Tonight’s the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
As Mike Bayham noted, a lot of people think it’s a major comedown for LSU to be playing in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, particularly given that last year they were in the national championship game and by pretty much all indications this team was going to be better than last year’s team based on who was supposed to come back.
Except it doesn’t quite work out that way, pretty much ever.
Let’s not forget that the team which was actually favored by most of the “experts” to be this year’s national champ was USC. How’d that work out? Would you change places with that dumpster fire right now?
But sure, you could say LSU underachieved this year. And you could go back to the Alabama game and Les Miles’ strategic mistakes in that game and say “but for this we’d be playing for a title.”
You could say that. But is that fair?
Let’s remember that in addition to the regular losses from last year due to graduation and players turning pro, LSU had to deal with the losses – after fall camp started! – of…
- Tyrann Mathieu, who was a Heisman finalist last year and the top defensive player in college football in 2011. Notre Dame has the top defensive player in college football this year and they’re in the national championship game. Mathieu’s replacement at cornerback this year was Jalen Mills, who was terrific as a freshman. But “terrific as a freshman” isn’t the same as “plays defense and still is a Heisman favorite.”
- Tahj Jones, who was set to start as the Sam Linebacker this year until he had an eligibility problem with a class he took that he thought would count toward his major but didn’t. And then Luke Muncie, who took over for Jones, got mononucleosis and promptly lost 25 pounds, rendering him unable to play at an SEC level. And then Kwon Alexander, who took over for Muncie and appeared to be emerging as a Mathieu-style superstar in the making, but promptly busted an ankle. That left LSU to play 3 1/2 games against Top 10 opponents with Lamar Louis, the fourth-string Sam Linebacker, as the starter.
- Chris Faulk, who was supposed to be an All-American left tackle and a sure-fire first-round draft pick. Instead, Faulk went down with a knee injury in the first week of the season and left LSU with basically nothing at the most important position on the offensive line, at a time when they were breaking in a new quarterback who had never experienced a pass rush on the major-college level. Miles was forced to cobble together a replacement for Faulk from Josh Dworaczyk, a sixth-year senior who had never been a tackle at LSU and had gimpy knees to boot, and senior right tackle Alex Hurst – who flipped to left tackle for a couple of games before personal problems back home in Tennessee forced him to quit the team in the middle of the season. The effect of losing both Faulk AND Hurst after the season had already begun was that Zack Mettenberger’s rookie season as a starting quarterback was marked by a two-alarm fire on the offensive line where pass protection was concerned. That meant the inability to properly use running backs out of the backfield as a weapon in the passing game – something that should have been a strength – and the inability to utilize a spread passing game.
- Josh Williford, the starting right guard, who went down with a concussion. Williford’s loss might have been a blessing in disguise, as redshirt freshman Trai Turner stepped in for him and delivered a monster performance. But it did take Turner a little while to get going, and in the meantime LSU lost to Florida largely because the offensive line got manhandled and the offense couldn’t score.
- Alfred Blue, the team’s best running back and big-play threat in the ground game. Blue is a future 1,000-yard NFL running back and appeared destined for a monster year until he blew out a knee against Idaho and was lost for the rest of the season. It’s not like his loss was debilitating for LSU, as the Tigers had more quality running backs than they could distribute footballs to even without him. But other than perhaps Jeremy Hill, LSU simply doesn’t have a back capable of generating breakaway runs in the volume Blue can – and not having him available meant that LSU struggled to get big plays on the ground outside of what Hill could provide. This made a big difference in the Alabama game, by the way, because Hill appeared to have been fatigued late in that game and had lost a bit of his spark after having to carry the ball 29 times. If Hill had carried it just 20 times and Blue had been available for the other nine – does LSU get that one extra first down they need late in the game? Does LSU convert one of those scoring opportunities against Alabama thanks to Blue making a play? Seems like the chances would have been pretty good.
- Travin Dural, a freshman wide receiver who appeared to be on his way to making a sizable impact the way Odell Beckham, Jr. did in 2011 before a knee injury knocked him out for the year. Dural is 6-3 and track-fast, and those are two commodities LSU just didn’t have this year at wide receiver. Without a consistent deep threat Mettenberger struggled to stretch defenses vertically this year, and that had an impact on the performance of the running game. And without a tall receiver capable of going up and getting the ball LSU had trouble getting conversions on third down – and in the red zone – as well. Could Dural have changed all that? Consider it doubtful if you want – but you have to admit there was no possibility of him doing so once he was laid up with a bad knee.
This doesn’t even count the losses of Nick Jacobs, who ultimately turned out to be LSU’s best tight end, and punter Brad Wing – because both of those items of attrition came after the loss to Alabama.’
Apply LSU’s personnel losses to the analogous players on Alabama’s team and ask yourself what the chances of Nick Saban taking his team as far as Miles has taken LSU this year might have been. Had Alabama made it to the LSU game without Dee Milliner, Nico Johnson, Trey DePriest, Denzel Devall, Cyrus Kouandjio, D.J. Fluker, Chance Warmack, Eddie Lacy and Amari Cooper – do you think they’d have been undefeated? Do you think they’d have stood a chance of winning in Tiger Stadium? Do you think they’d be playing for a title?
The point is, to make it to a championship you need some luck. Miles had none of that this year. Whether you want to blame him for a few decisions against Alabama or not, and whether you want to be bummed out about playing in the Chicken Bowl or not, you’ve got to recognize that he got pretty far under the circumstances.
And there were some pretty cool moments along the way…