All of us who ask questions for a living occasionally toss one out that, as soon as it passes our lips, we wish we could reel back. We knew what we meant to ask, but the soundwaves produced by our larynxes didn’t match the (presumably) brilliant thoughts in our heads. A reporter covering last week’s Kentucky-LSU game asked one such question of LSU coach Les Miles, and Miles slammed that hanging curveball over Tiger Stadium and Alex Box Stadium.
I would transcribe the entire exchange, but to get the full effect, it must be watched -- if only for the thing Miles does with his eye at the end of his answer. Here was the question, referring to LSU’s quarterbacks: “Did you and [offensive coordinator] Cam [Cameron] put any thought at all into next year at that position?” Here’s Miles’ response. He uses dirty words. He’s a football coach. They do that sometimes.
Hidden in the absent-mindedness of the question and the hilarity of the answer was a legitimate issue. Miles and Cameron still don’t seem comfortable with their quarterback situation, and with Ole Miss visiting on Saturday, that could be a huge problem. The popular narrative, and the reason that ESPN’s College GameDay is probably headed to Baton Rouge this week, is 6-2 LSU is back to form following a narrow 30-27 escape at Florida on Oct. 11 and a 41-3 bludgeoning of Kentucky last week at Tiger Stadium. The 41-7 trouncing at Auburn and the 34-29 home loss to Mississippi State that didn’t look respectable until the Bulldogs pulled their starters in the second half have been forgotten.
If the Tigers have truly evolved into what we’ve grown accustomed to from LSU this century, they’ll have to prove it against better competition. And they’ll likely have to do it by loosening up the Rebels’ defense with passes from Anthony Jennings (or, if Jennings is ineffective, Brandon Harris). Whether that’s possible remains to be seen.
In that Mississippi State game on Sept. 20, the Tigers trailed 31-10 before throwing for 198 of their 341 passing yards -- mostly against backups -- in the fourth quarter. In the loss to Auburn on Oct. 4, LSU averaged a miserable 5.9 yards a pass attempt. The Tigers averaged a respectable four yards a carry in those two losses, but an inability to pass when the games were close allowed the opposing defenses to stack the box. The past two weeks, the run game has carried LSU. In each win, LSU ran the ball at least 50 times. The Tigers threw 22 times against Florida and 15 times against Kentucky. This is not an example of “You win because you run effectively” as much as it’s an example of “You run because you’re winning.”
It is strange to see LSU in this role after so many years of dominance. “I don’t think that big tiger lies in the weeds,” Miles said in 2009 when we asked him at the SEC’s spring meetings about LSU’s perceived role as a spoiler that season. But that's exactly what LSU is now. Down two SEC West losses already, it would take a fairly miraculous run to compete for the division title. In fact, the only way such a run could happen is if the quarterbacks can make the passing game the equal to the running game. The Tigers simply aren’t loaded enough on defense and in the offensive backfield to overcome mediocre quarterback play against good teams. The ’11 team won its first 13 games and beat the Pac-12 champ, the Big East champ and the eventual national champ using the Jarrett Lee/Jordan Jefferson sampler platter, but this defense doesn’t have the obscene talent that one had. It can’t make up the difference. That defense also didn’t play in an SEC that included a fully formed Dak Prescott at Mississippi State, Gus Malzahn as Auburn’s head coach and Hugh Freeze as Ole Miss’ head coach. To win now, a team has to score. The days of 9-6 overtime battles between two SEC powers are gone.
Miles knows a 50-carry effort probably isn’t going to work against a Rebels’ defense that allows an average of 2.9 yards a carry. Jennings and receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre have got to find a way to move the ball. “As we go forward, it’ll be about balance,” Miles said. “We’ll be throwing the football, especially in this game and as we go forward. We have to have balance.”
If the Tigers can strike that balance and move the ball effectively, they might be able to draw the Rebels back into the fast-break style of offense that LSU coordinator John Chavis has succeeded in smothering against other teams in recent years. Freeze favors an up-tempo scheme, but has ridden the brake this season because his defense has been so good at getting the opposing offense off the field. Ole Miss still moves fast, but if the defense plays the way it has, the Rebels will run 15-20 fewer plays than they would if Freeze opened the throttle. That’s 15-20 fewer chances for a mistake from quarterback Bo Wallace, who has thrown six interceptions this season but has been otherwise efficient, with a completion percentage of 65.6.
Freeze said the Rebels’ offensive slowdown is a conscious effort to bleed the clock and play to the strength of his defense. “We’re ready to go tempo,” Freeze said this week. “The people that want to critique things will look at it and say, ‘He’s not doing that anymore. That’s going to hurt us in the long run.’ Each game has a life of its own. Each play is a life of its own. I know that if the [opponent] is struggling to move the ball and score points, I think I should be smart in how we attack. That’s really what has happened in almost every game.”
It’s what will happen in this game unless LSU suddenly finds its passing game against a quality foe. But if the Tigers can move the ball through the air, they’ll change the math. Suddenly, Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night would become most inhospitable. “It’s a wonderful place to spend an evening,” Miles said this week with a gleam in his eye.
Whether it’s wonderful for the Tigers or Rebels will depend on LSU’s quarterbacks.
• Miami at Virginia Tech: Courtesy of Andy Bitter of The Virginian-Pilot, the ACC Coastal Division presented in infographic form.
• Oregon at Cal: Bears coach Sonny Dykes, who as Louisiana Tech’s coach faced Johnny Manziel during Manziel’s Heisman Trophy season in 2012, said Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota has the edge over the guy once committed to the same Oregon recruiting class. “He compares favorably to Johnny Manziel,” Dykes told The San Jose Mercury News. “Mariota's a bigger, faster, stronger version.” That ’12 matchup between Texas A&M and Louisiana Tech ended with a 59-57 final in favor of the Aggies. If Dykes’ Bears can go score-for-score with the Ducks the way his Bulldogs did with A&M, we might never get to bed on Friday.
• Texas at Kansas State: The Wildcats are the only Big 12 team without a conference loss. They’ll try to keep it that way against a Texas team that seemed to discover its offense last week against Iowa State. The Longhorns piled up 48 points against the Cyclones to finally break into the Big 12 win column, but their defense -- which had been stingy all season -- allowed 45 points. It will have to get back to the form it showed in the first half against Baylor on Oct. 4 before getting gassed because the offense couldn’t stay on the field. Put Texas’ offense against Iowa State together with its defense against Baylor, and the Longhorns could beat a Kansas State team coming off an emotional 31-30 win in Norman. The one-loss Big 12 contenders looking up at Kansas State will certainly be rooting for Texas.
• Rutgers at Nebraska: How good is Cornhuskers tailback Ameer Abdullah? We’ll let Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald answer. “He's a senior, right? That’s terrific,” Fitzgerald told the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein. “I’m going to send him a present for his graduation.”
• Mississippi State at Kentucky: This seemed like a much more interesting game before Kentucky looked more like what we’ve come to expect from Kentucky at LSU last Saturday. Mississippi State had a bye week to get over any lingering hangover from its 38-23 win over Auburn and its ascension to No. 1 in the polls. Now comes the difficult part -- staying there.
• Michigan at Michigan State: You’ll have a new respect for Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner when you read this Detroit News story on just how much abuse -- physical and mental -- he has endured while trying to lead the Wolverines’ offense this season. Unfortunately for Gardner, the physical part probably isn’t over yet. Last year against Michigan, Michigan State piled up seven sacks and held the Wolverines to -48 rushing yards in a 29-6 rout.
• Texas Tech at TCU: The offenses will look fairly similar when the Red Raiders meet the Horned Frogs. After all, TCU co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie played quarterback under Mike Leach just like Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury did. Cumbie also worked for Kingsbury last season in Lubbock. In the offseason, he teamed with longtime Oklahoma State assistant Doug Meacham, who had just spent a year at Houston, to help craft an up-tempo offense for the Frogs. The result is a scheme that is working far better for TCU than it is for Texas Tech.
• West Virginia at Oklahoma State: A Cowboys' secondary that allowed a 77-yard touchdown pass and an 84-yard touchdown pass within a three-play span in a 42-9 loss at TCU last week now must face West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett and wideout Kevin White, who leads the nation in receiving yards per game (145.7). The good news for Oklahoma State is cornerback Ashton Lampkin (ankle) should be healthy enough to play against the Mountaineers. That should help shore up a back end that has had to rely on a lot of youth.
• Arizona at Washington State: Pac-12 visiting teams are now 16-7 in league play this season, an odd stat I’ll trot out every week to see if it normalizes. It probably makes Rich Rodriguez -- whose last game was a 28-26 home loss to USC -- happy. After his Wildcats go to Pullman, they’ll face UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
• Alabama at Tennessee: Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin returns to the school he spurned for the head-coaching job at USC. Fans have not forgiven in Knoxville, Zac Ellis writes. Of course, Kiffin’s only Tennessee team came within a Terrence Cody blocked field goal of beating eventual BCS champ Bama in 2009. Since then, the Crimson Tide have beaten the Volunteers by a combined 167-39.
• South Carolina at Auburn: Remember when this looked like a potential SEC Championship Game preview? If the Gamecocks lose this one, they’ll be 2-4 in conference play. Still, the idea of Malzahn facing Steve Spurrier is quite intriguing, and South Carolina did beat Georgia on Sept. 13.
• Ohio State at Penn State: The Buckeyes’ offense struggled early as quarterback J.T. Barrett learned how to lead, but now Barrett looks every bit as capable as predecessor Braxton Miller did running the show. That will be a lot for a Penn State roster with fewer than 50 healthy scholarship players to handle. It’s understandable if Nittany Lions fans want to pay more attention to the Penn State-Ohio State clashes on the recruiting trail, because those suggest that while this game could be lopsided, future ones should be thrilling.
• USC at Utah: The Trojans play Notre Dame in their regular-season finale, so they’re farther along in their conference schedule than anyone else in the Pac-12 South. If they win in Salt Lake City, they would be 5-1 in the league. But no one needs to be looking at magic numbers in a top-heavy division. The Utes, who have an inexplicable home loss to Washington State marring their résumé, have been playing like a conference title contender in recent weeks. If they win, it would set up a huge clash next week in Tempe.
• Arizona State at Washington: Welcome back, Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly. Kelly hasn’t played since Sept. 13 because of a foot injury, but he’ll be on the field on Saturday in Seattle. The situation for Huskies quarterback Cyler Miles is not so certain. Miles is day-to-day with concussion symptoms, and redshirt freshman Troy Williams may have to make his first career start.
Vintage video of the week
Ole Miss brings a high ranking and a suffocating defense into Baton Rouge this week. So, of course you'll watch Billy Cannon’s 89-yard punt return to lift LSU on a night when another suffocating Rebels’ defense threatened to quiet Tiger Stadium.
On the menu
I’m hoping to try Fleur de Lis Pizza while in Baton Rouge. The place comes recommended by ESPN storyteller/gourmand Wright Thompson, whose first job out of college was covering LSU for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. I know what you’re thinking. Pizza in Louisiana? Does it have crawfish on it? Nope. But there is only one stomach I trust more than my own, and it belongs to Wright.