Three years ago, LSU brought in arguably the most-hyped recruiting class in school history. Barring an unforeseen turnaround in the next two months — coupled with a collapse by Alabama (yeah, right) — this group’s foremost players will end their careers in the Purple and Gold having never sniffed an SEC Championship Game.
If we are being honest, they were never really close.
The Tigers have begun to crumble, in eerily similar fashion to last season’s November meltdown that nearly ran head coach Les Miles out of town. In hindsight, spending upwards of $15 million to boot the most successful coach in school history last fall might have saved a promising season that, once again, has fallen well short of lofty expectations.
LSU has been handed a blunt dose of reality this season, bringing about a revelation that has been stirring in the minds of fans for some time: The Tigers will continue to decline as a program until Miles, and his offensively-challenged offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, are gone.
Throughout Miles’ tenure, LSU has boasted a handful of prolific and laudable defenses. 2016’s defensive unit certainly appears on pace to deserve such recognition. The defense has held strong despite a dejecting 2-2 start that has essentially removed the Tigers from the SEC title discussion. Led by first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, LSU is averaging 16.75 points allowed per game.
However, as has become so common over the past decade, an anemic offense is relegating an LSU team with national title potential to mid-tier status in a conference dominated by the school’s former national title-winning head coach, Nick Saban.
A season-opening loss to Wisconsin put in motion a sense of urgency, which led to a change at quarterback from Brandon Harris to Danny Etling. By all accounts, this has been a wise move. Etling has thrown for 433 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception in 2016 — the type of game-managing performance that was presumed vital to LSU’s success this season.
Yet, as shown to the nation on Saturday against Auburn, efficiency under center cannot mask an offensive strategy that continues to fail at its core. During an 18-13 loss to an Auburn team that has looked downright awful at times this season, the offense once again suffered from a lack of imaginative play-calling, a tradition that as become as synonymous with LSU as the campus’ stately oaks and broad magnolias.
The only time the team appeared in sync offensively was in a fast-paced, hurry-up context — a complete deviation from the three-yards-and-a-pile-of-dust philosophy Miles and Cameron unabashedly employ.
Adding to the pain for the Tigers is the historic stretch of greatness that Saban has enjoyed at Alabama during the Cameron era. It is not only the success of Saban, though, who has claimed four national titles in the past seven years, that haunts LSU. Equally infuriating is being able to witness what is possible when elite talent meets elite coaching, a formula for which the Tigers have never found the latter part since their superb 2011 season.
If not for snapping the ball a few moments too late and wiping away a game-winning 20-yard touchdown pass from Etling to D.J. Chark, the conversation would have centered around a gutsy comeback victory on a heroic last-minute drive.
Oh, clock management issues you say?
How fitting for what should be the dagger in Miles’ career at LSU.
Miles did not learn from past mistakes. Moreover, the political firestorm which nearly toppled him last November became messy to the point that Miles viewed his survival as a sign that he could persist in his old ways.
It is hard to digest the fact that LSU switched coordinators last offseason — but not where the program needed to change. Aranda marked an upgrade from Kevin Steele, but the defense was not the problem. The offense was. Yet, Cameron stayed in his position, because Miles felt emboldened enough to stick with his guy.
Les Miles was stubborn, just as he’s been stubborn in failing to manage the clock at the ends of games.
There’s a reason his LSU career — for all its successes — rightly occupies a very precarious position.