BATON ROUGE, La. -- While introducing his newest class on national signing day in 2014, LSU coach Les Miles made a bold prediction.
“If you look at this class like I do, we ought to compete for a national title -- or several,” Miles said.
Miles’ reasons for optimism were plentiful. The Tigers had just signed the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, running back Leonard Fournette. They added ESPN’s top-ranked player at three positions, and a total of seven prospects graded in the top three at their positions -- names like quarterback Brandon Harris, safety Jamal Adams and wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn.
When the dust settled that signing day, only one class was ranked higher than LSU’s: that of the program Miles’ Tigers will face on Saturday, Alabama.
Obviously no single game is a referendum on one recruiting class versus another, but for LSU’s 2014 signees to fulfill Miles’ prediction, the Tigers likely must defeat the lone program whose class was rated better.
“This game, it’s huge,” said Adams, one of seven LSU starters who joined the team in 2014. “It’s like a playoff game. It can determine our history, it could determine what’s going to happen in the future. But we’re not going to make it bigger than it already is.”
No need for that. It’s big enough as it is. Put simply, No. 2 LSU (7-0, 4-0 SEC) has put itself in position to contend for championships just as their coach predicted, but the Tigers and their star-studded sophomore class still must clear the Alabama hurdle.
The No. 4 Crimson Tide (7-1, 4-1) have won four in a row against LSU and could quickly put an end to the Tigers’ playoff talk by running the streak to five this weekend.
“We’re just hungry to win championships,” said LSU defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, who started last season as a true freshman. “We have to take care of this game right here, which is Alabama, who is a great opponent because they’re in the way of what we, at the end of the day, want to achieve.”
LSU’s 2014 signees have discussed being in this position since their days as prospects, as most recruiting classes do. Group text messages shot back and forth, with already-committed recruits attempting to convince others to join their group with optimistic tales about future success.
Nobody heard more of it than Fournette, who ranks among the most heavily recruited players in the history of Louisiana high school football. When he announced his decision to sign with LSU at the Under Armour All-America Game, the Tigers' championship dreams instantly seemed more achievable.
“That’s any fresh guy out of high school’s dream, just to win a championship,” said Fournette, whose decision came down to LSU and Alabama. “Actually I told Jamal when Jamal committed in the Under Armour game, I told him at halftime when I was going to be the last person committing, I said, ‘Man, I’m going to come join you and be a Tiger.’ He didn’t believe me. But everybody kept going back and forth. Cam Robinson was in my ear, ‘Man, come to Bama.’ Hootie Jones, ‘Come to Bama.’ I had Jamal, Brandon Harris, those guys in my ear."
“It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve made thus far until now. I feel like I made the right choice,” Fournette continued. “Hanging with these guys, the relationships I’ve built with them, from now on who knows? This year, we might win a championship. Next year, a championship, year after that, a championship. Man, you never know.”
It hasn’t always come easily for the 2014 crew, however. Although he carried Heisman Trophy hype into his first game, Fournette needed time to adapt to college football. Harris failed to wrestle the starting quarterback job away from Anthony Jennings until this season. Dupre and Quinn had their growing pains at receiver. Will Clapp, now a starting offensive guard, redshirted last season.
“It’s just one of those things that you get better from going through difficult times, and we definitely did,” Dupre said. “I know I had my times last year where I don’t ever want to say I didn’t enjoy myself by any means, because I always was a person who understands the growing pains and the process of becoming something that you want to be. I knew that my freshman year was like anybody else’s freshman year and better days were ahead.”
Added Fournette: “It took time, man. Everybody was freshmen, the game was hitting us fast. Coach Frank (Wilson, running backs coach) always told us we were going to be fine. We just needed that one year under our belt to get used to the game speed and stuff. And look at us now. It’s crazy. It reminds me of a dream.”
Now they’re here -- just the same as Alabama’s star-studded 2014 class. With key players like Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jake Coker, Dominick Jackson, JK Scott and Ross Pierschbacher joining the Crimson Tide’s roster in 2014, Alabama’s class from that year is also making an enormous impact.
Those players are part of a program that has been LSU’s greatest obstacle. Since Alabama shut out LSU in the 2012 BCS Championship Game, the Tigers have been a second-tier SEC program while the Crimson Tide have remained at the top. Saturday’s game likely represents LSU’s best chance since then to change the program’s trajectory -- and for the 2014 Tigers to take a huge step toward fulfilling Miles’ prophecy.
“I knew what we could accomplish the whole time, especially if we all matured and did the things that we needed to do,” Dupre said. “So hopefully we’re doing exactly what we said we thought we could, which up until this point we’re doing a pretty good job of that. This weekend stands between us achieving that.”