ARLINGTON TX - JANUARY 07: Head coach Les Miles of the Louisiana State University Tigers celebrates after defeating the Texas A&M Aggies 41-24 during the AT&T Cotton Bowl at Cowboys Stadium on January 7 2011 in Arlington Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
It might have been a curtain call, or it might have been simply the preview to an encore. But with the team that groomed him beginning a search for a new coach, and with the SEC badly needing a win in a high-profile bowl, Les Miles proved that he can beat the best teams on the biggest stage with his players.
After all, hasn't that always been the knock on the growling, grass-eating LSU head coach? When he won 11 or more games in three consecutive seasons and a national title, you see, Miles was just piloting a team stocked with talent by Nick Saban. His next two seasons, in which he went a combined 8-8 against the SEC, that was the real Miles. The lucky gambits of the past were no longer working. The talent level was down, and Miles' loyalty to Gary Crowton and others was turning LSU into a second-rate program in the improving SEC West.
And while all the usual caveats about reading too much into the results of a bowl game apply, look at where the SEC West sits now: Alabama is losing talent to the NFL Draft left and right, Arkansas' best player by far is joining them after the Razorbacks' loss in the Sugar Bowl, and Auburn could return to the pack if Cam Newton also declares. If Miles returns to coach the team in 2011, the Bayou Bengals will very much be in the hunt to return to Atlanta for the first time since 2007.
For some perspective, it's also worth pointing out that Miles is 62-17 (.785) in six seasons at LSU, while Nick Saban was 48-16 (.750) in five. The Tigers will almost certainly end up ranked in the Top 10 this year for the third time since Miles took over; Saban accomplished that twice. And the new LSU coach is 2-2 against the old one since they started playing each other in the annual "Saban Bowl." Miles' methods might be more unconventional than Saban's, and I suppose there's a case to be made that Saban is a better coach than Miles. But there's really very little evidence that Saban was a better coach for LSU than Miles.
But the biggest surprise of the game might be that LSU won it at least partially thanks to the offense. The Tigers rang up 446 yards -- second only to their game against an Ole Miss team with one of the worst defenses in the SEC -- on a season-high 74 plays. The Tigers were able to sustain drives -- they had seven of seven or more plays, and scored on five of them. Jordan Jefferson was far from perfect, but he made some good throws and turned in what might be his best game of the year: 10-of-19, 158 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT. Stevan Ridley and Spencer Ware both rushed for more than 100 yards on the game; Ware's season total before the Cotton Bowl was 73 yards.
Not that the defense didn't do its part. Texas A&M generated only 351 yards of total offense, the Aggies' third-smallest total of the year. (Arkansas and Nebraska were the teams that allowed fewer yards.) In 35 attempts, Ryan Tannehill threw three interception -- the same number he had thrown in 199 attempts before the Cotton Bowl. During the critical stretch of the game, when LSU was taking and building its lead, the defense held the Aggies scoreless for nearly 28 minutes.
So let the Miles-to-Michigan rumors begin anew after he fell well short of turning down the job in his post-game press conference. But even if he leaves Baton Rouge after this game, no one can see he doesn't deserve to be recognized as one of the better coaches in the school's history. He proved that Friday night -- with a playing style and a team that were unmistakably Miles.