January 14, 2011
A good week for LSU fans – the Tigers turned in a promising Cotton Bowl win last Friday to seal a top-10 finish, and head coach Les Miles publicly spurned his alma mater in favor of deepening his roots in Baton Rouge – got a little better Thursday with news that maligned offensive coordinator Gary Crowton is on his way out: Louisiana's favorite scapegoat is signing on at Maryland to run the Terps' offense for newly hired Randy Edsall. It's not clear that Crowton was fired, necessarily, but the sentiment is clear enough: The Tigers' success the last two seasons has come in spite of one of the SEC's most impotent attacks, and with a golden opportunity at SEC and national championship runs in 2011, they can no longer afford the malaise.
Considering the talent on hand (every Les Miles recruiting haul since 2006 has come in ranked among Rivals' top 10 classes nationally), LSU's offensive nosedive since the 2007 BCS championship season – Crowton's first in Baton Rouge, on the heels of predecessor Jimbo Fisher – is shocking. The Tigers bottomed out in 2009, coming in dead last in the SEC in total offense, next-to-last in rushing and 10th in scoring; in 2010, they were 11th in total offense and brought up the rear in passing. Even mere mediocrity in 2008 was submarined by redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Lee and his endless parade of pick-sixes. In the draft, only two offensive players in four years under Crowton (third-rounders Early Doucet in 2008 and Brandon LaFell last year) have gone in the first four rounds, with no additions to that list expected this spring barring a gonzo effort or two at the combine.
It will be a disappointment, to say the least, if that's still the case over the next two years. Even with All-SEC running back Stevan Ridley's odd – and possibly reversible – decision to declare for the draft, eight of the offensive starters who opened up a can on Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl are back in the fall, including four of five offensive linemen and former five-star recruits Reuben Randle and Russell Shepard, just hitting their make-or-break year as juniors. Hulking freshman running back Spencer Ware was the breakout star of the A&M win, busting off 102 yards on just 10 carries (including gains of 18, 24 and 26 yards) in the first significant action of his career. That game was the first time since '07 an LSU offense managed to put 40 points on the board against a defense that didn't finish in the bottom 25 nationally in points allowed, and with eight starters back on defense, pointed the way toward a return to the national elite.
The key to the Tigers' SEC and BCS ambitions in the fall, though, is unquestionably quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who remains as much of a mystery after his 27th career start as he did after his first. For the Cotton Bowl, he turned in one of the most efficient efforts of his career, connecting for almost as many touchdown passes in one night (three) than he managed to hit over the entire regular season (four). Jefferson was a well-regarded recruit and has the body of a big (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), athletic, NFL-bound bombardier, but for two years has played more like a within-the-offense manager whose coaches are reluctant to cut the apron strings. Against the Aggies, he uncorked a pair of long touchdown throws to NFL-bound senior Terrance Toliver that gave a rare, tantalizing glimpse of the potential bottled up in (statistically, anyway) the least threatening assault in the conference.
Crowton's exit and Miles' commitment to the long haul are a golden opportunity to import a quarterback guru – Norm Chow, Mark Whipple and Mike Leach spring immediately to mind, among the currently (or soon-to-be) unemployed, to say nothing of potentially poachable targets like East Carolina's Lincoln Riley or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Steve Logan – who have the track record to unlock that promise, while the opportunity still exists. Whoever gets the call, he's going to be one of the most crucial hires of the new year, and along with Charlie Weis at Florida and Bryan Harsin at Texas, one of the most closely scrutinized. And for good reason: LSU is almost certain to begin the year as the favorite to win the SEC, at least in some part because of the optimism following Crowton's exit. The guy who takes on the task of lifting the Tigers out of their rut will be front and center. If he pulls it off, he's going to eat like a king. If he doesn't, it's another enormous missed opportunity.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.