Hello. This is a project all about the 2007 college football season, the wildest season ever. We've included dozens of interviews, stories, and other fun stuff in this package (take a look around!), but first, let's talk about Les Miles.
Maybe the problem with every other team in 2007 was this: they insisted that things make sense, while Les Miles and LSU never did. In a season of gambles and black swans, Miles was wearing a ghillie suit at the roulette table. It’s not that he had planned it that way, mind you. It’s just what he always wore, and one day, the perfect moment would come along for the outfit.
Consider that LSU might have had another unfair advantage from the start: being three teams at once.
One was the LSU that destroyed Mississippi State and Virginia Tech to start the season, a physically superior crew of crowbar-wielding sprinters and trench monsters so frightening, they scared poor Michael Henig of Mississippi State into throwing six interceptions in a single game.*
*Full disclosure: by the time he threw his fifth, everyone watching wanted him to throw six, because...well, his public failure had come full circle to a kind of valiant achievement, hadn’t it?
Another LSU was a defense-averse scoring machine bent on playing deep into triple overtime. That team lost twice — twice! in a national title year! — to Arkansas and Kentucky and roared to victory in a shootout with Alabama.
The final LSU was the one everyone remembers best, the LSU that passed with one second left against Auburn or pulled off fourth down conversion after fourth down conversion against Florida in a comeback win or called a bizarre fake field goal for a TD against South Carolina or needed a pick six to win the SEC Championship Game.
It’s hard to beat three teams, but it’s also hard to be three teams. Fortunately, Miles mostly won with all three, though it was clear which one he preferred, even if that version was the one that forced LSU fans to drink even more after victories, simply to take the edge off what they’d just seen.
Take a chunk out of the cult of coach by pointing out how many of LSU’s biggest plays of 2007 happened because of perfectly timed individual contributions, usually in well-portioned turns. Craig Steltz popped up with pass breakups and interceptions exactly when required. Trindon Holliday, all five-foot-nothing of him, would snap a game open with a kick return. Cornerback Jonathan Zenon turned into Erik Ainge’s best receiver at the worst possible time for Tennessee, returning an INT for a conference-winning score.
LSU was a team of five-star talent and two-star heart, and the peak example was running back Jacob Hester. With a corps of fearsome locals, LSU’s leading rusher would be a fullback with male pattern baldness at the age of 22. Hester wasn’t supposed to end up where he did, but when you keep ending up across the first down line, it’s hard to take you out of the lineup.
It was hard to say exactly who would fall from the rafters at exactly the right moment and save LSU’s ass.
It was easy to say who was fine with that and would openly dare probability not to cough up a positive return on a gamble, even when the gamble was mathematically insane. Whether it was because he was a bullshit artist too scared to ever admit it or so ebulliently confident he infected his whole team, he thrived in it.
And for one year, Miles turned up exactly where he was supposed to, every time, with exactly the right answer.
He was perfectly on time when he called the fake field goal.
He did not just call a fake field goal. He called a flip toss by the starting QB over his shoulder to LSU’s kicker. The burn on trick play enthusiast Steve Spurrier, standing on the opposite sideline, was so precise, Miles made the noise "heheheheh" when watching a replay at Tiger Stadium.
He could have made the same noise all five times he decided LSU was going for it on fourth down against Florida, a backbreaking series of gambles that completed LSU’s 28-24 comeback at home. Miles might have chuckled his way through that whole second half, for all we know. It was very loud in there, and I couldn’t hear my own heartbeat, much less a coach laughing several hundred yards away.
He was on time when LSU was tied with Auburn, with the clock burning down and everyone in the stadium assuming LSU would try to win 26-24 with a Colt David field goal.
When Demetrius Byrd brings down the TD, listen to the crowd’s screams and hear everything all at once: that LSU passed up the obvious answer, nearly blew the last second it could’ve used to kick if the pass had fallen incomplete, and scored despite risking an interception.
You can read some inspired defenses of this play, if you want to go deep enough into the archives. Don’t. It makes no sense, never will, was late, and ... was right. This is a horseshit play, and it worked. Later in his career, Miles and LSU would get in serious trouble with clock management, and this would all seem less than cute, but in 2007, LSU was unstoppably lucky.
They pressed that luck, even when they became phenomenally unlucky. The Tigers spit the bit at Kentucky and at home to Arkansas. The Kentucky game seemed like enough of an anomaly, the kind voters could forgive. True to bizarro form, LSU outgained Kentucky in yardage, had fewer turnovers, and still lost in triple OT.
Arkansas was worse. A sleepy, 7-6 game at halftime caught fire in the second half, and the three-headed backfield with three future NFL starters — Peyton Hillis, Felix Jones, and Heisman finalist Darren McFadden — ate up yardage until another triple OT loss* surely destroyed LSU’s hopes for a title run.
* There is another achievement LSU can claim, in addition to being the first two-loss AP champ since 1960: the only title team to ever lose two games in overtime, let alone triple overtime. Not that anyone would ever want to claim that, knowing what it’s like to chug rubbing alcohol at 11:45 p.m. while watching your team do this again.
Miles showed up when he was supposed to show up, even when he wasn’t supposed to.
2007 was my first year covering college football for money, and the 2007 SEC Championship was just my second game as credentialed media. I still did not know how anything worked, so during pregame, when LSU informed the collected media that "Coach Miles wishes to make a statement," I assumed this was normal.
I was informed it was not.
Set this all in context. LSU had just lost a shot at the BCS Championship and would be starting its backup QB in a conference title game against a dangerous, 9-3 Tennessee. The SEC title seemed like a consolation prize, and reports of Miles, a Michigan alum who played and coached under Bo Schembechler, talking to the Wolverines about their coaching vacancy were everywhere.
Whether it was ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit reporting on TV that morning that Miles was as good as gone, or whether a fourth cup of coffee hit Miles sideways in the Georgia Dome locker rooms, or whether years of the accumulated WCW in the air possessed him, Miles felt the need to cut a wrestling promo live on the carpet in Atlanta.
When Miles was done with his speech to a room of baffled and bemused reporters, he appeared again exactly where and when he was supposed to appear. He had told ESPN to kiss his ass and made ESPN show it live on ESPN. He proclaimed in what was suddenly the thickest of Ohio accents that he had a "damn strong football team." He did it for himself, he said, and I believe it; his team, sequestered in the locker room, didn’t see the speech live and couldn’t have used it as some kind of motivational tool.
Miles punctuated his speech with the most truculent "have a great day" ever. Later, after the national championship and grown men from the Bayou running naked down Bourbon Street, the Tigers would put the phrase on the back of their equipment truck, so the whole world could kiss their gear’s ass as it rolled down the highway.
Starting the backup QB in a mop-up game, LSU let Ainge throw the winning TD to LSU’s Zenon. Everyone kept showing up in the right place at the right time, even people who were on other teams.
So when West Virginia lost to "the shittiest fucking team in the fucking world," Oklahoma couldn’t muster the votes to overcome losses to Texas Tech and Colorado, Georgia couldn’t make the case because it didn’t even get to the SEC Championship, an undefeated Kansas lost to rival Mizzou at the worst imaginable time, and Mizzou lost again to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship, it only made sense that LSU would suddenly face its third chance at a national title.
Getting to do it in New Orleans might have been a little heavy-handed, but the script was the script.
There are people who cannot thrive in normal circumstances, who struggle to make basic schedules work and whose only optimal working environment would madden a normal person to the point of tears.
Those people, 90 percent of the time, barely manage to fit into a lane. The really gifted and adaptive ones might become functional, with enough coaching. Others find themselves in much worse situations, often flagrantly so.
Miles is one of those people. After 2007, it became clear that quiet order would do Miles no favors. He’d recruit brilliantly but squander talent, particularly on offense. His carefree approach to clock management would become a running gag, his fake field goals would eventually only work on Florida, and LSU would wane as Nick Saban categorized, analyzed, and systematized the SEC into little more than Bama’s strip mine.
2007 was Miles at his best, but the flip side was 2011, when a phenomenally talented LSU showed up to the BCS Championship without anything resembling an offensive game plan. What Miles could profit from in chaos, he could waste in order. The decline began in earnest; by the time Miles was fired in 2016, quirks that were endearing had become intractable frustrations, even when his teams were still competitive.
If chaos-compatible people are lucky, sometimes they fall into exactly the right, irregularly shaped spot at exactly the right time and work where few others would. Miles fell into the right spot not once, but twice.
The first came after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, his first season as LSU’s head coach, when the chaos-compatible new guy helped steer an entire school through a natural disaster. Fats Domino was sleeping on QB JaMarcus Russell’s couch, Baton Rouge turned into a refugee camp overnight, and helicopters were flying over Tiger Stadium at all hours, but LSU managed not only to play a full season, but to thrive. In the year of Katrina, the Tigers somehow won 11 games. Almost everyone involved with that season agrees Miles was the person the program needed, when everything else fell apart.
There is a tendency to lionize coaches, overstate their importance, and diminish players in the name of using a single authority figure as a catch-all for a group of ever-changing faces.
That said, there was no one more suited to step into college football’s slipperiest, least predictable season. And once he and LSU stepped into it, they took everything, even well after reason said they were finished. In 2007, when throwing deep into the end zone with no time left made more sense than a field goal, Miles was the safest bet.
And at no point did that Ohio State team, or any Ohio State team coached by Jim Tressel, stand a chance in any universe’s 2007 title game, against any team.
2007 had already bit the Buckeyes once — losing to a Ron Zook-coached Illinois counts — but in a year of festive arson and freewheeling nonsense, Ohio State was doomed from the start. The Buckeyes didn’t understand the language on a spiritual level (and on a physical level, could not compete with LSU’s defense). Ohio State ran on a clock, and 2007 was too surreal for anything but melting pocket watches.
LSU won, but all I really remember was the aftermath, a French Quarter bursting at the seams with astronomically intoxicated LSU fans. Almost all of them were clothed.
Miles showed up at one point, too. I don’t remember exactly what time he appeared, but whatever time it was, I have to assume it was the right one.