The AP preseason poll just came out and although Les Miles is already facing enormous pressure to silence the critics this season, a number 5 ranking has just turned it up a notch.
Talent has always abounded in Baton Rouge. The Tigers send more players to the NFL than any other program in the country. And that includes that other SEC West juggernaut—Alabama. Last season, LSU had 41 players in the league. Alabama had 34. That only begins to explain why Miles will be starting out the 2016 campaign on the hot seat.
In his 11 seasons with the Tigers, Miles has compiled a more than respectable .778 winning percentage, given that those numbers come out of the most treacherous conference in the land. Unfortunately, playing in this conference also means that winning an average of ten games a year just isn’t enough when it’s only produced two SEC championships and one national title. To that, add the fact that last season’s dismal 9-3 finish was preceded by an 8-5 mark in 2014, and you begin to understand the pressure cooker scenario that promises to follow Miles around this entire season.
The tools, per usual, are mostly in place. That’s in the hopeful event that Leonard Fournette’s “light” ankle sprain is just that, and he’ll return to the team good as new and ready to lay it down by the opener against Wisconsin Sept. 3. Beyond Fournette, the offense will be led by junior quarterback Brandon Harris, whose 2015, while nothing to brag about, held a good bit of promise. Particularly for an LSU program that’s been without an effective player under center since the 2013 version of Zach Mettenberger. Harris led the Tigers to a 7-o record and a no. 2 ranking last season until it all fell apart, but through no fault of his own.
With Fournette being the focal point of the offense, Harris was relegated to the role of game manager, which his numbers clearly show. In LSU’s first four games, Harris totaled less than 100 yards through the air in each outing, and through their first seven games, he had just 9 touchdown passes. But in October and November, Harris seemed to morph into a true quarterback, throwing for 1,522 yards and 10 TDs over the last half of the season. The hope is that he really has turned the corner, as that would take a great deal of pressure off Fournette and the ground game.
On the defensive side, questions loom after a few key injuries. Senior DT Christian LaCouture and sophomore DE Isaiah Washington suffered season ending injuries, and senior linebacker Corey Thompson is expected to miss half the season with a broken leg. All were expected to be key contributors to defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s new 3-4 defense. As usual with LSU, however, one top talent is backed up by another. Top transfer Travonte Valentine will replace LaCouture, while highly-touted freshmen Ed Alexander Rashard Lawrence and Glen Logan are expected to see some playing time along the defensive line. And three-star freshman LB Sci Martin is also expected to fill in the void left by Thompson on the outside.
Talent has obviously never been the issue for Miles at LSU. Lately, though, shaping and molding it into a winner has. The West will likely come down to Bama and LSU like it has more than a couple times in Miles’ tenure. There’s just no sugar coating it. This time, anything less than an SEC championship probably brings his time in Baton Rouge to an end.
“We want to win the West and play in the conference championship and then go on to the playoff and win the national championship. Again,” Miles said at SEC Media Days last month.
Everybody knows it, and apparently so does he.