Top LSU football decade sputters to finish line
By SCOTT RABALAIS
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
Once it was said, and proudly, “The sun never sets on the British empire.”
Of course, nothing lasts forever, empire-wise. It didn’t for the British, and it didn’t for LSU football either.
The greatest decade of LSU football ended mired in the symbolic mud of, well, real mud, on New Year’s Day with a frustrating 19-17 loss to Penn State in Orlando’s Capital One Bowl.
After pulling disappointment out of the quagmire, it would be healthier from an LSU fans perspective to hose off the Tigers’ football legacy and pause to reflect on what the Tigers have achieved in the first decade of the 21st century. By any measure it has indeed been LSU’s greatest football decade ever:
· Two BCS national championships
· Three SEC titles
· Five top-10 finishes (eight ranked teams overall)
· Seven bowl wins (10-for-10 in bowl appearances)
· Nine first-round NFL draft picks
· 18 first-team All-Americans
· 99 wins overall
But instead of pride, the sense you get is there is much more anxiety over what the future has in store for Tiger football than satisfaction over what has just been.
The angst over LSU football is three-fold:
1. LSU has gone a combined 17-9 the last two seasons.
2. Florida and Alabama have succeeded the Tigers as the last two BCS champions.
3. Sports, especially football it seems, is a game of what have you done lately.
For any program that has enjoyed anything approaching the success LSU has had this decade, the results of the last two seasons would certainly be judged as mediocre. A look within the numbers also shows that LSU’s SEC record the last two years is a combined 8-8, and that the Tigers went 4-5 after a 4-0 start in 2008 and 4-4 after a 5-0 start in 2009. If there’s a better definition of middle of the road, call Webster’s.
As usual, a little perspective is in order. That’s almost always true when the hyperventilated talk of LSU football is the subject.
I hear people saying 9-4 is a disappointing season, even failure. Coupled with 8-5, disappointment is the operative word. But it’s an impossibly high standard to say that a nine-win season isn’t a good one. LSU played (a.k.a., backed in to) the SEC’s best non-BCS bowl. It wound up as the conference’s third highest-ranked team, though how LSU ended up ahead of 9-4 Ole Miss when the Rebels won their bowl and beat LSU I don’t know. Still, it’s not a small feat in a conference that has now had four straight national champions and won six of the 12 BCS titles in play.
LSU’s ranking had something to do with the narrowness of its defeats. The Tigers lost by 10 to Florida, by nine at Alabama against the eventual national champions after leading going into the fourth quarter, by two at Ole Miss and by two to Penn State. Ranked teams all, and all teams that won their bowl/championship games.
But LSU could have won at Alabama, the naysayers say, should have beaten Ole Miss and could have easily beaten Penn State. That the Tigers were ultimately outplayed in all three of those games and probably deserved defeat isn’t the issue. LSU could have been 11-2 with just a little better game management. But it could have also lost at Mississippi State if Chad Jones’ talented fingers were a wee bit shorter.
It was a frustrating season, all right, from the Tigers grabbing damp air time after time in the season opener at pesky Washington to the unconscionable personal foul called on Lyle Hitt in the morass of Orlando. In the ultimate analysis, it isn’t what Tiger fans should come to expect from such a talented and enriched program and it’s nothing anyone involved with LSU football should settle for considering the recent past.
That being said, even the great programs can’t stay great all the time. It may not be the most scientific way of looking at things, but every national championship program this decade with the exception of Texas has had at least one season this decade with five or more losses, and all of them have had seasons with two losses or more:
2000 - Oklahoma (8-4, 8-5)
2001 - Miami (9-4, 7-6, 7-6, 5-7)
2002 - Ohio State (8-4, 8-4, 7-5)
2003 - LSU (9-4, 8-5)
2004 - USC (9-4, 6-6, 5-7)
2005 - Texas (0)
2006 - Florida (9-4, 8-5, 8-5, 7-5)
2007 - LSU (see 2003)
2008 - Florida (see 2006)
2009 - Alabama (7-6, 6-6, 6-7, 4-9, 3-8)
Are there legitimate concerns when it comes to LSU football? Absolutely. The offense was absolutely rudderless this season, a jack of all trades, master of none operation. LSU tried to be a physically dominant running team, a spread team and an option team - this despite underutilizing arguably its most talented offensive weapon, Russell Shepard (and what position does he play, exactly?). The Tigers did none of it well. Les Miles had to fall on his sword for the sins of clock mismanagement in the Ole Miss game, sins that resurfaced in the Cap One Bowl to a lesser degree. And the defense, while improved over 2008, still lacked the brute strength LSU fans have come to love and expect.
If you’re worried that Miles is on his way to becoming a latter-day Larry Coker - winning a national title with much of his predecessor’s talent then slowly sinking into the Everglades (which is where I think LSU and Penn State actually played from the looks of the field), that is your right. I think the 2010 season will be a pivotal one for the Miles regime, at least in terms of winning back the hearts and minds of the Tiger faithful.
There are some reasons for optimism, too. The 2010 recruiting class looks to be of the solid, top-10 variety. The 2011 class - which will feed off the best talent pool in Louisiana since the fabled 2001 class - is off to a rousing start. Athletically, LSU is a bit behind Alabama and Florida now, but has a big chance to catch up in the seasons to come.
Be optimistic, too, in the knowledge that no empire lasts forever. Alabama’s current run will one day falter - hey, don’t you think Nick Saban is getting the itch again after that Gatorade bath? The sun will even set on that SEC team from the Sunshine State.
One day, LSU will be back on top. Just how soon - or how long - that takes is the perplexing question for which there is no adequate answer.
By the way, the Chinese calendar says this will be the Year of the Tiger.
Scott Rabalais is a veteran sports writer who has covered LSU football for two decades. Reach him at email@example.com.