Today, you’ll enjoy your tailgate or LSU watch party more for the beer and barbeque than for the anticipation of a game.
I understand that. Western Kentucky is a Sun Belt Conference team, one of those games a powerhouse program like LSU schedules because, well, you simply can’t play Alabama every week. That would just beat you down.
It’s your classic Homecoming game, sure. And it’s scheduling genius for LSU the week after playing Alabama.
But there is one compelling storyline to the day: You’ll be watching two coaches who have done among the best jobs in the country this year. Both LSU’s Les Miles and WKU’s Willie Taggart deserve to be candidates, at least at the 3/4 mark of the season, for national coach of the year honors.
Think about it.
You may not have looked at it that way before. Coach of the year talk doesn’t usually apply to coaches of teams as dominant as LSU. And coach of the year talk usually doesn’t include conferences as insignificant as the Sun Belt.
This year, it might.
Let’s start with Taggart. The Hilltoppers enter this game at 5-4, 5-1 in the SBC and riding a five-game winning streak. Big deal, you say?
Well, one must look at where WKU was before the winning streak started.
When the Hilltoppers beat Middle Tennessee, 36-33 on Oct. 6, it snapped not only a four-game losing streak to start the season, but a six-game skid dating back to last season.
The 0-4 start also extended the most inept stretch of college football in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision in recent memory. After a 26-22 loss to Arkansas State to wrap up September for WKU, the Hilltoppers were 2-34 over their last 36 games. Prior to their 54-21 win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 23, 2010 - Taggart’s first win in his first season as Hilltopper head coach - WKU had lost 26 straight games and had not defeated a member of the FBS since 2007.
They weren’t just bad. They were the worst of the worst.
But the Middle Tennessee win seemed to get the ball rolling. Since then, there’s been a shutout of Florida Atlantic, a sweep of the SBC’s Louisiana schools, including a win at Lafayette against the league’s other big surprise, ULL. And there was another overtime win, against ULM.
WKU has turned it around with a healthy dose of Bobby Rainey, who already has 1,169 rushing yards and is one of the better running backs LSU will see this year. And it’s done it with an ability to win the close game with the two overtime wins, plus last week’s 10-9 win over Florida International. The team that couldn’t win all of a sudden has learned how to win, to the point where it’s gone from 2-34 stretch to having the 12th longest winning streak in the country.
So unless today’s events makes WKU’s season unravel, that kind of turnaround deserves post-season praise.
Of course, not every great coaching story involves turning around a loser. LSU was expected to be good this year, even a preseason No. 1 in some circles. So it’s no huge surprise that the Tigers are on top of the college football world now.
It’s how they’ve gotten here and what they’ve had to overcome that makes a case for Miles so compelling.
You’ve had Steve Kragthorpe’s Parkinson’s disease that made him have to step down as offensive coordinator (but remain as quarterbacks coach) shortly before the season. You’ve had suspensions, arrests, grand jury hearings, synthetic pot, off-season housing issues and a fight at a bar. Because of suspensions, you’ve gone into the season without your starting quarterback and you’ve played the defending national champion with arguably your biggest star, and darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate, suspended.
But none of it has mattered.
It hasn’t mattered because Miles has built depth. In most programs, Jarrett Lee would not still be around to pick up the pieces when Jordan Jefferson was suspended.
And it hasn’t mattered because LSU has shown attention to detail - with rare exception, the Tigers don’t turn the ball over, don’t have a lot of penalties and they always, always are outstanding on special teams.
So forget the underdog bias that usually comes with picking a coach of the year. LSU is a juggernaut right now because Miles has been that good at what he does. It’s not just a matter of endless talent, it’s a matter of abundant talent being coached and managed to an optimal level.
And Miles deserves credit - tons of credit - for pulling it off.