The image is still seared into the mind of every LSU football fan: Coach Les Miles being carried off the field in Tiger Stadium following a victory over Texas A&M in the regular season finale. The Purple and Gold faithful believed they were witnessing Miles’ final exit as head coach of the LSU football program.
What a difference nine months can make.
Expectations for the LSU football team are extra high in Baton Rouge this season, and Miles is likely coaching for his job. But luckily, “The Mad Hatter” fields his most talented squad since the 2011 campaign. The Tigers return with a veteran quarterback, a Heisman Trophy contender, many talented upperclassmen on both sides of the ball, and enough blue chip recruits to fill a Cooler Ranch Doritos bag.
The Tigers have not hoisted a championship trophy since winning the Southeastern Conference title game in 2011, before falling short in the BCS National Championship to Alabama later that season. Many college football pundits and LSU football fans believe Miles’ 12th squad in Baton Rouge can finally end the championship drought (as well as the losing streak to Alabama). Speaking of that losing streak…
LSU has a good chance of cruising into November undefeated once again, but unlike last season, the Tigers will try to avoid losing three straight conference games.
October contests at Florida and against Ole Miss in Tiger Stadium will be ample tests for LSU early on, but three of the Tigers’ toughest opponents lie waiting in November.
The college football world will have eyes locked on Baton Rouge come November 5 when Alabama tries to claim its sixth straight victory over LSU. But the Tigers’ final two conference games at Arkansas and at Texas A&M loom large later that month.
The big question that remains to be answered is: Do Alabama coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide have a permanent mental edge over Miles and the Tigers?
Should the Tigers lose to Alabama again (*wipes away tears while typing that sentence*), LSU must avoid another November letdown similar to the past two seasons.
The Tigers are 2-3 in the regular season, following losses to Alabama in the past two seasons. Rewind to 2012 and 2013, and the Tigers finished 5-0 in the regular season after suffering heartbreaking losses to the Crimson Tide. The difference between the two pairs of seasons comes down to the existing veteran leadership on LSU’s team. The Tigers’ 2012 and 2013 squads were led by a strong contingent of upperclassmen, many of whom were bound for the NFL, including veteran quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
LSU has suffered tremendous growing pains the past two seasons, relying on first-year quarterbacks and too many underclassmen at key positions. But LSU’s underclassmen are finally upperclassmen and they’re likely tired of losing to Saban & Co.
BUGA, BRANDON & BECKWITH
The success of the LSU football program in 2016 rests squarely on the shoulders of three invaluable players: running back Leonard Fournette, linebacker Kendell Beckwith and quarterback Brandon Harris.
Fournette continued to etch his name into the LSU record books last season, rushing for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns. The superstar sophomore seemed like a shoo-in to be invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, but his quest to bring home the bronze, stiff-arming statue fell short in November following lackluster individual and team performances. This is presumed to be Fournette’s last season in an LSU uniform, and something tells me that the New Orleans native will dazzle while writing his final chapter on the field in Death Valley.
After a successful junior campaign, Kendell Beckwith opted to return to LSU for his senior season. The East Feliciana High product will serve as the anchor in first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s new 3-4 defensive scheme. Beckwith is without a doubt the most invaluable player on LSU’s roster this season because of the lack of experience the Tigers return at inside linebacker. Should Beckwith become injured for any length of time, the Tigers will have to rely solely on players with little meaningful collegiate defensive experience (Duke Riley and Donnie Alexander) or true freshmen (Devin White and Michael Divinity).
But the player everyone in the SEC, if not all of college football, is waiting to see perform in 2016 is LSU junior quarterback Brandon Harris. A self-proclaimed “game manager”, Harris led the Tigers to a 7-0 record through October of last season, racking up nine passing touchdowns and no interceptions. Harris would toss just three touchdowns to four interceptions during LSU’s three November losses. Logic would dictate that Harris will improve in his second year as a full-time starter, but when it comes to quarterbacks at LSU, you would be wise to toss logic out the window. Last November proved that even Fournette couldn’t carry the Tigers’ offense for the duration of a season. It is imperative that Harris can complement LSU’s impressive rushing attack with a reliable passing threat.
CHAMPIONSHIP OR BUST
With each passing season of the Miles era (and each subsequent Alabama national championship), LSU fans grow more and more restless. The Tiger faithful fancy their program as one of the elite of college football, on par with the Crimson Tide. Yet a quick glance to the postseason trophy case proves Alabama is in a class all by itself.
For the Tigers and Miles, it’s now or never. Fournette headlines a 2014 recruiting class entering its third year in the program. The fact that the former No. 2 class in the nation has a 9-7 conference record in its first two seasons, while playing in the Music City and Texas bowls, is laughable.
For several seasons, LSU’s roster was ravaged by early departures to the NFL draft, forcing the likes of Fournette, Malachi Dupre, Jamal Adams, Davon Godchaux and others to play more integral roles earlier than expected.
This season is different. There are no more excuses.
LSU hosts Alabama and Ole Miss, avoids Tennessee (the consensus pick to win the SEC East), and plays only one Power Five conference opponent in its non-conference schedule when it faces Wisconsin in the season opener at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. After the Kevin Steele debacle, the Tigers have upgraded defensive coordinators with the addition of Dave Aranda from Wisconsin.
Miles saw his coaching life in Baton Rouge flash before his eyes last November, and if that stressful affair did not serve as a wake-up call to lead his team back to the SEC Championship and beyond, nothing will.
The fact of the matter is LSU cannot afford to squander this golden opportunity with such an experienced and talented roster. The Tigers must hoist a championship trophy this season to satisfy a ravenous fan base whose irrational expectations cannot fathom another loss to Alabama, another pitiful bowl game, or another year without a trip to Atlanta.
The 2016 LSU football season has boom or bust potential, and once again, Miles will have the chance to be carried off the field on the shoulders of his players in the final game of the season, possibly with his second national championship in tow.