Losses matter. Of course they do. That Iowa State has suffered six of them in seven games -- and has finished with more losses than wins for six straight seasons -- is why Paul Rhoads won't be in Ames next year. That Syracuse has suffered seven in a row and 17 in 23 games is why Scott Shafer won't lead the Orange onto the field in 2016.
That LSU has lost three in a row and is on pace to finish unranked for a second straight year is why, if you believe the apparently well-placed rumors, Les Miles is in his final days in Baton Rouge.
After a brilliant start, LSU entered November 7-0, having survived tough tests (Mississippi State, Florida) and cleared awkward hurdles (Western Kentucky). The Tigers controlled their own destiny and found themselves placed second in the first edition of the Playoff rankings.
Over the last three Saturdays, LSU lost to three good teams (Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss) by a combined margin of 99-47. The offense and defense bottomed out simultaneously. LSU allowed 7.9 yards per play to Arkansas and 6.7 to Ole Miss, and after averaging 193 yards per game and 7.7 yards per carry in the seven wins, one-time Heisman favorite Leonard Fournette has averaged only 77 and 3.7 in November.
Losses rile boosters up. They sway recruits. And at most schools, they affect attendance. They are emotional bombs, and they can force an athletic director's hand. But emotion is one of the last things you want when hiring and firing a coach. This is where numbers can come in awfully handy.
LSU has spent time in the AP top 10 in at least part of 11 consecutive seasons. Alabama has done it for eight straight years, Oregon for nine. USC peaked at eight straight from 2002-09. Only Oklahoma, with an absurd 16 consecutive seasons, can top the Tigers.
The main problem: the Tigers haven't finished in the top 10 since 2011. And for four straight years, they have finished the season ranked lower than they began. They finished unranked last year, and barring a rebound, they will this year, too (they started No. 14).
There's no question the Tigers have suffered a downturn, going 15-8 since the start of 2014.
One other issue: Alabama has ranked in the top two for parts of the last eight seasons.
Despite the three-game losing streak and coinciding tumble in the polls, LSU ranks a healthy 13th in the S&P+ ratings. While the margin of defeat was disconcerting, your ratings are going to be pretty solid when your three losses come to teams ranked second (Alabama), eighth (Ole Miss) and 21st (Arkansas) and you possess wins over teams ranked 15th (WKU) and 19th (Mississippi State).
Even with with an uptick of losses, LSU hasn't finished worse than 16th in S&P+ since 2008, when the Tigers ranked all of 24th. Of college football's ruling class, only Alabama can also boast that. Oregon can't. Florida State can't. USC and Oklahoma can't.
The first and second string of LSU's offense list eight freshmen, eight sophomores and only five juniors and one senior. The offensive guards are all freshmen (two redshirt, two true). The starting quarterback and tailback are sophomores, as are three of the top four wide receivers. The fullbacks are true freshmen.
This is partially a failure on Miles' part. If you don't watch your numbers closely enough or you deal with a dud recruiting class or you end up having to dismiss some players, you can end up with a youth movement. And at a school that expects to play at an elite level at all times, that doesn't always end well. For the second straight season following the loss of Zach Mettenberger, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, LSU's offense is too young to play at a consistent level, and it ground to a halt in November.
By the way, LSU's painfully young offense ranks 13th in Off. S&P+. That's how well the Tigers were playing before this downturn (and that's how little getting dominated by Alabama's defense hurts your numbers, once opponent adjustments are involved).
Between 2005-14, LSU's Def. S&P+ ranking averaged 11.1. The Tigers were 34th in 2008 and 28th in 2013 and ranked in the top 10 in every other season.
Miles lost defensive coordinator John Chavis to Texas A&M this past offseason. And depending on your point of view, new hire Kevin Steele either isn't working out or is requiring a breaking-in period. The LSU defense isn't particularly experienced, but it's more seasoned than the offense, and returns have diminished sharply.
- September: 4.5 yards per play, 21.3 points per game
- October: 5.1 yards per play, 23.5 points per game
- November: 6.5 yards per play, 33.0 points per game
Injuries haven't played a particularly large role, at least compared to similar teams. But there's no question opponents have figured out how to move the ball at an increasing rate. In a normal situation, there would be pressure on either Steele to engineer significant improvement in his second year or Miles to look into another move.
The numbers all point to the same two things:
- LSU is not doing quite as well as it was a couple of years ago. There might be clear reasons related to roster turnover. Teams can naturally recover from small down cycles with extra experience on the field and adjustment in the coaching booth.
- Les Miles is not Nick Saban. Miles has recruited well, and without any changes whatsoever, LSU could expect to field an improved defense and its best offense in years in 2016. Odds are decent that the Tigers still won't be as good as Saban's Crimson Tide next year.
Does that warrant a change? From an outsider's perspective, no way in hell.
Miles has been too successful for too long to make rash decisions based on two seasons and a successful rival. A loss of perspective can destroy you when it comes to coaching changes.
I write it about 20 times per year (give or take): coaching changes are terrifying crap shoots. And LSU should know that as well as anybody. The Tigers have become permanent members of the ruling class because they nailed two straight hires: Saban in 2000, Miles in 2005.
But that's hard to do. LSU might be two-for-two, but the Tigers are also two-for-five. Before Saban, they hired Gerry DiNardo in 1995 (26 wins in his first three years, seven in his last two), Curley Hallman in 1991 (zero winning seasons in four tries) and Mike Archer in 1988 (eight wins in the first year, nine combined in the next two).
But this is college football we're talking about. Lost perspective is assumed. When a rival -- one coached by a man you used to employ -- is doing better than you after beating you in a national championship rematch, you start to think crazy thoughts, like, "I'm so sure we can do better that I'm willing to pony up an eight-digit buyout to roll the dice."
You're only as good as your next hire. If you ditch Miles because you think you can get someone like Jimbo Fisher, you better get him, and you better not run out of money in the process.
I call it Glen Mason Territory when a coach raises the bar at a school, then fails to clear that bar consistently enough for an increasingly impatient fan base. Getting rid of Glen Mason might feel good in the short-term, but beware, you might end up with Tim Brewster.
By even considering firing Miles, LSU was already treading on dangerous ground.