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SEC 2015: LSU Sets the Table

Some years aren't about the current year.

Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not sure that Les Miles has ever got his proper due as one of the best head coaches of the past decade. Only some of that is his fault.

What's not his fault is that he is not cut from the same cloth as many other successful coaches. Tell someone to envision a top head coach today, and thanks to the way media has portrayed good coaches from Vince Lombardi on, they'll probably go to someone deathly serious like Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. Miles's idiosyncrasies exclude him from ever joining that club for a lot of people no matter what his teams do on the field, and it's been that way from the start. Lots of people said initially he only won because he had Saban's players, winning calculated bets became luck rather than savvy, and he ended up with the nickname "Mad Hatter" rather than something highlighting his acumen. His sole national championship coming from a two-loss team doesn't help either, even if it was undefeated in regulation.

What is his fault is an underwhelming series of offensive coordinator hires. He began with a guy whose playbook degenerated into an identity-free grab bag in Gary Crowton, scooped up Steve Kragthorpe after he drove Louisville's offense into a ditch, and picked up NFL retread Cam Cameron after a couple of years of Greg Studrawa. There were real successes in there, with the 2007 and 2013 offenses being the biggest highlights, but more often than not, it feels like the team is trying to win despite its offense. Which is strange, by the way, given Miles's background as an offensive guy. Through it all, it's hard to say he even has a signature play other than the toss dive.

But still, Miles has finished under .500 in SEC play just once in his decade in Baton Rouge, which is great considering how tough the West division has been during that time. His 2011 team was one of the most accomplished of the current era, having won the SEC, beaten the eventual national champion, and taken down both the eventual Pac-10 and Big East champions in the non-conference schedule. The bad luck of having that be the year the SEC gets both teams in the national championship game probably cost him a better shot at a second national championship, although a questionable offensive game plan for the BCS title game and ghastly execution therein didn't help.

The 8-5 season that LSU went through in 2014 is different than the one it did in 2008. That '08 team lost the core of the national championship '07 team, so a down year of some sort was inevitable and to a degree self-correcting. Replacing the unsuccessful co-defensive coordinator setup also was low hanging fruit. This time around, the answers don't seem quite as simple.

The 2014 team had lost the core of the excellent 2013 offense, and getting a year older on that side of the ball will help a lot. That said, neither Brandon Harris nor Anthony Jennings has proven he will be a net positive at quarterback, and neither totally fits what Cameron is best at running. The hire of Kevin Steele feels a bit Kragthorpe-like in that the team went and got someone who wasn't exactly in high demand, though the coup of gaining Ed Orgeron ameliorates that a bit. Plus, the defensive pipeline—particularly in the trenches—hasn't produced as many true stars of late as it used to.

For these reasons and others, there are people out there looking to start shoveling dirt on the Miles era at LSU sooner than later. Underestimating Miles for long has never paid off, though.

Both Harris and Jennings looked far better in this year's spring game running a streamlined offense than they did with more complex stuff last year, thus clearing the, "if you can't do it in the spring game, you're not going to do it on Saturdays" bar. They're also surrounded by a lot of promising talent that is ready to blossom after a year of seasoning. And even if Steele didn't learn everything his boss knows after working at Bama the past two years, he'll get a real boost from Orgeron doing hands-on teaching and player development.

Miles doesn't have one of those (often unfounded) reputations of being at his best when little is expected of him, probably because he's mostly just consistently good and has had his best teams when we thought he would. That, and his reputation for unpredictability has probably rendered him immune to being ascribed patterns.

If he did, though, 2015 would be a year in which a lot of folks would tell you that Miles has the college football world right where he wants it. It would only be partially true, since LSU is presently closer to second place Auburn in the preseason consensus than fourth place Ole Miss, but this is the generally spurious "does best when doubted" meme we're talking about.

LSU isn't really anyone's pick to win the West except for ESPN's black box of a rating system called FPI. The Tigers might not have the pieces just yet to win the division anyway, though if Harris comes through on his potential—and based on what we saw last fall, it has to be Harris—the Tigers could end up a top ten kind of team. Make enough progress this fall, and LSU can set itself up to make a real run at an SEC title next year.

Miles will be better appreciated after his time than here in it, but 2015 probably won't be one of those seasons future historians highlight as one of his best. It might, however, turn out to be a springboard for another run of ten-win seasons like he's had twice in his tenure so far.