I forget who I first heard make the Les Miles to Mark Richt comparison -- at least in the respect I'm about to; there are others floating around out there -- so I'll simply say that I'm pretty sure someone has mentioned this on Twitter or elsewhere, and I don't mean to steal someone's idea. But when you look at where Les Miles and Mark Richt are in their careers right now, it's hard to avoid the feeling that you're watching two guys in a very similar situation.
No one can deny with any degree of seriousness that both of them are great coaches. No one can deny that both of them have their weaknesses. And it's the latter part of that that keeps catching up to them, the idea that their weaknesses prevent them from accomplishing all they could or should have with the talent that comes through their doors. And in Miles' case, it's essentially entirely summed up by this:
LSU only team in AP preseason poll (No. 14) that’s in each preseason poll last 3 years that finished lower every year in final poll— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) August 24, 2015
Now, before LSU fans jump all over me, let's make the obvious point: There are plenty of teams in the SEC and elsewhere that would welcome starting the year ranked in three consecutive seasons. Or that would welcome a coach that could keep them ranked in eight of his first ten seasons at the school. Again, Miles is a great coach.
He's also a great coach coming off an 8-5 season in the ever-rugged SEC West. (Or at least ever-rugged in recent years; there was a time in the divisional era when it was as perennially haphazard as the SEC East is now.) And so Miles needs some improvement to avoid -- what exactly? Is LSU really going to fire him if he turns in another 8-5 season? Even with the expectations in Baton Rouge, that seems far-fetched. To get recruits? Even after the last 8-5 season, LSU landed at fifth in the 247 composite rankings.
Also: Miles is better than you probably think, even compared to what LSU has done in the past. The Mad Hatter has as many seasons with double-digit wins as every other head coach in Tigers history combined. LSU's winning percentage in SEC games before Les Miles (and including Nick Saban): 0.567. Les Miles' SEC regular-season winning percentage: 0.700. And so when I see people putting Les Miles on hot-seat rankings, it confuses me a great deal. Sure, I guess if Joe Alleva catches viral stupidity, LSU might fire Les Miles. But I fail to see another reason why he would.
Not that Miles' team looks, at first glance, like it will give Alleva much to hang his hat on. The Tigers won't be bad, and could in fact be quite good -- though quite good could land you anywhere from third to last in the SEC West in 2015. But there are some glaring gaps, and while we will get to the quarterback position in just a moment, let's stick with the defense. There's an experienced core there, featuring players like Kendell Beckwith and Jalen Mills. But there are also holes: Four of the five top tacklers from 2015 are gone, and LSU has no returning starts at either defensive ends spot. Note that I'm not saying the Tigers have no returning starters, but that they have no returning starts.
Now, to the quarterback situation. Who will take the first snaps for LSU is being treated almost like a state secret by Miles, hidden behind a veil of contradictory and confusing statements. Last year's numbers, common sense and what little can be gleaned from press reports indicate Brandon Harris will probably get the nod over Anthony Jennings. But whoever it is, simple competence should be the goal. It could improve an offense that scored 46 points over its last four SEC games and broke 30 points against the following FBS teams in 2014: Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, Florida (30 even) and Kentucky.
But there are offensive weapons almost begging to be used. Leonard Fournette ran for 1,034 yards on the season and averaged 5.5 yards a carry. None of the receivers got to catch the ball very much -- the quarterbacks had a 50 percent completion rate and only attempted 276 passes -- but when not rescuing distressed citizens, Travin Dural has shown the ability to generate explosive plays (37 receptions for 758 yards, an average of 20.5). Dural had a catch of at least 22 yards in each of LSU's first eight games in 2014 before his production fell off near the end of the year. Malachi Dupre also averaged more than 20 yards a catch (22.7) on a smaller sample size (14). Throw in Tyron Johnson, and you're tempted to say LSU just needs someone to get these guys the ball more regularly.
Do that, and there might just be less unwarranted hot-seat talk by the time the 2016 opener rolls around. But if what LSU sees under center this season is too similar to what happened last year, then there will be just enough grist for the mills of those who see Miles as endangered. It's not like it took all that much to get them talking in the first place.
The perfect season: The light comes on for one of the quarterbacks -- read: Harris -- and the wide receiving corps pairs some consistency with its big-play ability. Fournette actually earns the Heisman hype this year, closing in on 1,500 yards rushing as the improved passing game gives him some breathing room. Ed Orgeron makes sure that, even with the lack of experience at the end positions, the LSU defense line holds its own and then some. The Tigers roll through the first part of their schedule, springing an early upset against Auburn in Baton Rouge, and go into the Alabama game undefeated and with a chance to win the SEC West.
The nightmare: It turns out that Brandon Harris is really just a slightly better quarterback than Anthony Jennings, and teams are able to lock down on Fournette and invite LSU to throw the ball. The lack of production from the defensive end position hurts the Tigers on defense. Things probably won't get too ugly early with the schedule, but losses at Syracuse or South Carolina and then defeats against Arkansas or Texas A&M could easily land this team at .500 and put some actual pressure on Miles going into 2016.
What actually happens: In somewhat limited playing time last year, Harris put together numbers that are impressive enough to give you some confidence that he will improve in 2015. Despite a few losses on defense, there's enough real talent and experience there to believe that LSU won't drop completely off the map on that side of the ball. If Harris' completion percentage is closer to 60 percent than 50 percent, the Tigers could be credible contenders in the SEC West. In all likelihood, the next division crown will have to wait for 2016, but LSU will probably be just good enough to inject some doubt in the race for a week or two.