LSU coach Les Miles has a bit of a Mark Richt problem.
Let me explain.
Miles is a great college football coach by many standards. He’s averaged 10 wins per season with the Tigers, won three SEC championships and played in two national championships — winning one of them (2007).
He also routinely wins in recruiting while cleaning up against in-state recruits, develops those players into NFL-caliber prospects and he lays claim to a decent coaching tree featuring some big names (Mike Gundy chiefly among them).
Above all, Miles has been able to maintain a high level of success as he enters his 12th season in Baton Rouge. That type of consistency and longevity is rare these days.
Minus a national championship, much of the same can be said about Richt’s 15 years at Georgia. But Miles and Richt, now in his first year at Miami (FL), also have something else in common: they haven’t won enough of the right games in recent years.
Specifically, Miles has had a Nick Saban problem.
Join the club, right?
The good news: Miles might also have the solution already on his roster, but more on that in a minute.
LSU hasn’t defeated Alabama since the so-called “Game of the Century” in 2011 — a 9-6 defensive (and special teams) struggle. That’s five straight losses, three of which have been by double-digits including the 21-0 blowout in the 2012 BCS National Championship.
Since the SEC West and SEC titles have run through Tuscaloosa in three of the last four years, losing to Alabama has meant LSU failed to live up to its high expectations. A loss to Alabama meant no SEC West title, which meant no SEC title, which meant no BCS/playoff appearance.
Things nearly reached a head for Miles last season when the Alabama game started a string of three straight losses for the Tigers. Moving into the regular-season finale against Texas A&M, Miles job was very much on the line — at least publicly, through media leaks and radio silence by LSU’s administration. But a 19-7 win over the Aggies saved Miles’ job for another season.
Still, Miles enters the 2016 season with questions surrounding his future. No surprise, but one of them is whether he can finally get past Alabama. He has the team to do it, though. The Tigers, No. 6 in our preseason 128, were viewed as Alabama’s biggest competitor in our SEC preview. At the very least, they are one of college football’s most experienced returning teams, according to Bill Connelly. There’s also a new defensive coordinator in town: Dave Aranda, previously from Wisconsin.
And then there’s running back Leonard Fournette. Remember the “solution” from earlier? If Miles is going to get back to the SEC championship game, and perhaps into the playoff, Fournette is going to be a big reason why.
The draft-eligible junior is widely considered the best running back in college football entering the 2016 season, and among its top overall players. At 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Fournette has the physique of a classic power back, but is much faster than people might realize. He’s the textbook definition of an every-down back, and Miles is going to use him on every possible down.
Yes, there is a legitimate concern about overworking Fournette. This is a player whose whole career is ahead of him and he already has 487 rushing attempts, including 300 last season. That placed him fifth nationally.
Yes, Fournette needs help. Quarterback Brandon Harris showed flashes of development last year, but a real threat in the passing game needs to exist to take the pressure off the Heisman Trophy candidate. In Fournette’s worst game last year — against, surprise! Alabama — he had just 31 yards on 19 attempts. However, Harris went just 6-0f-19 passing in that game for 128 yards.
Still, read Fournette’s own words about playing in 2016.
“My main focus this year is to win a national championship and bring it to Louisiana,” he said, via B/R’s Barrett Sallee.
Does that sound like a player worried about “business decisions”? No, it sounds more like a guy ready to be the cornerstone of a national championship run by any means necessary.
For Miles, making the College Football Playoff and a run towards a national title could be the difference in keeping his job and officially parting ways with LSU. He has the talent and the star player to challenge the Tide. Lose six in a row to Alabama and Miles might not get lucky No. 7.
Source: CBS Sports / No. 6 LSU: Les Miles needs to let Leonard Fournette carry him to glory in 2016