One would have to be a Vulcan to have watched the scenes in Baton Rouge on Saturday night and not been moved. After two weeks in which rumors swirled that LSU was going to fire Les Miles, Miles arrived to a standing ovation and left on the shoulders of his players. In between, LSU beat Texas A&M to finish the regular season at 8-3 and end a three-game losing streak. Athletic director Joe Alleva affirmed Les will be LSU's coach, ending two crazy weeks of speculation.
The prevailing sentiment has been that LSU would've made a major mistake by firing Les. The hosts of College GameDay, a reliable indicator of conventional wisdom, were uniformly in favor of Les keeping his job. LSU fans certainly made their opinions known with a moving show of support. The ovations might have played a role in the final decision, and the school president confirms the decision wasn't made until halftime.
But think about that. If firing Miles was the right idea before Saturday night, then why would applause change the calculus? It might matter for Alleva politically, but it should not matter analytically. If the reasons to get rid of Les made sense before Saturday night, they are likely to arise again.
1. LSU is a top-10 program that hasn't been achieving top-10 results.
One's view of Les Miles depends on an evaluation of LSU. On the one hand, LSU was only 17th in winning percentage (wedged in between Arizona State and Army) when it hired Nick Saban after the 1999 season. Les has won at a greater percentage than the program's prior history.
On the other, LSU has an advantageous position. Only five states -- California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas -- produce more talent. Louisiana is tops in per capita generation of blue chip recruits and tops in per capita generation of NFL players. LSU is the only Power 5 program in the state, and Louisiana has a culture that generates pressure on recruits to stay home.
Outside of Ohio State, no program was born on third base quite like LSU. The Tigers' pre-Saban results might reflect a series of bad coaching hires, but the fact remains that LSU is in a terrific spot.
LSU fans are entitled to expect top-10 teams. Have they been getting them?
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By one poll and three different computer ratings, LSU has had only one or two top-10 teams since becoming the first two-loss national champion in modern history. In context, 2011 looks like a sui generis season, one in which Miles was able to produce an outstanding team despite a below-average quarterback.
Otherwise, Les has taken five-star talent and produced four-star results. Should we have confidence that Miles will be able to produce a top-10 team in 2016? And if he does, will that just be a one-off like 2011?
2. LSU's passing game barely exists.
Miles is an advocate of a traditional pro-style offense, to the extent that that term has any meaning anymore. His offenses tend to be under center with a fullback and without heavy use of option plays. An option or run-based spread team can get away without much of a passing game; a pro-style offense cannot. If a quarterback isn't going to make the defense account for him with his legs, he has to do so with his arm.
Miles' offenses have failed at this. Since 2008, LSU has been in the top five of the SEC in pass efficiency only twice: the "everything came together just so" season of 2011 and the 2013 season, when the LSU offense had a truly sick amount of talent, Zach Mettenberger handing off to Jeremy Hill and throwing to Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. If a passing game needs that much talent to function, something's wrong.
LSU's rudimentary passing game causes the program to waste talent. It lowers the team's ceiling. It's hard to produce a top-10 team with a pro-style offense that can't throw.
Are the events of Saturday night more or less likely to cause Miles to make the changes needed to bring the offense into the late 20th century? Will he feel emboldened by the show of support and double down on his approach? Or did he keep his job because he indicated that he is willing to bring in a better offensive brain trust?
3. Les is a CEO without effective executives.
Miles is not noted for being a schematic expert. Although Les has a background on offense, he doesn't call plays and generally lets the offensive coordinator direct the attack, subject to parameters. Les's strengths are recruiting, player development, and making sure the program runs smoothly. The loopy tactical decisions are a bonus.
LSU's offenses have not been especially good, with plenty of blame being doled out to Cam Cameron for unimaginative schemes. Miles' teams have been propped up by the defenses, which were mostly coordinated by Will Muschamp, Bo Pelini and John Chavis, all of whom have good reputations as defensive minds. This year, with Chavis having decamped for College Station, LSU's defense was coordinated by Kevin Steele, who does not have the skills of those predecessors.
Miles is dependent on his coordinators, but right now has a pair of duds. He is not one hire from solving his problems. He probably needs replacements in both spots, which implies a substantial remodel is in order.
Do we think Les is going to make changes on one or both sides? Hiring season has started and there are no signs yet, although there is some smoke that Miles is considering changing coordinators. An LSU with an upgrade at offensive coordinator (say, Doug Meachum from TCU) would look quite daunting, at least on offense. An LSU with the same coordinators would not.
4. LSU's returning talent increases the pressure.
One argument that Miles defenders have made is the fact that LSU returns almost its entire team in 2016. The implication is that Les is poised for a big year, so he ought to get the chance to see it through. However, LSU's recent record indicates Miles is more likely to get less-than-optimal results. Do we trust Cameron and Steele to get the best out of all those returning starters?
His defenders will have no excuses that his team was inexperienced or lacked talent. He barely kept his job with a three-loss season in 2015; he will not be able to do the same in 2016 with a veteran team.
5. The Saban Specter.
As Bill Connelly put it, Miles' biggest problem is that he is not Saban. It's an uncomfortable position to be at LSU when its former coach is in the middle of producing a dynasty for a rival. If LSU fired Miles because he is not as good a coach as Saban, then it would have been making a big mistake. There is no coach in college football who is better than Nick.
However, the Saban specter presents a reason for LSU to make a change. It's not just that LSU has lost five in a row to Alabama. It's that LSU's style is a terrible matchup against the Tide. Saban's defenses typically destroy pro-style offenses. Ole Miss's spread has won two in a row against Bama. Ohio State's and Oklahoma's versions of the spread have beaten Bama in the last two Sugar Bowls. Auburn gave Saban's defense fits when Nick Marshall was under center.
To move the ball on a Saban defense generally requires a no-huddle attack that prevents Saban from engaging in situational substitutions and use of the quarterback in the running game. Does that sound like LSU? 2016 looks a lot different if Miles makes a change in offensive approach as opposed to sticking to a scheme that has averaged 12 points per game in its last six matchups against Alabama.
In sum, the prevailing sentiment in the aftermath of Saturday night was that Miles had pulled a power play on the LSU boosters. The thinking was that Miles had prevented his enemies from making a bad decision. However, the reality is that the decision to fire Miles was rational. Unless Les makes changes, those reasons for that decision will remain valid.