What would put Les Miles back on the hot seat?
There wasn’t a seat in college football hotter than the one Les Miles sat on towards the end of the 2015 season. Three straight losses, starting with the Tigers’ fifth straight loss to Nick Saban and Alabama, had his detractors screaming for the Hat’s head.
But Miles’ enemies sort of bungled the coup, allowing speculation of Miles’ demise to linger until he became a sympathetic figure while Louisiana tax payers became outraged by what would have been a hefty buyout.
A counter coup formed, and when the Tigers beat Texas A&M in the season finale to snap the losing streak, the coach was hoisted on the players’ shoulders’ and carried off the field to a news conference where AD Joe Alleva declared that Miles “will continue to be our football coach.”
In some ways, that seems so long ago. Miles subsequently added to the good feelings by leading his team to a rout of Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl (granted, the Tigers playing so far down in the bowl pecking order wasn’t a plus for Miles), then to another elite signing class in February (granted, LSU had a top-ranked class but slipped to No. 3 by signing day).
But don’t expect that Miles, even with his 112-32 record in Baton Rouge, will enter the 2016 season with job security.
One thing last season’s drama revealed is that Miles has some enemies in powerful places and, partly by his own success, a 9-3 season like LSU had last year (remember, the Tigers lost their season-opening game vs. McNeese State to bad weather, so they only played 12 games), isn’t good enough anymore.
What could put him back on the hot seat? Let’s count the ways:
An early loss
One of the most amazing statistics of the Miles era at LSU is the Tigers’ 42-0 record in non-conference, regular-season games. Sure, it includes a fair share of rent-a-wins, but LSU is usually pretty good about scheduling the one, big-ticket game every season against another Power 5 conference opponent.
In the past, LSU has handled those games well, with wins over the likes of Oregon, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and others, teams from all of the other Power 5 conferences’ current lineup.
LSU puts its streak (which stands at 52 games overall, including the end of the Nick Saban era) on the line again this year with a trip to Lambeau Field against a pretty good Wisconsin team.
If Miles and the Tigers lose that one, it will give his detractors an opportunity to argue that he has slipped. That argument was made last year regarding his conference record (49-19 in his first eight years, 14-10 in the last three). A first-ever loss in a non-conference, regular-season game would add to that argument and give his opposition reason to stoke the fire.
Inept passing in a loss
Fair or not, the perception of Miles’ teams is that they don’t pass well enough to win big and, more specifically, that Miles’ insistence on having a Big Ten-style power run game keeps the Tigers from truly being able to open up.
Given that, what his naysayers are again looking for here is an “I told you so” moment. If LSU has a performance that repeats last year’s 30-16 loss to Alabama where the Tigers’ Brandon Harris completed just 6-of-19 passes and the offense was helpless to keep the Tide from piling the line of scrimmage to stop Leonard Fournette, then that narrative will get pushed to the forefront.
Even if Harris leads the SEC in passing coming into the game, if the Tigers get shut down by Alabama in another loss, those saying “the game has passed him by” will be out in force.
Conversely, what if LSU loses 34-31 to Alabama and Harris throws for 350 yards? That may actually save his job because the perception might be that the culprit was a defense transitioning to a new scheme under Dave Aranda and not an unimaginative offense.
Slippage against teams not in Crimson
Given LSU’s singular dominance in recruiting a state that annually produces the most NFL players per capita (Louisiana, if you never noticed, does not have a second Power 5 conference school), LSU fans expect that in the SEC West, only Alabama (and maybe Texas A&M) should be able to have the access to players that allow it to compete with the Tigers in a year-in, year-out basis.
So here are things that may be sticking in the craw of some of the anti-Miles crowd more than the Alabama losing streak: a two-game losing streak to Arkansas by a combined 48-14 score and two losses in the last three meetings against Ole Miss.
To Miles’ enemies, it’s one thing to lose to Alabama, but if the Arkansas rivalry continues to be one-sided in favor of a team from a state that doesn’t produce nearly the same high-end prospects as Louisiana, that’s going to cause major grumbling.