<
>

Les Miles' best coaching job?

Les Miles is renowned in college football circles for his quirkiness and all of the things he says and does that invariably end up on "SportsCenter."

Let's face it. Les being Les is pretty darn entertaining, whether it's the way he claps or the way he wears his hat, his penchant for eating grass or those priceless Les-isms he spits out to transform a dull news conference into Comedy Central.

So, yeah, the Mad Hatter is a hoot. But he has reminded us all this season that what he does best is coach, develop and rally a football team.

About a month ago, the Tigers looked to be dead in the water after a crushing 41-7 loss to Auburn. But three wins later -- buoyed by a few personnel changes, younger players stepping up and Miles making sure the heartbeat of this team never waned -- here LSU is, poised to make a late-season run in the SEC West.

If LSU can beat Alabama on Saturday night, the Tigers will be doing more than just hanging around. They'll be squarely in the middle of the race, which again is a testament to the job Miles has done with this team, one of the youngest he's coached in Baton Rouge.

He instills a belief in his players that endures, or as former star cornerback Patrick Peterson once said, "He's the kind of coach you want to give everything you've got for because you know he's always got your back no matter what."

Maybe that best explains how the Tigers were able to peel themselves back up off the ground after being flattened by Auburn, a 34-point beating that was the worst of Miles' 10-year career.

"Nobody panicked. There wasn't any panic around here," said LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, whose defense has allowed just three touchdowns and three field goals over its opponents' past 37 possessions. "We just went back to work, corrected the things we needed to correct and made sure everybody was on the same page.

"Coach Miles does that as well as anybody, making sure everybody is pulling in the same direction, and I'm not just talking about the players. I'm talking about the coaches. I'm talking about everybody. He has a conviction about this program that doesn't waver, and that's whether you get beat like we did [against Auburn] or win a championship.

"It truly is a family here, and I can't imagine ever wanting to coach anywhere that it's not that way."

But with any young family, there are growing pains. It took a while for the Tigers to find themselves this season, and it's still a stretch to say they've arrived. After all, this is a program that has lost 21 underclassmen over the past three years who declared early for the NFL draft.

That kind of attrition has a way of catching up with a team. It also means the depth chart gets younger and younger.

Their starting quarterback, Anthony Jennings, is a true sophomore. His backup, Brandon Harris, is a true freshman. Their leading rusher, Leonard Fournette, is a true freshman. Their leading receiver, Travin Dural, is a redshirt sophomore, and the two guys behind him, Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre, are true freshmen. In fact, true freshmen have accounted for 23 of LSU's 36 offensive touchdowns. The Tigers have played 17 true freshmen through the first nine weeks, the most of the Miles era.

And on defense, one of the moves that helped to rejuvenate that unit after giving up 570 yards to Mississippi State and 566 yards to Auburn was inserting sophomore Kendell Beckwith into the starting lineup at middle linebacker. Beckwith, one of the Tigers' most explosive defenders, is third on the team in total tackles, while true freshman safety Jamal Adams has shown signs of being the kind of difference-maker on defense that Fournette is on offense. The Tigers also are starting a pair of true sophomores at cornerback -- Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson.

Miles never worried about the talent on this team. He knew experience would be an issue and knew getting to the "back end" of the schedule, as Miles refers to it, would be the Tigers' greatest challenge.

But now that they're here, don't be surprised if they play their best football the rest of the way.

The SEC West has received plenty of fanfare this season, but LSU was sort of the forgotten team. That could all change Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, where Miles is 46-3 in Saturday night contests.

This might not be Miles' best team, at least not yet. But it could very well be one of his best coaching jobs.