By Andrew Alexander
To say that last Saturday was rough for LSU would be a vast and blatant understatement.
Auburn eviscerated LSU 41-7 on Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Bayou Bengals’ worst loss since 1999 when former Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville led his first squad into Tiger Stadium and also thrashed LSU by the same score. LSU’s present day defeat drops the Tigers to 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 2001.
As it stands right now, the 2014 incarnation of the LSU football team is not very good and for the first time in this millennium, they are in jeopardy of missing a bowl game.
Despite the historic loss, LSU head coach Les Miles is not throwing in the towel just yet.
“It’s disappointing how we played,” Miles said during his weekly Monday media luncheon. “I certainly understand the position that we’re in, but I like my team. I like how they will respond, and that to me is the most important piece.”
Back in Baton Rouge, talk of LSU’s 1999 and 2001 football seasons conjures up memories on opposite ends of the spectrum. The end of the millennium marked the final year of the Gerry DiNardo era at LSU, as the Tigers finished 3-8 and 1-7 in league play. 1999 also marked the last time Mississippi State beat LSU.
Fast forward two years and Nick Saban’s LSU squad found itself 0-2 in conference play, having lost to a pair of top ten teams, before it went on a run for the ages. Led by senior quarterback Rohan Davey, LSU’s 2001 team finished 10-3 and won the Southeastern Conference and Sugar Bowl titles.
What a difference two years makes.
The college football season is only halfway over, and while LSU suffered its second backbreaking loss at the hands of a Southeastern Conference foe in the past month, the season is not lost.
College football is cyclical, and LSU is in the midst of a 15-year winning cycle. The Tigers have not won fewer than seven regular season games since the aforementioned 1999 season. In that span, college football has seen the likes of Texas, Florida, Southern California, Michigan, Auburn, Ohio State and even Alabama fall victim to the dreaded “rebuilding year.”
The common trait amongst all these college football programs is resiliency. Those programs recruit elite talent, hire excellent coaches, are supported by passionate fan bases and, more often than not, win.
However winning should not be thought of as birthright, and as soon as a college football program becomes entitled, whether it be the fans, administrators, coaches or players, it begins to crumble.
Having spent 10 years at the helm of LSU, Miles understands that.
Earlier this summer, he addressed the culture of winning in college football on the ESPN television show Numbers Never Lie. When he was asked about establishing a winning tradition at LSU by host Michael Smith, Miles laid out what he thought.
“Winning is a thing that is inherent to how you were raised,” he said. “It is something you carry with you for a lifetime. And to pretend that it is brought, or deposited at a place and left, it is not.”
Miles was responding to former Alabama quarterback and in-studio guest Greg McElroy’s previous comments that implied LSU’s current run of success could be attributed to the “mindset” Nick Saban established in Baton Rouge during his tenure.
And the Mad Hatter was right.
The spirit of winning lies within the team itself, and every year Miles and every other coach in college football put together a new team, that includes new individuals. Past success certainly increases the odds of future achievements, but by no means does it guarantee it.
LSU fans are seeing the embodiment of Miles’ statement this season.
No matter how much of a winner Zach Mettenberger was or how competitive Odell Beckham Jr. played during their time at LSU, it does not translate over to the next generation of LSU players. There’s no magic wand Anthony Johnson or Ego Ferguson can wave over the current Tigers to help them play better.
If winning is “inherent to how you were raised,” then maybe the 2014 LSU football team still has some growing up to do. The next few weeks will test the character of this young Tigers team. Can Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings rise to the occasion and lead LSU to victory? Will the defense show its fangs and summon the vintage spirit of former ferocious Tiger units?
Most importantly, will LSU players learn from their mistakes, hold their heads high and continue to push towards potential brighter days ahead?
Those questions will begin to answer themselves this weekend when a wounded LSU travels to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to face the equally volatile Florida Gators.
“With a lot of football left to play and the need for our guys to understand the direction we’re going,” said Miles. “ I can tell you that the character [of this football team] and the type of people that are there will certainly respond, and that to me is the reason that I have confidence in how we’ll go forward.”
Win or lose, this youthful Tiger squad will gain valuable experience that could pay dividends down the road. And maybe in two years, when these Tiger cubs are fully grown, LSU fans everywhere will say, “What a difference these past two years have made.”