 season. It was widely celebrated when he got a reprieve, yet the stakes only intensified for this fall.
Should we talk about the elephant in the division?
Although LSU won the national championship in 2007, it’s otherwise been a pretty frustrating decade on the bayou, where Miles’ impressive 112-32 record (61-27 in Southeastern Conference games) has been overshadowed by his predecessor.
Since LSU’s 9-6 overtime victory during the 2011 regular season, Nick Saban has enjoyed five straight wins against LSU, including the subsequent BCS National Championship Game, a 21-0 win in the Tigers’ back yard, New Orleans.
LSU hasn’t reached the SEC Championship Game since then, while Alabama has won three along with three national crowns.
Saban also came out on top during the 2012 rematch, the heartbreaking overtime game in 2014, and along the way, he plucked away some top recruits from Louisiana. However, last year’s game wasn’t close, derailing both a 7-0 start and Fournette’s Heisman Trophy chances as he had entered the game with an unbelievable average of 193.1 rushing yards per game.
It was the start of a three-game tailspin against SEC West teams, by a combined score of 99-47.
A program’s status shouldn’t be decided by another team, but in this case, there’s no getting around that how LSU measures up to Alabama will determine where the Tigers go from here.
There will be two important benchmarks along the way.
The first will be during the opener, when LSU heads up to historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay to face Wisconsin on September 3.
In 2014, LSU barely defeated Wisconsin in the Texas Kickoff in Houston, 28-24.
Alabama opened the 2015 season by defeating Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, 35-17. Derrick Henry began his Heisman campaign with 147 rushing yards and three touchdowns against Aranda’s defense.
Meanwhile, the Badgers were held to 40 rushing yards, their fewest since notching just 19 against Michigan State on Oct. 27, 2012.
LSU needs to do something comparable to set an early tone.
“I think our schedule, and philosophy of schedule, wanting to play very talented, capable teams intermittently, in the opener and/or in the body of our schedule, is the right thing to do,” Miles said. “We’ve certainly played them before, in Houston, and found that they were very, very talented and a very capable football team. Our team realizes that we’re going to be challenged and need to play well at Lambeau Field.”
The second benchmark will be October 22 against visiting Ole Miss. Like Alabama, LSU lost this game in 2015, but while the Crimson Tide could point to five turnovers as doing them in, the Rebels pretty much dominated from start to finish.
Chad Kelly threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 81 yards and two more scores in the 38-17 game that put Miles so firmly on the hot seat that he was more than smoldering.
Alabama gets Ole Miss early again, on September 17, with the possible advantage of a blueprint for success as the Rebels open the season against former Saban assistant coach Jimbo Fisher.
Regardless, it wouldn’t be surprising if both Alabama and LSU are undefeated or have one loss between them when they meet on November 5. If so, it could be the game of the year, again, and it could also be the last time we see Miles vs. Saban as SEC West rivals.
The guess here is that LSU and Miles finish the regular season 10-2.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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