Les Miles has survived a series of crises during his decade at LSU, each calling into question his worth in the opinions of its ambitious purple and gold masses as to whether he was truly the right man for the job.
From his second game here, when LSU frittered away a substantial halftime lead and lost to Tennessee in overtime, there were those who decided he was not up to the task.
There was the season of the Pick Six in 2008, the botched clock Ole Miss game of 2009 and the Tennessee game in 2010 that would have been botched were it not for the Volunteers making an even bigger mess of it. The capper was of course the 21-0 loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.
All the successes — the 2007 national championship, the two Southeastern Conference titles, the bowl trips each and every season — seem to have been counterbalanced by the negatives.
The raw arithmetic doesn’t truly match up — Miles has won 78 percent of his games — but nonetheless a growing, gnawing disquiet has brought the man they call The Mad Hatter to yet another precipice.
It’s early yet, relatively speaking, and as can be expected, no one is eager to go public regarding Miles’ future at this point. But 25 years of covering LSU, cultivating a variety of knowledgeable sources, have led this writer to believe that there is a serious threat to Miles’ tenure here.
The margin between winning and losing is indeed a thin one, often a matter of inches, a knife’s edge. Just two weeks ago, LSU was 7-0 and No. 2 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, led by the player everyone was calling the best in America, tailback Leonard Fournette.
But in the span of just two Saturdays, with two humbling losses to Alabama and Arkansas, the ice has thinned under Miles’ feet to the point where strong indications are that he will be coaching for his very job at Ole Miss on Saturday and the week after that against Texas A&M.
How did things come to this point? Certainly it wasn’t merely written in the scores Alabama 30, LSU 16; and Arkansas 31, LSU 14.
The loss in the BCS title game stands like a milepost at which LSU’s program began a slow but documentable decline, particularly in terms of SEC records, a loss from which it seems the program has never truly recovered.
LSU went from 8-0 in SEC play in 2011 to 6-2 in 2012, 5-3 in 2013 and 4-4 in 2014. The Tigers are 4-2 right now. If they lose out, that would make LSU a mighty mediocre 13-11 in SEC games the past three years. And mediocrity doesn’t feed the beast that have become LSU football expectations. Not anymore.
The Miles’ offensive philosophy is also a big issue. Yes, the Tigers threw it 35 times against Arkansas compared to 30 rushes, but LSU fell behind 21-0. Overall, the Tigers are still passing only 32.4 percent of the time, lowest percentage in the SEC. Miles used to have power running allies in Bama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, but both have entrusted their offensive coordinators to use more modern methods to move the football. Georgia and Auburn are the only other two SEC teams besides LSU that gain more yards rushing than passing, and neither are having what you would call stellar seasons.
LSU supporters have grown tired of what looks most of the time like a conservative offensive approach. Pair that with habitual problems with penalties, delay of game issues, and this year’s special teams breakdowns, and it’s a recipe for dissatisfaction, on the verge of changing over to apathy.
Off the field, one would be hard pressed to find major boosters, big financial supporters of the program, who are in Miles’ corner. His cultivation of those relationships has been wanting, especially for someone who has won as much as Miles has. Word is the big-money folks will mass to help pay his buyout before rushing to Miles’ defense, though talk traditionally is cheaper than actually writing a check.
The buyout of course is literally a huge issue.
If Miles is terminated without cause before Jan. 1, he would be owed $15 million, payable over eight years (twice the time remaining on his current contract). His assistants would have to be paid roughly an additional $2 million for six months salary (thanks to the “Les Miles clause” in their contracts) for a total buyout of $17 million.
It’s a staggering sum, but apparently not a deal breaker.
All this being said, Miles has been to the brink and back before. To illustrate how quickly fortunes can revert back, if LSU were to win its last two games to finish 9-2, while Alabama goes on to defeat Florida in the SEC Championship Game and advances to the CFP semifinals, LSU would likely be headed to the Sugar Bowl. Even if not, 9-2 LSU would fall no farther than the Citrus Bowl, the SEC’s top non-CFP bowl destination. At that, Miles would certainly survive to coach another year.
What if LSU loses to Ole Miss (where the Tigers are an underdog) and beat Texas A&M at home (where they are favored) to finish 8-3? That becomes a tougher call. Miles’ fate then could well rest on how LSU looks in those games.
By then, we will know if Miles survives, as he always has in the past, to coach the Tigers in 2016.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.