It took one game in the 2016 season for the feel-good period following Les Miles’s survival of an attempted coup to end. It took four games for the LSU head coach’s approval rating to dip so low that speculation about Miles’s future will loom over the rest of the Tigers’ games.
To say that No. 18 LSU’s 18–13 loss at Auburn on Saturday will put more pressure on Miles would be a huge understatement. He reportedly came close to losing his job last season. The Tigers kept him around for at least one more year, presumably in the hope that with a Heisman Trophy contender in Leonard Fournette and so much talent on both sides of the ball coming back he could help them unseat Alabama in the SEC West and reach the College Football Playoff.
What the first month of the season has made clear is that LSU is not only unprepared to compete with the Crimson Tide, but perhaps no better than the pack of teams in the division vying for second place. Saturday’s loss came to an Auburn team that had dropped six consecutive conference games on its home field, was overwhelmed by SEC West foe Texas A&M just last week and has spent weeks trying to reverse a long, puzzling offensive decline despite being led by a renowned spread tactician, Gus Malzahn, who is dealing with his own hot seat pressure.
That Auburn could fend off LSU without scoring a touchdown underlines LSU’s own issues on offense. The Bayou Bengals remain ill-equipped to consistently move the ball without involving Fournette. A spark from preseason backup Danny Etling in a tight win over Mississippi State earlier this month was cause for optimism after starter Brandon Harris showed little evidence of progress over the first two games of the season. However, Etling completed only 15 of his 27 pass attempts for 118 yards Saturday.
One road loss to a division opponent won’t doom Miles. His fate as LSU’s coach probably wasn’t decided Saturday. Even if Miles had applied decidedly un-Miles-like clock management and Etling had gotten the snap off in time on the final play of the game—time expired before LSU could snap the ball, negating Etling’s touchdown pass—LSU probably would need to beat Alabama, or at least eclipse last season’s win total (nine), to extend Miles’s stay in Baton Rouge. But while the season-opening loss to Wisconsin put Miles on thin ice, Saturday’s defeat may have cracked it. Every defeat going forward will be a referendum on his job security.
This game was dubbed the “Hot Seat Bowl” because of its implications not only for Miles, but also for Malzahn. One’s coach’s triumph, the thinking went, would undermine the other’s standing in the eyes of fans, donors and the athletic department. For Miles, though, the stakes felt higher, if only because of LSU’s preseason billing as a national title challenger. He needed to win to keep his team’s hopes of a playoff berth alive.
Now LSU looks up at a rigorous schedule featuring road tilts with Florida, Arkansas and the Aggies and home bouts with Ole Miss and Alabama. Instead of the Tigers meeting the Tide in one of the most anticipated games of the year with playoff implications on the line, they’ll be playing the final month of the season under the specter of a seemingly imminent coaching change.