Here’s how quickly things can change for a head coach in today’s Southeastern Conference: Late last month, LSU crushed the best team in Conference USA, Western Kentucky, to move to 7–0. The Tigers then were slotted at No. 2 in the first installment of the College Football Playoff rankings. An important matchup with then-No. 4 Alabama loomed, but at the time LSU stood as the SEC’s best—or at least its most accomplished—team.
Fast forward to Saturday’s game against Ole Miss, and the mood around the program was much less rosy. Rather than fighting for a spot in the final field of four, LSU reportedly was playing to save coach Les Miles’s job. The situation had grown so toxic, according to one member of the university’s Board of Supervisors, that not even wins in the Tigers’ final two games would be enough to ensure Miles would be back in 2016. How did Miles’s team respond? In short, not well.
The Rebels scored 24 unanswered points to open the game and cruised to a 38–17 win. This marks LSU’s third consecutive double-digit defeat—it fell 30–16 at Alabama and 31–14 to Arkansas the last two weeks—and its first three-game losing streak since 1999.
The Tigers confronted familiar issues and failed to overcome them. Ole Miss kept star running back Leonard Fournette in check (4.3 yards per carry), and LSU couldn’t sustain drives through the air. Quarterback Brandon Harris completed less than 50% of his passes and tossed two interceptions, and the Tigers converted only five of their 18 third-down tries. Harris has functioned more as a caretaker than a playmaker for most of the season, but LSU could bear mediocre-to-poor quarterback play when Fournette was running over everything in his path.
Over the last three weeks, defenses have limited the early Heisman Trophy frontrunner. Fournette is still producing at a solid clip; he ran for 91 yards against Arkansas and 108 on Saturday. But LSU needs more than “solid” efforts from Fournette if Harris and the wide receivers (leading pass catcher Travin Dural suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter against Ole Miss) can’t hold up their end of the bargain. Fournette was so dominant earlier in the season that it masked deficiencies in the Tigers’ offense. The Tide, Razorbacks and Rebels exposed them.
Saturday’s loss obviously will ramp up speculation about Miles’s job status. There have been several reports suggesting he’s on shaky ground, but earlier this week Scott Rabalais of The Advocate, citing “sources with knowledge of [the] unfolding situation,” outlined three possible scenarios. If LSU won out, Rabalais wrote, Miles would get another year (obviously that’s now off the table). If the Tigers split their final two games, it would be a “classic gray area,” with Miles’s future depending on the nature of the two results. Consecutive losses, according to Rabalais, would mean that there is “little to no chance” Miles returns.
LSU hosts Texas A&M to close the regular season on Nov. 28. It’s hard to imagine that one game could make or break Miles’s fate. A decision already may have been made. But at this point it’s difficult to muster much confidence in the Tigers. Their offense has struggled in their previous three contests, and Saturday’s performance suggests LSU isn’t exactly using the rumors and reports about its head coach as fuel—as motivation to perform better in the face of adversity.
Even a big win may not be enough to save Miles. Just a few weeks ago it would have seemed unfathomable that Miles could be handed his walking papers at (or before) the end of this season. Now the noise is impossible to ignore, and Saturday’s loss may have only made the situation more untenable.