January 08, 2011
Cotton Bowl: LSU 41, Texas A&M 24. Finally, the whole "major bowl" thing is finished, so we can get to the real news: Is Les Miles going to fill the new vacancy at his alma mater? LSU fans, even in the absence of any hard evidence, are increasingly convinced Miles is gone to Michigan. (Having spent much of the last two nights listening to sports radio in Louisiana, I can assure you, the local "buzz" about Miles' departure in that link may be an understatement. Tiger fans are already sizing up replacements.) At least two LSU players went on the record after the Cotton Bowl win Friday night to assure fans that Miles has assured the team that he's not going anywhere. The Michigan media thought he sounded pretty noncommittal, themselves.
Somewhere in there, the long-dormant LSU awoke and capped an 11-2 campaign with one of its most promising wins of the last three years, its fourth of the season over a team that finished the regular season ranked in the top 25. I know there are airplanes to track and all, but did anyone happen to notice that LSU might, like, have an actual offense again?
For an attack that's struggled as consistently and mightily as the Tigers' – LSU closed the regular season ranked 11th out 12 in the SEC in total offense after finishing dead last in 2009, and were tenth in scoring for the second year in a row – the night was about as close as they've come to a breakthrough since they took the BCS championship three years ago. The 446-yard outburst against A&M was the Tigers' second-best total of the season, and only their third time over 400 yards in their last 30 games. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson turned in one of the most efficient games of his career, connecting for almost as many touchdown passes in one night (three) than he managed to hit in the entire regular season (four), despite taking a large majority of the snaps in every game. The running game piled up more yards (288) than it had in any game since the '07 championship season, with two 100-yard rushers in the same game (junior Stevan Ridley and revelatory true freshman Spencer Ware, who eclipsed his season total with 102 yards on 10 carries) for the first time in Miles' six-year tenure. And it was the first time since '07 an LSU offense has put more than 40 points on the board against a defense that didn't finish in the bottom 25 nationally in points allowed.
The exciting part, the part that makes it seem more like a launching pad for 2011 than a finale for 2010 – especially after a 40-plus-day layoff since the Nov. 27 loss at Arkansas – is the youth: Nine of Friday night's offensive starters are back in the fall, including Ridley (who suddenly has a imposing running mate in the 225-pound Ware), four of five offensive linemen, former five-star recruits Reuben Randle and Russell Shepard at receiver and Jefferson, entering his third season as the full-time starter. Even assuming junior cornerback Patrick Peterson moves on to fame and fortune as a top-five draft pick, the defense gets back seven starters – not including ballhawking true freshman cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who stole the show against the Aggies and may immediately replace Peterson as the headliner after a brilliant debut season as the nickel back. LSU's going to finish the season in the top 10 with eleven wins after two years in the wilderness, and might start next season in the top five with visions of an SEC title dancing in its head.
Why Miles would want to leave that opportunity – and the salary that goes with it– for a true, from-the-ground-up rebuilding job where he won't exactly be welcomed with open arms by a substantial portion of the fan base, I don't know. But under the circumstances, I don't think anyone could ever doubt his commitment as a "Michigan Man" again if he does.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.