Unlike many sports that feature more scheduling balance or overall parity, college football reveals itself in November, the denouement of a season that can vary wildly month to month. While some teams seize on that truism and find an identity after early setbacks (see: Oklahoma, Washington State), the month often exposes as much as it elevates.
Teams like Baylor, with its exceedingly thin non-conference slate, and Iowa bore the brunt of early-season skepticism in 2015. However, it turns out that a bigger brand-name program, buoyed by a Heisman contender, was perhaps the sport’s finest illusion.
Yes, LSU was No. 2 in the CFP rankings all of 10 days ago, and now there’s talk in Baton Rouge of Les Miles’ tenure going the direction of Mack Brown after a dispiriting 31-14 home loss to Arkansas.
While there’s a lot to digest in the details — and hindsight is certainly easy here — the Tigers ultimately ran over mostly middling competition for two months, only to run into teams hitting their strides come November. That’s a fundamental aspect of the college game with league titles and national championships increasingly going to teams that build rather than sustain. Ohio State in 2014 and Auburn of 2013 are proof enough, and the Sooners are primed to be the 2015 version.
Miles’ LSU squads haven’t been known to gain steam within the course of a season. Outside of 2006, all of his teams have lost a game after Nov. 1, bowl games included. Even his 2007 national title bunch lost to, that’s right, the Hogs at home in the regular season’s final game. It’s a fair criticism. It also doesn’t fully fit with a complementary narrative that’s sprung up over the past half-decade.
Because of the game’s massive hype, LSU-Alabama doesn’t just devour the SEC West landscape. It becomes the way all seasons in Baton Rouge are judged at this point, consuming the attention of players and fans alike. With LSU’s five-game losing streak in the series — four of them in early November, there’s annual talk of a “Bama Hangover” for the Tigers. Miles himself even addressed it on Monday, calling the notion “absolutely untrue.”
He’s at least got an argument. Since 2012, LSU is now a not-too-shabby 6-2 in November after losing to Alabama. Yet there’s no question that consecutive 17-point beatdowns at the hands of Bret Bielema and Arkansas the week following an emotionally-bruising Bama loss mark an uneasy pattern. It’s the trajectory of the seasons that irk LSU fans the most. The back-to-back losses two Novembers running now have revealed team that failed to address some of their most fundamental flaws.
LSU has improved its passing game this fall, which was thought to be a linchpin of the team’s success. There’s little doubt Brandon Harris has been an upgrade from Anthony Jennings, though the extent to which Harris actually makes defenses respect his arm is debatable. He could at least spin the ball downfield in the first half versus the Tide and piled up 271 yards while playing from behind against Arkansas. However, an offensive line that looked like a strength turned out to be a mirage, not the mauling bunch that had helped propel Leonard Fournette to the top of every Heisman poll.
This is where the idea of LSU’s early-season resume being built on a shaky foundation really reveals itself.
The win at Mississippi State to open the season is solid enough, even now. Beating Florida is still among the best dozen wins this season, purely on record and merit. Other than that? LSU never faced a front that could come close to matching up in the trenches.
Auburn hadn’t stabilized yet — it probably still hasn’t — and it was missing Carl Lawson. South Carolina made Greyson Lambert the second coming of Phil Simms and was mere days away from its coach, Steve Spurrier, riding off into the sunset. LSU’s Power 5 non-conference foe turned from an intriguing road test to a total dud, as the Tigers’ win at Syracuse kickstarted the Orange’s (now) seven-game losing skid. You could viably assert that Western Kentucky is the second-best win on LSU’s resume.
We can quibble about the SEC’s relative strength compared to years past, but it’s noteworthy that a powerhouse in the conference made it to November with such an unremarkable slate. That goes double for LSU, which usually opens the season with a big-time matchup opposing teams like Wisconsin and Oregon, or bowl-worthy opponents in North Carolina and Washington. Combined with a mere seven games in nine weeks due to the season opener’s cancellation, LSU was a “TBD” waiting to happen.
It’s seductive to think this regression should have been obvious, but the signs were positive all the way up to Halloween. Harris looked good enough against the Gators and in October that progression seemed a given, not a question. Ultimately, it’s been the unit in front of him that’s stalled out. The offensive line wasn’t able to push around the Bama and Arkansas fronts, bogging down everything offensively and keeping the defense on the field for long stretches. Even with a bevy of talent all over the roster, an LSU team lacking the ability to win the line of scrimmage doesn’t scare anybody.
It’s also brought another season in Baton Rouge to an abrupt halt. The Tigers have averaged a tick above nine wins across the past three seasons and would almost certainly reach that mark had they faced McNeese on Sept. 5. As usual under Les, it’s not always the “what” for LSU fans, it’s the “how.”
LSU isn’t a program that finds steadier footing in November under Miles, and that typically leaves a lasting impression heading the offseason.
Was LSU overrated at 7-0? Almost certainly. Are the lofty goals off the table now? Of course.
However, with games left against Ole Miss and Texas A&M and a potential prestige bowl at least in play, righting a ship mid-sink would at least represent an achievement of sorts.
It would mean this LSU team found a foothold on the ladder, a momentum builder for a young roster to latch onto, hurtling toward an already-hyped 2016. Next year, expectations will again weigh heavily on a Tiger team that would obviously need November success to return to the national prominence that slipped through their hands this season.