BATON ROUGE, La. -- Fair or unfair, Les Miles has gone from coach of the nation’s No. 2 team to possible unemployment in three short weeks.
LSU has been stuck in a rut since losing to Alabama in the BCS championship game to conclude the 2011 season, and Miles has not been able to pull the program out. This season started with promise, but three consecutive losses -- all by at least two touchdowns -- have made it clear that one of the nation’s most popular and successful head coaches is on the outs with LSU’s power brokers. It seems increasingly possible that the school will soon announce what most would have found unthinkable a few weeks ago, that Miles is finished as LSU’s coach.
There are strong cases to be made on both sides of this situation. Here is a primer on the decision that LSU athletic director Joe Alleva and his athletic board have been weighing:
THE CASE FOR FIRING MILES
Declining results: Of all the topics we’ll discuss, this is the No. 1 factor. LSU has been trending downward for several seasons.
Since getting body-slammed by Alabama in that infamous championship game, LSU’s annual SEC records have been 6-2 (2012), 5-3 (2013), 4-4 (2014) and 4-3 so far this season. In Miles’ first seven seasons at LSU, the Tigers had only one team finish .500 or worse in conference play (they went 3-5 in 2008, Alleva’s first year as athletic director, when tension between him and Miles first developed). Miles won 81.9 percent of his SEC games in those first seven seasons, compared with 61.3 in the four years since.
The program hadn’t lost three straight games since 1999; now, the Tigers are coming off consecutive losses to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss. It’s possible that they will finish unranked for the second straight year.
Alabama comparison: It’s not just that LSU is 0-5 against Alabama since winning the “Game of the Century” in Tuscaloosa during the 2011 regular season, it’s that Alabama has pulled away as the top dog in the SEC West. In fact, LSU can’t necessarily make the case that it’s the No. 2 program in the division behind Alabama. Every Western Division team has beaten the Tigers either this season or last with the exception of Texas A&M -- and the Aggies get their shot on Saturday.
Sloppy play persists: You’ve probably seen some speculate that LSU was somehow “broken” after its first loss of this season against Alabama. Hogwash. At this point, one could argue the Tigers were broken all along and it took a tough November slate to drive that point home.
Things have obviously gone sideways for LSU’s offense since Alabama, but this team has been sloppy from day one. If it wasn’t penalties eliminating a long Leonard Fournette run, it was busted coverages on defense that allowed big plays. If it wasn’t one of those options, it was poor kicks or kick coverages that gave opponents consistently great field position.
A team can’t commit 13 penalties -- five of which came on LSU’s first possession -- and expect to beat a team as talented as Ole Miss any more than you should expect to commit five turnovers and beat the Rebels. Self-inflicted problems are often how good teams lose games. LSU has been making these mistakes all season.
New blood generates excitement: Georgia is probably contemplating this factor with Mark Richt as well. After a coach has been in place for a decade, a certain segment of the fan base loses interest even if the coach wins at a good but not superb rate. It’s a lot easier to generate season-ticket sales and donations from boosters with money to burn if the program is bubbling with excitement. That isn’t the case at LSU today.
THE CASE AGAINST FIRING MILES
Come on, it’s Les Miles! Quick, run down the list of coaches who are as entrenched as the faces of their programs as Miles is at LSU. There aren't many names on that list.
This is the guy who gave Louisiana a pleasant distraction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by guiding the Tigers to a 2005 SEC West title in his first season as coach. He’s quirky and fun, eating grass, surprising opponents with trick plays and speaking in an oddball manner that has endeared him to football fans across the country.
Simply put, college football is better off because of personalities like Miles, and he deserves more loyalty than this.
His résumé: In the last century of LSU football, Miles’ winning percentage (77.5) is the best of any Tigers coach. That’s better than Charlie McClendon (69.2), better than Paul Dietzel (65.1) and yes, better than even Nick Saban (75.0).
Miles has won one national title (2007), played for another (2011) and claimed division titles in 2005, 2007 and 2011. He has won at least 10 games in seven of his 11 seasons at LSU. That brings us to our next topic ...
Few sure things: You’re taking an enormous risk when you mess with stability, and LSU has that with Miles.
Critics frequently opine that Miles has a dated offensive philosophy and the school needs a coach with a more modern approach. The alternative most frequently cited is Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, who coached under Saban and Miles at LSU between 2000 and 2006.
Never mind that Fisher’s middling offense this season is every bit as dependent on running back Dalvin Cook -- against ACC defenses, mind you -- as LSU's offense is dependent on Fournette. Cook is responsible for 39.9 percent of FSU’s yardage in the 10 games in which he has played. Fournette’s percentage is 40.8.
The point is this: Sure, Fisher has won and recruited more effectively than Miles lately. How confident should we be that he -- or anyone else -- could walk into the snake pit that is the SEC West and do any better than Miles? There aren’t many obvious options out there who would make this change a slam-dunk move.
The buyout and the message it sends: The money has been at Alleva’s fingertips since the end of last season, but paying Miles’ $15 million buyout (or $12.9 million if the move comes after Jan. 1) and settling contracts with his assistants would look terrible. This is particularly true after LSU president F. King Alexander’s pleas to the state legislature, which had to scramble this year to come up with enough money to prevent LSU and other public colleges in the state from declaring academic bankruptcy.
Granted, buyouts for Miles and his coaches would be paid by a handful of individual boosters, not out of money that would otherwise go to academics -- and it helps that LSU can spread out payments to Miles over eight years -- but forking over approximately $20 million so football coaches won’t coach would be awkward to explain to a university community that has been hit with substantial budget cuts.
He hasn’t lost the team: At least it doesn’t seem that way. Perhaps this was predictable, but the players who spoke to the media after the Ole Miss loss didn’t seem to like the idea of playing for a new coach.
“Coach Miles is our coach. That’s our guy,” defensive tackle Davon Godchaux said. “So we stick together as a team. We don’t worry about what the media says, what everybody else says. That’s our guy. That’s who we’re sticking with.”
The Tigers’ recent results -- especially Saturday’s sloppy effort after rumors about their coach’s status had begun to swirl -- don’t provide visual evidence of player support, however.
LSU attracts top-tier talent: This one works both for and against Miles.
LSU typically recruits at a high level, posting one of ESPN’s top 10 classes in six of the last seven years. The Tigers also have the No. 1 class lined up for 2016, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation.
That said, why isn’t Miles getting more out of the blue-chippers he seems to sign each year? There have also been notable misses on players such as Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Alabama’s Cam Robinson.
LSU had produced the most NFL players of any college program (40) at the start of the season, which speaks to the talent Miles has attracted. The Tigers have been hit hard by early entry into the draft in recent seasons, adding to the depth concerns that have become problematic in recent years. Still, Alabama endures similar draft problems and keeps winning. The Crimson Tide clearly had the deeper roster when they throttled LSU 30-16 earlier this month.
This is all part of what makes this a difficult call. Miles has won -- and won big -- at LSU, and he’s one of the most popular coaches in all of college football. Still, he hasn’t won consistently of late, and it’s clear that some of those in power believe now is the time to make a change.
There will be major risk involved if LSU pulls the plug on a winning coach, but it appears Alleva & Co. are heading down that road.