By DUGAN ARNETT
By most standards, the job done by Les Miles in his five seasons as head coach at Louisiana State would be viewed as an overwhelming success.
In addition to a national title season in 2007, the Tigers have averaged more than 10 victories a year since ’05, grabbed an SEC title and regularly ranked among the nation’s Top 10 teams at season’s end.
But this is LSU, a program largely viewed as the elite of the elite, and after three straight seasons of double-digit victories to start his career in Baton Rouge, Miles’ teams have finished with just eight and nine victories, respectively, in the past two seasons, making this fall a pivotal one if the Tigers hope to remain members of the SEC’s exclusive top tier.
While highly-ranked recruiting classes have kept the program stocked with considerable talent in recent years, LSU has struggled to fend off some of the conference’s emerging powers, going a combined 0-4 against Florida and Alabama over the past two seasons, while also going winless against division rival Ole Miss and losing ground to teams like Georgia and Arkansas.
Offensively, things need to improve quickly if LSU hopes to right its proverbial ship. The Tigers ranked 12th in the SEC in total offense (304.5 yards per game), 97th in passing offense (181.8 yards per game) and 90th in rushing offense (122.8) last year, numbers that have plummeted greatly since the team’s national championship three years ago.
The hope is that an increased focus on the run game will help jumpstart the unit, which returns five players from ’09, including a quarterback – Jordan Jefferson – set to begin his second full season as the team’s starter. Junior Stevan Ridley (45 carries, 180 yards, three touchdowns in ‘09) figures to shoulder a good amount of the load at running back along with Richard Murphy, a senior coming off an ACL injury that kept him out of all but two of the team’s games a season ago.
The Tigers could also receive a boost from Michael Ford, a red-shirt freshman who rushed for 200 yards or more nine times during a distinguished senior season at Leesville (La.) High School and is coming off a 19-carry, 139-yard performance in LSU’s spring game.
Receiver Terrence Toliver returns following a 53-catch, 735-yard season in ’09 to give Jefferson a talented target.
While the defense will be forced to replace seven starters from last year’s team, it does return a national gem in Patrick Peterson, a shutdown corner who held two of the country’s top receivers – Georgia’s A.J. Green and Alabama’s Julio Jones – to a combined seven catches last season while also scoring two defensive touchdowns.
Peterson is a potential All-American this fall, and he’ll be joined by standout linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, a senior who finished with a team-high 110 tackles last season (including 8.5 for loss), safety Brandon Taylor (41 tackles, two interceptions) and defensive tackle Lazarius Levingston (28 tackles, eight tackles for loss) to form what could be a promising unit.
Last year’s nine-win season probably wasn’t what the team had in mind entering the year, but the Tigers can take solace in the fact that they managed to hang tough in every game in which they played in ’09.
Despite matchups with Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Penn State, last year’s team didn’t lose a game by more than 10 points, and lost two – at Ole Miss and against the Nittany Lions in the Capital One Bowl – by just two points.
The schedule won’t get any easier this season, with games against conference foes Alabama and Florida and a non-conference schedule that features potential BCS bowl teams North Carolina and West Virginia. If the Tigers can figure out a way to pull out a couple of the games they weren’t able to a season ago, it should go a long way in restoring order in the minds of LSU fans weary of the program’s recent woes.
FLORIDA’S FOES: LOUISIANA STATE / Saturday, Oct. 9 / Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla. / TBD
Location: Baton Rouge, La. Conference: Southeastern (West Division). Nickname: Tigers. Stadium: Tiger Stadium (92,400). Debut season/overall record: 1893 / 709-387-47.
Head coach: Les Miles (Michigan, 1976).
Record at LSU (Years)/Overall (years): 51-15 (5) / 79-36 (9) (28-21 in 4 seasons at Oklahoma State).
Staff: John Chavis, defensive coordinator (Tennessee, 1979); Gary Crowton, offensive coordinator (Brigham Young, 1983); Frank Wilson, running backs/recruiting coordinator (Nicholls State, 1997); Ron Cooper, defensive backs (Jacksonville State, 1983); Steve Ensminger, tight ends (Louisiana State, 1982); Billy Gonzales, wide receivers/passing game coordinator (Colorado State, 1994); Brick Haley, defensive line (Alabama A&M, 1989); Joe Robinson, defensive line/special teams coordinator (Louisiana State, 1985); Greg Studrawa, offensive line (Bowling Green, 1987); Tommy Moffitt, strength and conditioning (Tennessee Tech, 1986).
Basic offense: Multiple. Basic defense: 4-3. Starters back/lost: 11/13. Offense 5/6; Defense 4/7; Kicker/punter 2/0.
Top players returning: Junior QB Jordan Jefferson 182-296-7, 2,166 yards passing, 17 touchdowns; junior RB Stevan Ridley 45 carries, 180 yards, 3 touchdowns; senior WR Terrence Toliver 53 catches, 735 yards, 3 touchdowns; junior CB Patrick Peterson 52 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 defensive touchdowns, 15 passes defended; senior LB Kelvin Sheppard 110 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble; senior DT Lazarius Levingston 28 tackles, 8 tackles for loss.
Did you know? LSU’s tradition of playing night games at Tiger Stadium started in 1931, during a game against Spring Hill, and in 2006, the program celebrated its 75th year of night football. Since 1960, LSU has tallied an impressive .776 winning percentage during night games at Tiger Stadium, going 209-59-4, while their record in day games at the stadium is a rather paltry 21-26-3.
Sept. 4 (Saturday) / vs. North Carolina / Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga. / 7 p.m. / ABC
Sept. 11 (Saturday) / at Vanderbilt (SEC) / Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn. / TBD
Sept. 18 (Saturday) / MISSISSIPPI STATE (SEC) / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 7 p.m.
Sept. 25 (Saturday) / WEST VIRGINIA / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 7 p.m.
Oct. 2 (Saturday) / TENNESSEE (SEC) / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 7 p.m.
Oct. 9 (Saturday) / at Florida (SEC) / Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla. / TBD
Oct. 16 (Saturday) / MCNEESE STATE / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 7 p.m.
Oct. 23 (Saturday) / at Auburn (SEC) / Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala. / TBD
Nov. 6 (Saturday) / ALABAMA (SEC) / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 7 p.m.
Nov. 13 (Saturday) / LOUISIANA-MONROE / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 7 p.m.
Nov. 20 (Saturday) / MISSISSIPPI (SEC) / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 7 p.m.
Nov. 27 (Saturday) / at Arkansas (SEC) / War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock, Ark. / TBD
Dec. 4 (Saturday) / SEC Championship / Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga. / CBS / TBD
Sept. 5 (Saturday) / at Washington / W, 31-23 / Husky Stadium, Seattle, Wash. / 1-0 (0-0 SEC)
Sept. 12 (Saturday) / VANDERBILT (SEC) / W, 23-9 / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 2-0 (1-0 SEC)
Sept. 19 (Saturday) / LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE / W, 31-3 / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 3-0 (1-0 SEC)
Sept. 26 (Saturday) / at Mississippi State (SEC) / W, 30-26 / Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss. / 4-0 (2-0 SEC)
Oct. 3 (Saturday) / at Georgia (SEC) / W, 20-13 / Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga. / 5-0 (3-0 SEC)
Oct. 10 (Saturday) / FLORIDA (SEC) / L, 3-13 / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 5-1 (3-1 SEC)
Oct. 24 (Saturday) / AUBURN (SEC) / W, 31-10 / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 6-1 (4-1 SEC)
Oct. 31 (Saturday) / TULANE / W, 42-0 / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 7-1 (4-1 SEC)
Nov. 7 (Saturday) / at Alabama (SEC) / L, 15-24 / Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala. / 7-2 (4-2 SEC)
Nov. 14 (Saturday) / LOUISIANA TECH / W, 24-16 / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 8-2 (4-2 SEC)
Nov. 21 (Saturday) / at Mississippi (SEC) / L, 23-25 / Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss. / 8-3 (4-3 SEC)
Nov. 28 (Saturday) / ARKANSAS (SEC) / W, 33-30 (OT) / Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. / 9-3 (5-3 SEC)
Jan. 1, 2010 (Friday) / Penn State (Capital One Bowl) / L, 17-19 / Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla. / 9-4 (5-3 SEC)