Time for LSU to embrace underdog role
It’s not often that a powerhouse program coming off four straight 10-win seasons has a chance to be an underdog, a spoiler.
For LSU, it’s an unfamiliar position, and one that Les Miles isn’t quick to accept.
“I’ve never felt the underdog role is something we’ve embraced. I think there is an enjoyment with playing as LSU, and I think that’s what we will play with. We will look forward to competing and wearing our uniform proudly.”” LSU coach Les Miles said ahead of his team’s trip to Auburn, which ended up a 41-7 loss that dropped them from the polls.
Ranked No. 15 at the time, that loss exposed LSU as a pretender in the SEC West. That’s not to say the Tigers aren’t a talented team capable of making noise, it’s just stating the obvious: this iteration of the team isn’t equipped to win a division title this year. That doesn’t mean they can’t wreak havoc in the West, though.
Whether Miles likes it or not, it’s time for him to come to terms with his team being a possible wrecking ball in the West without having a real chance to compete for the division crown. The scenarios for No. 24 LSU to get within shouting distance of the top of the table are pretty far fetched, and involve the team winning out — which means beating Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M — while the Mississippi schools would have to each lose two games and the Alabama schools at least one apiece. Barring simultaneous catastrophic collapses, that’s probably not happening.
Miles’ decision to roll with Anthony Jennings at quarterback is a silent confirmation that the coach has perhaps come around to being a nuisance this year rather than rebuilding for next year. Aside from the debacle of a start against New Mexico State, Jennings has provided reliable, consistent mediocrity under center, mostly avoiding turnovers and other critical mistakes.
While Jennings probably won’t lose LSU too many games on his own, he’s certainly not going to win them with his arm. He’s only completing half of his passes, not good enough for this team to truly contend, but he hits enough of them when it counts to make the Tigers dangerous.
On the flip side is Brandon Harris, who has the talent to be a game-breaking quarterback but is inexperienced to the point that it might hamper the team, and it’s enough to give the coaching staff pause. Miles could easily hand the reins to the freshman Harris, that would more or less be waving the white flag on the season. Instead, the coach has stuck with Jennings, the steady and unspectacular passer.
If LSU is going to embrace its current position pull a couple of upsets along the way, starting with Ole Miss this weekend, that might actually be the right call. LSU’s offensive line, a disappointment through the first half of season, has come together in the last two weeks. Ethan Pocic is now entrenched at guard, while Elliott Porter and Vadal Alexander have found their grooves alongside him on the inside. Tackles Jerald Hawkins and La’el Collins have been solid all season, and now the entire “fivesome,” as Miles referred to the line, is starting to play up to its potential.
That means that LSU can actually lean on the power running game that was expected to fuel the team this year. That allows them to control the clock, and reduces the need for Jennings to produce offense on his own. With Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Darrel Williams around to run behind the Tigers’ gelling line, that’s a pretty good way to operate an offense. If LSU’s not giving the other team extra possessions and running the ball effectively, that’s a recipe to pull upsets.
The defense is another matter. The Tigers were gouged by opponents’ running attacks early on, from Wisconsin’s stereotypical Big 10 power attack to Auburn and Mississippi State’s spread offenses operated by mobile quarterbacks.
Against Kentucky, who run a similar (also less talented and experienced) version of Ole Miss’ offense, the Tigers put on their best defensive performance of the season. They shut down the run as well as they have all year, and their pass rush was as strong as ever. Whether that was a fluke performance against an overwhelmed team playing its biggest road test of the year or a sign of marked improvement remains to be seen. The defense has looked better since Kendell Beckwith took over the starting role at middle linebacker, but one man typically isn’t enough to shift an entire unit’s performance.
The Tigers do have the playmakers on defense to start to make up for their deficiencies. They’re ranked fourth in the conference in turnovers forced and third in turnover margin. They’re equally capable of stripping the ball or picking it off, the former coming in handy when running backs go barreling up the middle of the defense.
A few weeks ago, this looked like a lost season for the Tigers. Now, while they’re more or less out of contention for anything of significance, they can still win some games and make good on the season. This isn’t the NBA, where losing games would give them a leg up for next year. Miles is worrying about winning games now.
If he continues to embrace the underdog role, this lost season could turn into quite the fun one.