Mailbag: Les Miles is following a bad trend at LSU

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The post-Week 1 Mailbag is one of my absolute favorites of the entire year. Why? After months of cautious optimism or delusions of grandeur, my inbox immediately turns to collective panic and angst.

Are those of us who said last November that it was time for a change in Baton Rouge and that Les Miles wouldn’t turn LSU into a national contender again right yet? 

— Jimmy Dunphy, location unknown

I don’t like unofficially firing coaches after Week 1, but yes, it appears increasingly likely you were right.

Granted, Wisconsin deserves more credit for its dominant defensive performance Saturday than it’s been getting. I fully confess to underestimating the Badgers, but I probably shouldn’t have. This is a program that’s won at least 10 games five of the past seven years and fielded a Top 5 defense last season. I expected them to slip a bit this season due to an extremely difficult schedule and an offense lacking the star power of years past, but perhaps Wisconsin will go on to win the Big Ten and this won’t seem like such a bad loss for LSU.

Still, this was the worst possible first impression for Miles to make after last season’s soap opera. The offense was no less predictable than it was eight months ago. Brandon Harris made the same mind-numbing mistakes he’s been making for two years. If not for its defense forcing those two third-quarter turnovers to set up quick scores (one a pick-six), it’s entirely possible LSU would have been shut out. With a roster full of four- and five-star recruits, that’s completely unacceptable.

I’ll be pulling for Les to turn it around, but after Saturday I now feel more and more like I’m watching a sequel to the last days of Mack Brown at Texas. It’s not exactly the same issue, obviously, as LSU still recruits very well and has not had nearly the bottoming out that Texas did. But remember how every offseason from 2011-13 we heard that this year was going to be different for Texas’ offense, then the season came around and it still stunk? We’re one week into what may be the third year of that cycle (post-Zach Mettenberger) for LSU.

Stewart: What was hyped as the best opening weekend ever in college football lived up to the hype, from that first nail-biter in Knoxville to double OT in Austin to FSU-Ole Miss. With the playoff and teams scheduling better, can we expect this to be standard going forward? College football wanted to take back New Year’s Eve; I say they take over Labor Day instead.

— David Perry, Belton, Texas

What’s crazy is that of the seven most high-profile games – five between ranked teams plus Clemson-Auburn and Notre Dame-Texas – only one, USC-Alabama, was a blowout. And even that one was compelling for the Jalen Hurts factor. And whereas opening games are often marred by sloppiness and rust, we saw a whole lot of teams that already looked in peak form.

I wouldn’t say the week lived up to the hype; I’d say it greatly exceeded that. And the best part is I feel like I learned a lot more about many of the nation’s top teams. By contrast, I learned absolutely nothing from Michigan’s 63-3 win over Hawaii save for the name of it starting quarterback.

The trend of brand programs scheduling up is not going away. Thank the selection committee for that. But the confluence of so many in one week may be rare. Next year’s opening weekend includes Florida State-Alabama (WOW) in Atlanta and Florida-Michigan in Arlington, while Georgia at Notre Dame, Oklahoma at Ohio State and Auburn at Clemson are in Week 2 and Texas at USC is Week 3. That’s probably for the best, given what a letdown we’re looking at this Saturday.

But I agree wholeheartedly with the concept of taking over Labor Day weekend, and I’m sure after seeing Notre Dame-Texas put up a monstrous 7.0 overnight rating that ESPN and/or FOX will push to move one of next year’s biggies to Sunday night. Frankly, I came away wondering why it took this long to embrace Sunday night, but in fact I’d previously been told that Texas itself needed convincing to move that game. It’s going to be a lot easier to persuade someone next year given the exposure opportunity.

Does Houston’s upset over Oklahoma enhance its chances to get invited to the Big 12, hurt its chances or have no bearing whatsoever?

— Erik Wingate, Los Angeles

I recently spoke at length with someone very knowledgeable about the dynamics within the Big 12 who gave me this valuable piece of advice regarding Big 12 expansion: Stop trying to apply logic to decisions that will ultimately be made primarily on the basis of hubris, arrogance and greed. Which pretty much sums up all of conference realignment.

Notwithstanding the fact OU president/expansion advocate David Boren was there to witness it, I have a hard time believing one football game will swing Houston’s chances. As we know, there are many more factors at play here than football success. Otherwise Boise State would be one of the reported 11 schools that made the Big 12’s first cut while Tulane and SMU would not. But more to the point, those presidents that already backed Houston don’t need to be convinced of its long-term potential, and those leery of the Cougars essentially becoming too good did not need them to beat Oklahoma to confirm those fears.

What it does do is this: Should the conference actually expand – I currently put it at 60-40, but I know others are even more skeptical – then either it has to include Houston or look like a bunch of cowards if they don’t. The Big 12 is going to get its TV money no matter who it adds, but the only way expansion adds any value beyond that is if it tangibly improves the conference’s football standing. Of all the contenders, Houston is quite clearly best positioned to do that.

Stewart: LSU loses to unranked Wisconsin, and all I hear or read about is how it doesn’t hurt their playoff chances … at all. Have early games become meaningless, or is that just for the SEC?

— Ernie, Alexandria, Louisiana

I don’t know how anybody could say it doesn’t hurt the Tigers’ playoff chances at all. It puts LSU in a position where it may have to turn around and win 12 straight games to have a chance. If the Tigers do that, though, then they would be a 12-1 SEC champion, so yes, it’s safe to assume they would be in the playoff. And that’s probably true for most Power 5 teams that lost their opener.

I’d also question saying that early games are now meaningless. They are certainly less impactful for the losers than they were in the BCS days, when you often had to go undefeated to make the title game. But beating a high-profile team in Week 1 is more meaningful for a potential playoff contender than it was for a BCS championship contender.

For example, let’s say preseason No. 2 Clemson had played its opener at Vandy instead of at Auburn and won 51-0 instead of 19-13. And let’s say Auburn finished 8-4 and Vandy finished 2-10. Then let’s say Clemson goes on to be a 12-1 ACC champion, and let’s also say preseason No. 1 Alabama is the only team in the country to finish undefeated. If this were the BCS, the title game would almost certainly be Alabama-Clemson largely because the teams started 1-2 and finished with the two best records.

The committee, on the other hand, might decide Clemson, having beaten nobody of note out of conference, doesn’t own a good enough resume to beat out three other 12-1 Power 5 champs (or possibly even an 11-2 champ). Whereas under that exact same scenario with the opener it did schedule, beating 8-4 Auburn could be the piece of the puzzle that helps it edge out somebody else.

So it may be that LSU’s loss does not hurt its playoff chances, but some other season-opening result we’re not even considering helps or hurts somebody else tremendously.

Stewart: You’re probably getting several emails from shocked/disappointed/angry USC fans, but my question to you is: When we look back 10-15 years from now, which will have caused more damage to USC football: Pat Haden or NCAA sanctions?

— Abel, San Diego

Haden. No question. There’s a more logical alternate universe out there where Tom Herman would be the coach at USC right now while Clay Helton would be at Memphis. Think about that.

Stewart, can we all now agree to ignore Tennessee until the Vols actually prove something? Tennessee fans awarded themselves the national title this year prematurely, and now, after a close game with Appalachian State that the Vols could have easily lost, we’ve see who they really are. Sure they had a few good recruiting classes, but championships are won on the field, not

— Justin Barrow, New Bern, North Carolina

All summer, I found myself teeming with inner-conflict over what to make out of Tennessee. On the one hand, the Vols on paper looked clearly superior to the other SEC East teams and with a schedule where you could easily find 10 wins. On the other hand, they haven’t won the division since 2007 and Butch Jones had not yet achieved anything on the field to indicate he’s capable of winning more than an Outback Bowl. I very reluctantly put Tennessee in my preseason Top 10.

So you would think now I’d be rushing to jump off the bandwagon, but no – still conflicted.

Yes, a true Top 10 team should not need a fortuitous fumble recovery in overtime to survive a Sun Belt foe at home. On the other hand, Appalachian State is not your average Sun Belt team. The Mountaineers won 11 games and produced the nation’s No. 11 defense last season, and anyone who watched last Thursday’s game had to be impressed by some of the big dudes up front on that unit. In general, I try not to wildly overreact to Week 1 close calls, as plenty of teams over the year have barely survived inferior foes in their opener and gone on to have great seasons.

I saw enough to convince me that Tennessee is not a threat to win a national championship. Its offensive line has issues. More pressingly, Josh Dobbs simply has never evolved into a championship-caliber quarterback. And yet I left the Vols in my New Year’s Six bowl projections because I still see them winning no fewer than nine games. I don’t know if you noticed, but the SEC as a whole was very underwhelming on opening weekend, going 6-6 out of conference. Tennessee has issues, but I’d rather be in Butch Jones’ shoes today than Dan Mullen’s, Les Miles’ Mark Stoops’ or Derek Mason’s.

Stewart: What is on your current bucket list of college football stadiums you have not been to yet to watch a game or stadiums you want to go back to because of the atmosphere?

— Sean Storey. Davidson, North Carolina

I’ve been fortunate to have covered games by now at nearly every notable Power 5 stadium and many others (Boise State, Air Force and Cincinnati, among others.) I went and counted it up for this answer – at least 41, not including neutral-site NFL stadiums. But there are still a few more on the bucket list, including at least one you’ll likely find to be astonishing that I’ve never covered a game there.

5) Spartan Stadium (Michigan State)

4) Vaught Hemingway Stadium (Ole Miss)

3) Folsom Field (Colorado)

2) Michie Stadium (Army)

1) Death Valley (Clemson)

I’m a little embarrassed about No. 1. But when I visited Clemson in the spring I went right up to the gate behind Howard’s Rock and took a few selfies like a full-fledged tourist.

Who do you have more confidence in after Week 1 overtime wins over ranked opponents at home, Texas or Texas A&M?

— Trey Pearce, Richardson, Texas

Texas may have surprised most people, but I’d kind of been expecting the ‘Horns’ offensive explosion ever since watching Shane Buechele run new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s offense in the spring game. I was struck both by how comfortable he looked for having arrived a couple of months earlier and how fast Texas was going tempo-wise so early into the installation. I still did not have enough confidence to pull the trigger on picking the ‘Horns to beat the Irish, nor would I have predicted they’d roll up 517 yards. But the result reaffirmed my belief that Charlie Strong’s program is ready to take a big step forward in Year 3.

(That being said, it seems highly presumptuous to rank them 11th in the country, as AP voters did Tuesday, but I’ll take that over clinging to preseason perceptions.)

I still have more confidence in Texas A&M for this season simply because the Aggies are farther along in Kevin Sumlin’s program. With that ridiculous defensive front and Trevor Knight’s leadership, it’s not hard to envision A&M winning at least nine games. The ‘Horns could get there, too, but they’re a much younger team that will likely go through many peaks and valleys.

In the bigger picture, though, for the first time I have more confidence in Strong achieving long-term success at Texas than Sumlin at A&M. Strong has finally found an identity for the program and with his penchant for developing talent, it feels like a matter of when, not if, the ‘Horns will be back competing for championships. On Sunday night, I felt like I was watching 102,000 people simultaneously rally around him. Conversely, with Sumlin, any short-term success may prove fleeting. The fans are already restless, it seems like he’s always extinguishing mini-fires and there will surely be more to come.

Hey Stewart, how about that Army football team? Jeff Monken’s rebuilding project may be the toughest in sports, and Army opened up with a win at Temple in Philadelphia. Are you ready to predict a bowl game for Army?

— Lukas Forbes, Bowling Green, Kentucky

Oh man. Army’s upset of Temple was arguably the most surprising result of the entire weekend. Temple won 10 games last season; Army won two. The Black Knights didn’t just beat the Owls 28-13, they physically dominated them up front, according to Temple coach Matt Rhule. But Temple lost a whole bunch of key players from its great defenses the past two years, and Army was better than its record last season, losing five games by five points or less (including to rival Navy).

So will this be the year the Black Knights get to their first bowl game in six years and just the second in the last 20? I say … yes! If Army can be consistent and avoid injuries then it can definitely find five wins from among Rice (which just lost 46-14 to Western Kentucky), UTEP, Buffalo (lost to Albany), North Texas (lost 34-21 to SMU), Wake Forest and FCS members Lafayette or Morgan State (it can only count one.)

As an ND fan I can’t be alone in being upset about Brian Kelly’s recent poor performances. Great athletes’ skills are going largely wasted. I believe Kelly has taken the team as far as he can, and it will be time to move on prior to the 2017 season.

— Jim, South Bend

Kelly drove me nuts in the Texas game with his stubbornness about rotating his quarterbacks when DeShone Kizer was so clearly more effective. But you’re saying you’re ready to fire your school’s most successful coach in 20 years one game after he completed a 10-3 season?

Week 1, everybody.