It was only November that LSU coach Les Miles narrowly avoided a backroom coup among power brokers to run him out of town. It seemed crazy then and even nuttier now after Miles’ program signed a consensus top five recruiting class Wednesday.
Clearly, this year’s loaded group — which includes seven of the top eight prospects in Louisiana, according to Scout.com — still thinks Miles is a pretty good coach.
And indeed, with the arrival of all those four- and five-star prospects comes even more elevated expectations for the 2016 Tigers. Miles got a reprieve amid last year’s somewhat disappointing 9-3 season, but he’s out of excuses now. There’s no reason LSU shouldn’t contend for 2016’s SEC and College Football Playoff championships.
The Tigers were brimming with talent even before this latest group signed. Miles’ previous three recruiting classes finished No. 9 (2013), No. 2 (2014) and No. 12 (2015) nationally. That puts LSU among a handful of programs that should in theory boast national championship-caliber talent. And in fact, many of the most decorated players during that time — mainly five-star RB Leonard Fournette, five-star WR Malachi Dupre, four-star CB Tre’Davious White and four-star DE Arden Key — have lived up to the hype.
But LSU’s 2016 prospects rest in large part on the development of another former four-star signee, QB Brandon Harris. For the most part, teams that recruit at a high level win at a high level, but the ones that have recently underachieved (Texas, Florida pre-McElwain, Michigan pre-Harbaugh) mostly had a common thread — poor quarterback play.
LSU, of course, is also dealing with the perennial intradivision roadblock that is Alabama, reigning national champ (again) and the one SEC program that’s recruited at an even higher level than LSU the past four years. Miles consistently wins 10 games a year (only the canceled McNeese State game kept him from reaching that number last season) but has committed the unforgivable sin of losing his past five meetings with Nick Saban.
The Tide will be their usual formidable selves in 2016, but LSU brings back 17 starters, most notably Fournette. And Miles made a big-time defensive coordinator hire by breaking the bank for Wisconsin’s Dave Aranda. If some of these touted signees can just help plug a few holes — like five-star DT Rashard Lawrence and/or several other highly rated D-linemen in this class that could add quality depth up front — this should be Miles’ best team since the 2011 squad that reached the BCS championship game.
“What you see is a veteran team with a very highly ranked recruiting class coming together,” said Miles. “We’ve always enjoyed playing to high expectations here, and I think these expectations could be as high as any, and certainly we’ll try to exceed them.”
Spoken by a man who knows 9-3 won’t cut it in 2016. It may be Atlanta or bust for the Bayou Bengals.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter@slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.