If you’re an LSU fan, you’ve certainly by now read all the alarmist pieces by the Scott Rabalaises and and Ron Higginses of the world about how 2015 is a year at the crossroads for LSU football, and how Les Miles is either going to get his program back to championship football or a great decline of the program is on the way.
Articles like those – which aren’t wrong, by the way – are easy to write after a major program has a lousy, but not catastrophic, season like Miles just did. Miles’ problem is that 8-5 just isn’t interesting. A 4-8 season is catastrophic, and unless there are lots of injuries it can cost you your job, but the fans will tune out midway through and reset their expectations. And an 11-1 season will keep interest at a fever pitch.
But 8-5? You’re in limbo. You’re not good enough to really talk about championships, but you’re not bad enough to make getting rid of the coach a realistic option. Particularly a coach in Les Miles’ position, where firing him would trigger an eight-figure buyout bonanza.
That was the deal LSU athletic director Joe Alleva cut with Miles three years ago. Miles, at the time, was reported to have been approached by Arkansas about their then-vacant head coaching job and Alleva’s response was to break the bank in throwing Miles $4.3 million per year, making his assistants the highest-paid in the country and installing a buyout schedule in his contract that insured LSU wouldn’t be firing him until 2017 at the earliest no matter how bad things might get.
Of course, Les Miles’ track record is such that it’s not realistic to think he’s going to start having losing seasons. In 2014, with a defense that couldn’t stop the run for the majority of the season and seemed determined to give up key drives to lose every close game together with the worst quarterback play in the modern history of the program, Miles had the team that would post a losing season if it was ever going to happen with him on the sidelines. He managed to win eight games anyway, including victories over bowl teams Ole Miss, Wisconsin, Texas A&M and Florida and a near-miss loss to Alabama.
For a bad season, it’s not that bad.
But 8-5 isn’t interesting. And 4-4 in the SEC isn’t interesting either. That’s mediocrity, and the fans hate it. Miles has to produce more, or the angst and frustration of the fans will produce a septic situation.
The program is stale. Everybody knows it. Miles needs to shake things up. But interestingly, that might be what he’s about to do.
The biggest shakeup to the program is coming from without. Texas A&M poached Miles’ defensive coordinator John Chavis, paying him $1.7 million per year to fix the dumpster fire that is the Aggie defense. There are lots of stories going around about why Chavis left – including reports that Miles and Chavis had friction over the poor defense the latter produced in 2013, which could well have cost the team a national championship given the offensive talent on hand that year (Odell Beckham, Jr., Jeremy Hill and Jarvis Landry were three leading candidates for NFL Rookie of the Year this season and Alfred Blue, Zack Mettenberger and Trai Turner emerged as starters in their first years in the league).
Chavis mentioned something about how excited he was to coach defense on a team with a dynamic offense like Texas A&M boasts, though that rings a bit hollow – the hurry-up, throw-it-all-over-the-yard attack Kevin Sumlin brings is actually a nightmare for a defensive coordinator because it tends to produce quick drives and terrible time-of-possession numbers, and for a John Chavis whose defensive philosophy is more bend-but-don’t-break and runs the risk of being on the field too long as it is, fatigue late in games seems assured. LSU’s Neanderthal smash-mouth offense might have made for a small margin for error for Chavis, but it did manage to hold on to the football for long periods during games. That’s why Chavis’ 2014 LSU unit managed to finish 2nd in the SEC in total defense despite finishing 6th in yards allowed per play.
The real reason might have to do with his contract, something Alleva probably should answer for. Chavis was apparently looking for a guaranteed contract for three years regardless of Miles’ status as head coach, which is a bit generous. The usual practice for assistant coaches is their employment is contingent on the head man’s status – if there is to be a new head coach, nobody wants to saddle him with a whole staff of assistants he’s not familiar with. Chavis is a big name among assistant coaches, of course, so his status might merit an unusual approach.
There is some talk that Alleva refused to grant Chavis a three year guarantee as a message to Miles, but if that’s the case it’s more than a little counterproductive. If you’re not satisfied with Miles’ performance and you’re not happy that you’re overpaying him and his staff – which is entirely reasonable, because there is no question Miles is overpaid based on the decline of LSU’s program over the past three years – then essentially running off his assistants through hard trading on their contracts looks a lot more like firing him gradually than actually seeking to fix the problem. And given that Alleva gave men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones a $400,000 raise last fall, before Jones had even made it to the NCAA Tournament, the decision to nickel-and-dime Miles’ assistants on contract terms is hard to defend in economic terms.
That said, changing defensive coordinators could absolutely be a win for Miles.
Chavis’ defense might have finished 2nd in the SEC, but LSU was 8th in the SEC in tackles for loss, 11th in interceptions and 13th in sacks. And the defensive collapses in the final minutes of the Alabama and Notre Dame games this past season only continued a pattern which has become nauseatingly familiar over the past three years in which the Tiger defense has allowed opponents to march down the field for the winning score. It happened against Ole Miss and Georgia in 2013 and against Clemson and Alabama in 2012. Six times in the past three years is an actionable pattern. Not to mention LSU has played awful run defense of late – in 2014 Chavis’ unit gave up 152 yards rushing per game and 4.3 yards per rush.
Those numbers can be improved on. LSU is loaded with defensive talent and should get back to playing championship-level defense even with a new coordinator. And while the fans all but lost their minds over the weekend at the possibility Miles would interview Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator and former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops – a possibility which arose because of a report from an Oklahoma City TV station which was dubious from the start – the candidates being discussed for the LSU job seem like very good ones.
I like Bill Clark. He’s the outgoing head coach at Alabama-Birmingham, and he’s a young, energetic coach who in one year took a near-dead program from 2-10 in 2013 to 6-6 in 2014 before the Paul Bryant, Jr. crowd on the Alabama Board of Regents killed football at that school. Taking a team to bowl eligibility from 2-10 in the year before the suits put it to the sword is impressive stuff in itself, but Clark had gone 11-4 in one year as the head coach at Jacksonville State the previous year and prior to that he’d made a name for himself at South Alabama as the defensive coordinator in a startup program that in quick fashion became one of the best defenses in the Sun Belt Conference. Clark plays an aggressive, blitzing 4-3 defense which suits LSU’s personnel. But what I like most about him is that he has an ax to grind with Alabama for killing the UAB program. Hatred is a terrific motivator, and it would be nice to see Clark’s righteous indignation manifest itself in a beatdown of the SEC’s most hated team this fall.
But Clark isn’t the only attractive candidate Miles is talking to. Bob Shoop had the nation’s No. 2 defense at Penn State this year, despite not having a whole lot of talent to work with. That’s a common theme for Shoop, who arrived at Penn State a year ago with James Franklin. Prior to 2014 Franklin and Shoop were at Vanderbilt, and in the previous three years while winning 24 games the Commodores had three straight defenses ranked in the national top 25. That’s an almost impossible accomplishment, and because he managed it Shoop would seem to be a frightening possibility for opponents if he got hold of LSU’s defensive talent. The downside for Shoop is that he’s a Pittsburgh native who graduated from Yale, and the majority of his career was spent coaching in the Northeast (UMass, Boston College, William & Mary, head coach at Columbia for three seasons) and therefore he doesn’t bring anything to the table in terms of recruiting in the South. But if he produced a No. 2 national defense this fall at LSU Shoop will be a rock star who can recruit anywhere in the country.
There is also a lot of talk about bringing Ed Orgeron onto the staff as a defensive line coach. Things could get complicated should Miles go that route, because LSU already has a defensive line coach in Brick Haley and by all accounts Haley is likely to stay at LSU rather than follow Chavis to Texas A&M. Haley is one of the key recruiters on the staff, so keeping him through National Signing Day is a must regardless of what happens long-term. But Haley is versatile; he’s also coached linebackers and could do that again, and if he were to make that switch it would open the door to bringing Orgeron in. The former Ole Miss head coach is a terrific recruiter and an excellent motivator, though he’s been known to be a little rough on staff chemistry at times and isn’t known as a great X’s and O’s coach. Thus if Orgeron were to come in it might be necessary for Haley either to leave or to be Chavis’ replacement as the defensive coordinator – something he did at Baylor 20 years ago. Haley was the defensive coordinator on the sidelines for LSU while Chavis coached from the pressbox and he was the primary assistant to Chavis in drafting game plans, so he might be the closest approximation to Chavis available. A defensive staff headed by Haley, Orgeron and defensive backs coach Corey Raymond might be the best group of recruiters on one side of the ball in America, and that might mean something.
There is reason to believe Miles will do just fine in finding a defensive coordinator, and reason to believe some new blood will reinvigorate the defense. But if something isn’t done about the putrid state of LSU’s quarterback play you’re still looking at an 8-5 season regardless of the wealth of talent in the program.
Anthony Jennings completed just less than 49 percent of his passes this year. That is an intolerably bad number for a starting quarterback of a major college program, and LSU will never win anything of significance with quarterback play of that caliber. Can Jennings improve? Certainly, but it’s likely not realistic to expect him to go from 49 percent to 60 percent, which is the standard number for a college passer, in one year. Jennings hasn’t shown much reason to believe he could become a championship-level quarterback anytime soon, and if Miles is to right LSU’s ship he has to come up with a replacement for him.
The easy solution to that problem is Brandon Harris, but Harris couldn’t beat Jennings out in 2014. In fact, after Jennings imploded against New Mexico State and Harris came off the bench to offer a sparkling performance, Miles opted to roll the dice with the freshman against Auburn – and received a meltdown for the ages as his reward. Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron opted to take Harris’ development more slowly after that, and based on reports that Harris took a rather slovenly approach to practice and work ethic that was probably prudent, as painful as the results may have been.
Miles can’t afford to bet the program’s future solely on whether Harris’ light comes on, and he has to know it. For most of the postseason it’s been a head-scratcher, therefore, that LSU has passed on a number of top junior-college quarterback prospects.
But in the last couple of days we’re beginning to see evidence that he might just find the answer in a senior transfer.
Yesterday, there was a report that Everett Golson, the Notre Dame quarterback who was a Heisman candidate as recently as October before a few erratic performances amid that team’s late-season slide damaged his stock and led to his losing his job to sophomore Malik Zaire in the bowl game against LSU, is considering a transfer to Tigertown. Golson is a 60 percent passer who threw for 3400 yards and 29 touchdowns while running for eight more, and regardless of his mini-slump in the second half of the season he’s a terrific quarterback who, teamed with Leonard Fournette, Travin Dural and the rest of LSU’s skill talent, could put up video game-style numbers even in Miles’ conventional offense. But Golson-to-LSU is exceedingly premature, because he would first have to graduate in May and then seek a waiver from the SEC in order to be eligible to play – the SEC rule on senior transfers says the transfer would have to have maintained academic eligibility, and Golson had to sit out the 2013 season because of his role in some sort of academic irregularity that year. The guess is he’d get that waiver, if for no other reason than lobbying from CBS and ESPN executives terrified of having to put LSU’s current offense on the air for another year.
But today came another potential senior transfer. Braxton Miller, the former Heisman candidate quarterback at Ohio State who sat out this season due to shoulder surgery while two of his backups led the team to the national championship game, reportedly has interest in LSU and Oregon as his final college destination. Miller has a bit better resume than Golson – in 2013 he was a 64 percent passer with 24 touchdowns and also rushed for 1,000 yards – and he’s already graduated from Ohio State, which means he could come in, learn the offense and win the job in the spring while Golson would have to wait until May. And Miller could be a legitimate high-round draft pick with a strong year running an NFL-style offense like LSU has (as opposed to the spread option-oriented attack at Ohio State or Oregon, though the latter’s QB Marcus Mariota is likely the top pick in the NFL Draft in April). But there’s a problem with Miller, namely that throwing shoulder. As of November, he reportedly still couldn’t throw a football as he recovered from surgery, and there is no guarantee he could return to his previous form.
You pays your money and you takes your chances.
But if either of the two made their way to LSU and it worked out, the benefits could be immeasurable. First of all, Miles’ offense looks as uncreative and conservative as it does because the quarterback play is so bad. You can’t ask a 49 percent passer to run a wide-open offense; that’s an invitation to disaster. When Zack Mettenberger was behind center in 2013 LSU had two 1,000-yard receivers, and when Miles had Jamarcus Russell and Matt Flynn playing the position nobody complained about the offensive scheme. Get an above-average quarterback and all of a sudden those skill-position stars who’ve been wasting away become major weapons and the scoreboard starts to light up again.
Second, a strong quarterback would inject a lot more excitement into a program which has been in a funk ever since the national title game loss to Alabama three years ago. Mettenberger was that in 2013, but the defense wasn’t good enough to complete the picture. LSU should have a good defense this fall regardless of whom Miles chooses to coordinate it. It would be nice to see a program with some additional energy.
Third, Harris’ development would be greatly aided by playing behind a successful role model for a year. He wasn’t here for Mettenderger’s senior season, and while he’s behind Jennings as the latter does all of the work behind the scenes a quarterback needs to do to be successful, Jennings hasn’t been successful. An immature young quarterback who thinks his talent alone will carry him and gripes about sitting behind somebody he thinks he’s better than can’t ask for anything more than a guy in front of him who’s a star player and who does all the hard work. Give Harris a year to see it done correctly and good results to follow, and you might just have the star we all hoped he’d become.
Miles drives us crazy, and he’s seen his program slide over the past couple of years. And Alleva doesn’t seem to be much help in getting LSU football back to its championship status (or any other program, for that matter; if none of the spring sports reverse the trend it will be three full academic years since any LSU team won an SEC regular-season championship). But the man isn’t stupid, and his past results show he’s capable of reversing bad trends. One has to figure he’s got a few things under the hat that will change his fortunes this year.
If not, we’re going to need a long-term plan – and Alleva is going to have to answer for that eight-figure buyout.