Even before a third straight loss in November during which his team fell behind early and didn't feel competitive for stretches, Les Miles really did appear to be coaching for his job. Now there are reports that he might be done in Baton Rouge. I think there's a simple explanation as to why that is.
Some of it undoubtedly has to do with what Scott Rabalais said in his column that sparked the latest hot seat chatter. Miles's team has felt like it's been on a slide since the 21-0 loss to Alabama in the national championship game. Rabalais also said that Miles hasn't done a good job of courting big money boosters, and they're the ones who ultimately choose whether or not to finance buyouts. Being on iffy terms with the AD doesn't help either.
I will repeat myself some when I say the reason why Miles is on the hot seat is simply because he's not Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. Having thought about it more last night, I think it's worth expanding on what exactly that means.
Saban is known as being a defensive innovator. The same is true for Meyer on the offensive side. But also think about some of the other guys in the SEC West. Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze have been on the forefront of the hurry up-no huddle offense. Kevin Sumlin is one of the best Air Raid guys, and that scheme has been a winner in college football for a while now.
The things those coaches are known for are their edges. It's what you would point to when things slip. You'd say that sure, this is a down point, but being known for having developed interesting new things whether on defense (Saban) or offense (Meyer/Malzahn/Freeze/Sumlin) means that he might develop something new again to pull out of the decline.
What is Miles known for? Funny grammar and eating grass are up there, but what about on the field? Fake field goals, the toss dive, going for it on fourth down, and creative (ahem) clock management are probably about it. No one fears "the Les Miles offense". It's just manball, to borrow Bill Connelly's term. And while Bret Bielema also loves manball, his Razorbacks have the tools for passing this year and indeed have one of the conference's best passing attacks. We saw a little of that from Miles in 2013, but it has since faded.
Miles has generally won because of some combination of having better players than the other team on the field and getting his players better ready to play, not because he has outschemed the other side. It's no coincidence then that LSU has lost five straight to Alabama when you look at four-year moving averages of team recruiting rankings (according to the 247Sports Composite):
|Alabama 4Y MA
|LSU 4Y MA
It's hard to beat a team on the premise of, "I've got better players" when not having better players. Player development is the avenue to overcome this kind of deficit, but that's been lacking in key places lately. Most obviously, neither Anthony Jennings nor Brandon Harris appeared to improve over their seasons as starting quarterbacks in 2014-15.
The other piece of Miles's success was about getting players ready to play. Well, he has outrecruited Arkansas and Ole Miss, but the Hogs have beat him two straight and the Rebels have beat him two of three. He's outrecruited Mississippi State, but he lost to them last year and barely won by two points this year. His team's no-show in a 41-7 loss to Auburn last year was startling. And then, of course, his Tigers have fallen behind 10-0, 21-0, and 24-0, respectively, in the past three games.
So then, what is the story to tell about how Miles will pull out of the current slide? Drastically changing offensive philosophy rarely works; for every Gary Patterson hiring the Air Raid, there are plenty more instances of Tommy Tuberville hiring Tony Franklin and Phillip Fulmer hiring Dave Clawson. Miles is what he is at this point.
And once player development, preparation, and motivation dips in a program, it very rarely turns around. I've never been inside a program, so me trying to explain why that is would only be speculation. That said, I can't think of too many instances where a long-tenured coach slid on those aspects and then got it fixed back up again. One or two-year blips can happen to anyone, but this now is four years without positive momentum in Baton Rouge.
If Miles had rose to prominence based on some kind of new insight into football, then it'd be possible to imagine him coming up with something new to get back on track. He's just a ball coach though—and a damn strong one, to borrow his own turn of phrase—and there's nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of programs that would see an upgrade by hiring him this offseason.
But it's also plausible to guess that his time contending with the likes of Saban and Meyer at the pinnacle of the sport are over. If that's so, then it's only a matter of when, not if. Being at that pinnacle is where LSU wants to be, and if the guy in the job isn't going to get back there, then every delay only delays the inevitable.