In college football there are two kinds of trends: Anecdotal and Undeniable.
Anecdotal trends are based on a few, isolated events. Let’s say a quarterback throws two consecutive interceptions in a game and he is labeled as a guy who can’t read defenses. That may ultimately prove to be true over the course of many games but the sample size at that particular moment is too small to call it a trend.
Undeniable trends are just that—undeniable. There is simply too much evidence over an extended period of time to deny that the trend exists.
I gave you that long-winded story so that we can get to the football program at LSU, which is in an undeniable trend downward. Wrong, you say? Here are the records in SEC play for LSU over the past four seasons:
2011: 8-0. The Tigers beat Georgia for the SEC Championship and were No. 1 when they lost to Alabama 21-0 in the BCS Championship game. Things in Baton Rouge have not been as the same since.
2012: 6-2. Lost at Florida 14-6 and to No. 1 Alabama 21-17 in Baton Rouge. Alabama went on to win the BCS national championship.
2013: 5-3. Lost at Georgia 44-41, lost at Ole Miss 27-24, lost at No. 1 Alabama 38-17. LSU was the only SEC team that season to beat Auburn, the eventual conference champion, 35-21. Auburn went on to play in the BCS title game against Florida State.
2014: 4-4. Lost to Mississippi State (24-19) at home; lost at Auburn 41-7; lost to No. 4 Alabama 2013 at home 20-13 in overtime; lost to Arkansas 17-0. Needed a win at Texas A&M (23-17) to avoid closing out the season with four straight losses. Finished tied for fourth in the SEC West.
That, my friends, is a truly undeniable trend. And so the question before us today is whether or not LSU and head coach Les Miles have the wherewithal to reverse that trend in a year where the SEC West is more balanced than I’ve ever seen it.
LSU is what I call my “All Airport Team.” There is not a more impressive team in college football when you see them in the airport or getting off the bus. They have great players everywhere.
At least everywhere but quarterback.
Here is the issue.
Since Les Miles became head coach in 2005 LSU has recruited 13 quarterbacks who all looked good on paper. They were highly-ranked by people who make a living highly ranking players. As Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson so famously says “They all come highly recommended.”
But once all of those highly-ranked players got to the LSU campus something happened.
Check out this story by my friend Jon Solomon where he lists those 13 quarterbacks. You’ll note that only one, Zach Mettenberger, was eventually drafted by the NFL. And Mettenberger came to LSU after being asked to leave Georgia and spending a year in junior college.
So either LSU has not done a good job evaluating the position or has not been able to develop the seemingly good quarterbacks once they got to Baton Rouge.
Given this history it is easy to understand why the LSU fans are so frustrated. What they fear in 2015 is the same 10-year song with yet another verse.
Currently the Tigers have a likeable kid in Anthony Jennings who started 12 of 13 games last season. Jennings works hard and wants to be the leader of this offense. But a year ago he completed 48.9 percent of his passes. That is not enough of a threat to keep the defenses from stacking the box to slow down Leonard Fournette, LSU’s splendid sophomore running back. Given the lack of a legitimate passing threat it’s amazing that Fournette rushed for over 1,000 yards as a freshman in 2014.
Then there is the sophomore, Brandon Harris. Harris was a highly-recruited player who has a lot of talent. Like all freshmen Harris made mistakes last season. His first-ever start at Auburn in the sixth game was a disaster. He completed only 3 of 14 passes for 58 yards—and 52 of those came on one play. For the rest of the season Harris might as well have been in the witness protection program. The coaches decided he was not ready—because he wasn’t—and went back to Jennings. Hartris got on the field only twice in the last seven games. He threw one pass. It was intercepted.
“Both of those guys got thrown into the deep end last year,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told The New Orleans Times-Picayune earlier this year. “That’s the reality. That’s the SEC. Most cases you are going to sink or swim. Both guys have their head above water and are headed in the right direction.”
At SEC Media Days in July Miles was convinced that LSU’s quarterback play was headed in the right direction.
“Well, experience isn’t something that you can just will on a guy,” said Miles. “The good news is that we have a guy (Jennings) who has started eight games or so and we have a guy (Harris) that’s been around it now and played through two springs and been through a fall. So our quarterbacks will play better. Legitimately better. I think we’ll get really improved quarterback play.”
So that’s the theme in Baton Rouge as the Sept. 5 opener with McNeese State approaches. Yes, these guys struggled last year but they deserve a chance to grow up. And we’re going to coach them up.
The word out of last Saturday night’s scrimmage is that Jennings and Harris are starting to turn the corner. After the scrimmage Miles told the media (who don’t get to watch the scrimmage) that his quarterbacks completed 20 of 34 passes. My man Ron Higgins of the Times-Picayune writes that he’s hearing something unusual about the LSU offense in general and the quarterbacks in particular.
And it’s starting to look like Harris is the guy.
Now if LSU gets the quarterback position figured out, then we have to reassess our view of the SEC West, which has Alabama and Auburn at the top and LSU in the middle of the pack. That’s because LSU’s receivers (Malachi Dupree, Travin Dural) are great. Really great. Fournette was the nation’s No. 1 high school back a year ago and was deserving of that ranking.
The defense is going to miss John Chavis, the coordinator who left for Texas A&M. And there is a little concern about the depth of the defensive line, which is always important in the SEC.
But issues on the defensive line can be overcome. What LSU can’t overcome, if it wants to reverse this trend, is another year of historically bad quarterback play.
Next stop: Ole Miss.