The 2015-16 athletic year will go down as the year of almosts for LSU.
The year Les Miles almost got fired.
The year LSU almost won that elusive NCAA gymnastics championship.
The year Leonard Fournette almost had the Heisman Trophy locked up but then didn’t even make it to New York as a finalist.
The year Ben Simmons, the top prospect who became the top draft pick, was almost good enough to lead LSU to the NCAA tournament.
For the first time since 1984, no LSU team, men’s or women’s, won a regular-season or postseason championship on the Southeastern Conference or NCAA level. There were close calls aplenty, but in the end it was a year of great, splashy talents who made a lot of noise and headlines but didn’t do a whole lot to add to LSU’s trophy case.
For LSU fans, it had to be enough to be content with the singular achievements. Achievements like Fournette becoming the first SEC player since 1949 to win the NCAA rushing title. And Simmons being the No. 1 NBA draft pick, burnishing LSU’s legacy as the only program to produce No. 1 picks in football, baseball and men’s and women’s basketball.
But as far as LSU finishing No. 1 in any sports, not so much.
There are a lot of reasons to think 2016-17 will be a great year for LSU athletically. The football, baseball and gymnastics teams are stocked with returning talent, for starters.
A year ago, LSU’s many young, incoming stars turned in thrilling individual performances but were unable to carry their teams to the top. A year older and a year wiser, perhaps they’ll complete the climb next year.
TEAM OF THE YEAR: Gymnastics
After a frustrating third-place showing at the SEC championships, the Tigers roared back in the NCAA meet, falling just short of Oklahoma 197.675 to 197.450 for their best NCAA showing ever.
LSU set attendance records, recorded 31 meet victories (surpassing the 30-win mark for the first time) and had 17 All-America performances, one of just three teams in the country to rank in the top five in all four routines.
ATHLETE OF THE YEAR: Ben Simmons
It would be easy to pick Fournette here, or perhaps gymnast Ashleigh Gnat, who was No. 1 in the nation on vault and floor during the regular season. But no LSU athlete inspired more debate, was more impressive and yet left Tiger fans wanting more than Simmons.
He didn’t disappoint, and yet he did. He lived up to the billing but couldn’t get LSU to rally around him for an NCAA bid-worthy season, even though he did his best to distribute the ball.
Simmons was an enigma and, as he sails off to the NBA as the No. 1 pick after less than a year at LSU, most of us who watched him are still trying to figure out what it was all about.
MUST-SEE EVENT: The Rally Possum
The wayward marsupial’s trek across the Alex Box Stadium outfield May 7 that coincided with an epic comeback victory against Arkansas sparked a clothing line (of sorts), a social media sensation and even a song (of sorts).
It was endearing and bizarre, but in the end the Rally Possum couldn’t help the Tigers find enough clutch hits to beat Coastal Carolina in the super regional.
‘DID YOU SEE THAT?’ EVENT: NCAA relay titles
There are few events in sports that better combine power and grace than a well-run relay. No one in America ran the relays better than LSU did this season.
At the NCAA outdoor championships, the LSU men swept the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays, an impressive double. Jaron Flournoy, Renard Howell, Tremayne Acy and Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake teamed for a Heyward Field record 38.42-second run in the 4x100. LaMar Bruton, Michael Cherry, Cyril Grayson and Fitzroy Dunkley followed with LSU’s third straight NCAA title (two outdoor, one indoor) in the 4x400.
GAME OF THE YEAR: LSU 5, Florida 3 in the SEC baseball tournament
The Tigers and Gators started at 8:41 p.m. Wednesday and didn’t finish until 1:48 a.m. Thursday, with LSU prevailing in 14 innings.
At 5 hours, 7 minutes, it was the longest game in SEC tournament history.
The Tigers, who blew a 3-2 lead in the ninth, fended off threat after threat, once resorting to a five-man infield, with Chris Reid getting the Tigers out of a bases-loaded jam with a diving double-play grab at third.
Florida came back to eliminate LSU two games later, but the Gators couldn’t possibly have enjoyed their 1-0 win more than the Tigers did their 5-3 victory.
MELTDOWN OF THE YEAR: LSU men’s basketball
As a fellow sportswriter from Alabama put it, it’s hard to imagine any other SEC team besides woeful Missouri having Simmons on the roster and not earning an NCAA tournament bid.
The 2015-16 Tigers will be the standard of underachievement in Tigertown for years to come.
CONTROVERSY OF THE YEAR: The Les Miles saga
Considering this column was at the center of this controversy in November and Miles is still firmly entrenched as LSU’s coach, there’s no reason to reheat the details of the episode once again.
Suffice to say, Miles was indeed in big trouble, and only an 11th-hour shift in public opinion in Miles’ favor (and that of LSU’s administration) sealed by a regular season-ending victory over Texas A&M changed The Hat’s fate.
COACH OF THE YEAR: D-D Breaux, gymnastics
Breaux has been LSU’s one and only gymnastics coach for 39 years and is still as driven as ever. It’s hard to imagine anyone with even a passing interest in LSU athletics not rooting for Breaux to bring home a championship in season No. 40.
COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT: Johnny Jones, men’s basketball; Nikki Fargas, women’s basketball
After the men’s disappointment and the women’s worst season in 20 years (fueled by injuries and the dismissal of Danielle Ballard), conventional wisdom says it’s NCAA tournament or bust for both coaches.
TEAM TO WATCH IN 2016-17: Football
No team returns more starters than LSU (18), led by a top-notch, bona fide Heisman candidate in Fournette.
The key, of course, is not seeing if Fournette can steamroll more linebackers and defensive backs (he will) but if Brandon Harris can complete those crucial third-and-long passes to keep the chains moving.
If he can, the Tigers will be back to being national championship timber once again.