Beloved but stubborn, Les Miles lost his job because he didn't evolve while LSU's rivals did; Punt, Pass & Pork
If you find yourself walking upon grass today, do this. Stoop down, grab a hunk and shove it in your mouth. Then do something everyone else in the world would consider insane. It'll probably work. But maybe it'll fail miserably. Either way, you'll pay proper tribute to Les Miles.
The Mad Hatter isn't LSU's coach anymore, and that feels wrong even though the reasons for his firing were absolutely justified. Even though he was an Ohioan who played at Michigan and came to Baton Rouge from Oklahoma State, Miles felt more of the place than most of the men who came before him. He was weird and proud and weirdly proud, and if that doesn't sum up the entire damn state, what does? He coached a team that won by brute force, but with just a hint of magic. In his first season, he helped as Baton Rouge became a landing spot for people forced from their homes by Hurricane Katrina. Before his last, he went out into a town threatening to tear itself apart and begged for sanity. In between, he won a national title. He faked punts and field goals when no one else would. He occasionally bent space and time. He talked about having "chest" and "want" as if those were nouns everyone used to describe bravery and desire. He had no use for your anonymous sources. He also stood firmly in place as the game changed around him, and that probably is why we're talking about Miles in the past tense even though he's still quite alive.
The leaders at LSU wanted to fire Miles in November for the same reasons they fired him Sunday. But with a state budget crisis looming—which would make paying millions in buyout money look unseemly even though all the money was raised privately—and Miles marshaling his own considerable political forces, the plan was scrapped. Miles got carried off the field by his players after simultaneously beating Texas A&M and the high muckety-mucks, and it seemed the Mad Hatter had worked another bit of his magic. With another great recruiting class coming and Dave Aranda taking over the defense, this would be the season LSU got back to competing for championships.
Then Miles did nothing.
He didn't change offensive coordinators, even though Cam Cameron's contract expired after last season. (Instead, Cameron got another deal.) Miles didn't make any dramatic schematic changes to the offense, even though the Tigers have been predictable on that side of the ball for years. He and his offensive staff didn't develop the quarterbacks on the roster. They tried to land Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight, but Knight went to Texas A&M, where he has helped extinguish the seat beneath Kevin Sumlin. Instead, Miles dug in deeper—convinced that with Leonard Fournette toting the ball, the Tigers didn't need an offense from this century to overcome their competition in the SEC West.
The machinery cranked into motion last year to fire Miles because his team lost three games in the same frustrating fashion that it had lost five games the previous year. LSU already has lost two games, and given the Tigers' limitations on offense, it probably was difficult for the school's leaders to believe they'd run the table against a schedule that still includes games against Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M.
So now defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, who looks and sounds like an LSU coach more than any human who was ever born, will lead the Tigers—sorry, Tigahs—for the rest of the season. Coach O went 6–2 as USC's interim after Lane Kiffin was fired in 2013. He famously brought cookies back to the training table. He brought fun back to that program. If he can get the Tigers having fun now, they have the talent to have a wonderful rest of the season. Had Miles stayed on, LSU probably was due for more of the same.
The clock debacle at the end of Saturday's loss at Auburn wasn't the worst part of the defeat for Miles. The worst part is that his team lost a game in which the opponent couldn't even reach the end zone. Miles won a game like that once (2011 at Alabama), but that was under very different circumstances. This Auburn team is obviously not that Alabama team, but a look back at that game provides an obvious answer to why LSU would fire a coach with a 114–34 record at the school.
To understand why Miles was fired, look at the offenses during the two meetings between LSU and Alabama in 2011. LSU's looked then as it does now. Alabama's offense, meanwhile, has evolved considerably. The Crimson Tide juiced their tempo in 2014 as Nick Saban adjusted to where the game was headed. Now, Alabama is starting a true freshman dual-threat quarterback and still looks like the best team in the SEC. The offense looks unrecognizable compared to 2011. Defensively, Saban has all but stopped recruiting large safeties and has switched to a nickel defense that uses five players recruited as cornerbacks. It's no accident that one of these teams has won five in a row in the series—plus national titles in 2012 and 2015—and one is 15–11 in the SEC since 2013.
Fournette might be the most talented tailback in the nation, but a good defense can contain him if it isn't worried about LSU throwing to the athletic freaks on the outside. The Tigers have done a fine job of ignoring those receivers since Zach Mettenberger left in 2013. Against Auburn, LSU averaged a pitiful 4.4 yards per pass attempt. LSU currently ranks 112th in the nation in that category at six yards an attempt on the season. The Tigers can blame a bad run of quarterbacks post-Mettenberger, but at a certain point that comes back to coaching. The Tigers have more raw talent than any program except (maybe) Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson, but those other programs have gotten so much more out of that talent in recent years.
That's why the Tigers couldn't go any further with Miles. He had been handed a chance to make the necessary changes to make LSU competitive in the SEC West, and he hadn't taken advantage of that chance. In some alternate universe, maybe Miles overhauled the offense and steamrolled opponents this season. Maybe in that universe, he'll get to give the retirement speech at LSU that he would have given in this one. Maybe a stiff dew will fall at Tiger Stadium. Maybe he'll call his players a spectacular group of men. Maybe his damn strong football team will be able to give him a proper goodbye. Maybe we can get to that universe if we just pick up a few blades of grass, call our final timeout and let the clock hurtle toward zero…
But here in this universe, it has to end this way.
A random ranking
OK, it's not so random today. Here are the top five moments from the Les Miles era at LSU.
1. In a 2010 win against Alabama, Miles called this…
… and then he did this.
2. Have a great day!
3. Miles botched his clock management against Tennessee in 2010, but telepathically convinced Vols coaches to put 13 players on the field.
4. "I don't know about any lessons that I learned."
5. "There is no such thing as a flop that takes the field for this football team."
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes didn't play Saturday. They open Big Ten play against Rutgers this week.
The Cardinals will get a chance to prove they deserve to be here when they face Clemson on Saturday night in Death Valley—Carolinas Edition. Can Lamar Jackson and an improved offensive line shred the Tigers they way they did Florida State? Clemson's secondary could be vulnerable, but the Tigers' defensive line is deeper and more talented than the Seminoles'. Meanwhile, the Louisville defense must find a way to stop Deshaun Watson and an offense that seems to have remembered how to catch the ball. If Louisville wins, the Cardinals would have a stranglehold on the ACC Atlantic race.
After what Ole Miss did to Georgia on Saturday, it's easier to understand why Nick Saban was so happy to get out of Oxford with a win. The Crimson Tide breezed past Kent State. They'll probably breeze past Kentucky this week before facing a challenge at Arkansas on Oct. 8.
Stanford's near-miss at UCLA suggests the Cardinal may not be as far ahead in the Pac-12 as it initially appeared, so we'll drop Jim Harbaugh's old employer and add his current one. I realize this suggests that two teams from the same division that play the Saturday after Thanksgiving will both make the playoff, but that's not entirely far-fetched if Michigan and Ohio State keep dominating opponents and play close against one another. The Wolverines will get their toughest challenge yet this week from a Wisconsin team that routed Michigan State on the road.
Big Ugly of the Week
We haven't honored a defensive lineman yet this season, but that ends today. Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett took over the game against Florida in the second half and helped the Volunteers come back from an 18-point halftime deficit and break an 11-year losing streak with a 38–28 win. The answer to pretty much every question that began with "Why isn't Florida doing…" was "because the Gators couldn't block Derek Barnett."
1. Before Miles was fired Sunday, we thought the biggest news would be Notre Dame firing defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Our Brian Hamilton explained why that might not solve the problem.
3. Orgeron will get another crack as the interim coach at an elite program. Here's the story I wrote for the magazine when he was winning as USC's interim.
4. Miles wasn't the only head coach fired on Sunday. Florida International also fired Ron Turner, whose hiring was pretty inexplicable when it happened in 2013. Turner was 10–30 at the school and 0–4 this season.
5. The throw by Ryan Burns to J.J. Aroega-Whiteside with 24 seconds remaining Saturday won the UCLA game for Stanford, but the 42-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Solomon Thomas as time expired made waves in the desert. The Thomas touchdown took the score from 16–13 to 22–13. The line on the game had moved between Stanford by 2.5 to Stanford by 3.5 throughout the week and settled at Stanford by three at kickoff. Thomas turned a push into a cover and affected parlays across Las Vegas. He also may have saved the sportsbooks some money. Some gamblers had bet UCLA plus 3.5, and some had bet Stanford minus 2.5. Both those groups were getting paid if the Cardinal won by three. After the Thomas touchdown, only those who bet on Stanford were getting paid.
6. A 29-year-old man named Jochen Wiest was arrested by Auburn police and charged with the desecration of a venerable object after one of the new Toomer's Corner oaks was set ablaze following Auburn's win against LSU on Saturday.
8. Florida State had a message for the Dalvin Cook doubters after the tailback ran for a career-high 267 yards and two touchdowns in a 55–35 win at South Florida on Saturday.
9. The Seminoles will return home to face North Carolina, which beat Pittsburgh on Saturday with this instant classic drive.
10. Don't leave the game early, kids. You may miss one of the best halves your team has ever played.
What's Eating Andy
I keep waiting for this to happen, and it never does.
What's Andy Eating
Last week's review of the chicken and waffles at Austin's 24 Diner evoked one unusual response. A reader wrote me on Twitter to proclaim that he doesn't trust anyone who likes chicken and waffles. Since such a choice would eliminate 100% of the population with functional taste buds, I gently suggested he might be the outlier. Then he sent me this.
The unhealthy part is fine. Lots of people avoid certain dishes for health reasons. I get that. But to think pairing fried chicken and waffles is weird? That defies common sense. It also defies the science that tells us our bodies love a combination of sweet, salty and savory. My guess is our dear reader was simply being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian, but his attack on one of the ultimate comfort foods left me looking for something that balances sweet, salty and savory even better. That sort of dish would truly drive the chicken-and-waffle haters crazy.
I found such a dish at a place called 4 Pegs in Louisville. It's called "waffle bacon" on the menu. Those two words together don't really do this creation justice, but those are the constituent parts of the dish. Here's a better description that would look awkward as the name of the dish: THEY DIP BACON IN FREAKING WAFFLE BATTER AND DEEP FRY IT.
If you read my old Heaven Is A Buffet blog, you know that there were only two rules at heaven's buffet.
1. There is nothing on earth that can't be improved by adding a few slabs of bacon.
2. There are precious few things in this world that can't be improved by deep frying.
This dish follows both of those rules. Therefore, it comes as close to perfect as we sinful humans can ever hope to be.
The waffle batter fries up beautifully. I worried it might get soggy, but it stayed soft on the inside with the thinnest golden brown crust on the outside. Inside that pillow of carbs rested a hunk of thick-cut bacon. With chicken and waffles, a diner must cut the chicken and the waffle and then spear the ideal amount on a fork to create a perfectly balanced bite. That isn't necessary with waffle bacon. Each has just enough of everything. The dish comes with what 4 Pegs calls "secret maple sauce." The waffle itself provides a little sweetness, but a dunk in this stuff ups the sugar quotient. Use it sparingly, and your ratios will be ideal.
The waffle bacon was only the appetizer, though. The main course was a bacon cheeseburger on ciabatta that was excellent because no one tried to make it too fancy. The beef was simply seasoned and cooked correctly. The provolone played nice with a few more strips of that thick-cut bacon, and the soft bun tied it all together. It wasn't spectacular, but it was excellent. Besides, the real fireworks were on the side of the plate. At 4 Pegs, you can order your fries as poutine. The inspired Canadians who invented poutine never dreamed of this particular variation, though.
Traditional poutine is fries covered in dark gravy and cheese curds. It's the ultimate appetizer. At 4 Pegs, they swap out the dark gravy for a spicy milk sausage gravy. They also use chunks of gouda instead of curds. The milk gravy, designed by southerners to enhance biscuits, works its magic equally well on the fries. Hopefully, in the spirit of international brotherhood, 4 Pegs uses milk from a bag to make that gravy.
I also hope that our contrarian reader gets some waffle bacon soon. Some tastes are undeniable, even to the most strident critic.