Year 11 with the Tigers was almost a curtain call for LSU head coach Les Miles in Baton Rouge. The “Mad Hatter” bumped up his win total in 2014 from eight to nine last season but committed the deadly sin of losing to Alabama — again — a defeat that started a three-game tumble igniting the flames on Miles’ proverbial hot seat.
If history should repeat itself, expect the Tigers to win at least 11 games this season, as seen in 2010 after Miles posted eight and nine victories in 2008 and ‘09. Miles has two things going for him that could propel the Tigers to the elite status they reached in 2007 or ‘11: 1) the SEC West should be down this season and 2) LSU is absolutely loaded with talent.
The Tigers not only have potential Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette and his 1,953 rushing yards back for another season but also have 17 total starters returning, nine on offense and eight on defense.
Year 12 for Miles could be another banner year, making athletic director Joe Alleva look like a genius for not dropping the axe on his embattled head coach at the end of the 2015 regular season. On the flip side, injuries and poor play under center by returning starting quarterback Brandon Harris could bring about an end to an era in Baton Rouge for Miles and company.
Based on recent history, returning talent, and game location, the following is a breakdown of LSU’s 12 regular season games from easiest to toughest.
12. Nov. 19 vs. South Alabama
The Jaguars from the Sun Belt Conference went 5-7 last season and did not have a good showing against Nebraska (48-9) or NC State (63-13) in the process. Given the late-season timing between the Arkansas and Texas A&M contests, South Alabama should be worn down from a long season and the Tigers will be looking ahead to a road trip to College Station. LSU will look to put this one away in the first quarter.
11. Oct. 15 vs. Southern Miss
The Golden Eagles have some fight in them after posting a 9-5 record in 2015. Do not expect Southern Miss to challenge LSU but don’t look for them to roll over early either. Southern Miss challenged Mississippi State in the 2015 season opener before falling 34-16 and kept the final score close against Nebraska, putting up 21 points in the fourth quarter before losing 36-28.
10. Sept. 10 vs. Jacksonville State
Depending how healthy the Gamecocks are, this could be a bigger challenge for LSU than the fans, players or coaching staff than your typical FCS vs. SEC matchup would appear on paper. Jacksonville State led Auburn 10-6 at halftime last season in Jordan-Hare Stadium before succumbing 27-20 in overtime. Jacksonville State went on to finish 13-2 with the second loss coming in the FCS national championship against North Dakota State.
9. Oct. 1 vs. Missouri
Life for Missouri Tiger fans is finally about to get rough in the SEC. In Missouri’s first two SEC campaigns (2013-14), the Tigers posted 12 and 11 wins and claimed the SEC East title each season. The prevailing thought had to be the SEC is not that difficult of a conference. However, everything came crashing down last season as Gary Pinkel retired following a 5-7 finish. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom takes over as the new head coach but the main problem still remains – no offense.
When Missouri travels to Death Valley, this will be just the second time the two programs have met on the field. Mizzou won the previous meeting in 1978 (20-15).
8. Sept. 24 at Auburn
From the outside in, Auburn seems to be in the midst of a rebuilding project that may need to be extended into 2017. The Tigers went 7-6 a year ago, 2-6 in SEC play. Auburn has 11 starters returning, six on offense and five on defense. The red flag for Gus Malzahn is the uncertainty in the pocket. Neither Sean White nor Jeremy Johnson has showed he can lead the team, leaving an opportunity for junior college transfer John Franklin III to win the job. The other problem for Malzahn’s high-scoring offense is a lack of returning talent at the skill position spots.
Auburn could surprise but expect LSU to romp like it did in Baton Rouge a year ago when home team tore the other Tigers apart, 45-21.
7. Sept. 17 vs. Mississippi State
Every year Dan Mullen does more with less in Starkville, like last season when he surprised the nation with a 9-4 campaign after losing a lot of top talent off of his 2014 team. Mississippi State is in the same boat again primarily because quarterback Dak Prescott is gone to the NFL. The Bulldogs do have 13 starters back, six on offense and seven on defense, making this club a dangerous team if solid play is found at quarterback.
The schedule works well for the Bulldogs, opening with South Alabama, at home against South Carolina and then visiting Death Valley. After that it’s UMass, Auburn, BYU, Kentucky and Samford. Expect Mullen and staff to go all in against LSU hoping to jump out to an 8-0 start.
6. Sept. 3 vs. Wisconsin (Lambeau Field)
Let’s see... opening game of the season, against Wisconsin on the Green Bay Packers’ home field, and with a national audience watching. It’s no stretch to say this SEC vs. Big Ten clash is the epitome of a tone-setting game. A loss would not only knock LSU out of national title contention right out of the gates, it also would put a very difficult spin on the season as soon as it’s getting started.
The Badgers went 10-3 last season but in a smoke and mirrors kind of way. The only Big Ten titan they faced was Iowa, losing 10-6, skipping out on Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State. The other key to this game is a common foe. Alabama beat Wisconsin 35-17 to open last season at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Miles is always compared to Nick Saban, so expect LSU to pour it on and make a statement if the Tigers are able to against the Badgers.
5. Nov. 24 at Texas A&M
LSU’s end-of-season road contest against the Aggies could very easily be the most difficult game depending on how the Ws stack up on the schedule. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin has led the Aggies to back-to-back implosions, running off three starting quarterbacks in the process.
The Aggies have seven starters back on defense and coordinator John Chavis calling the shots. If Sumlin can stay out of Noel Mazzone’s way on offense, Texas A&M, once again, could be dangerous. The trouble on offense, besides running the ball with any consistency is replacing a starting quarterback and starting running back. If the talent is there, by season’s end this should not be a problem.
If the Aggies’ season is a sinking ship with Sumlin potentially on his way out, the feather in the cap could be a home win against LSU, potentially knocking the Tigers out of the Playoff picture. LSU snuffed out Texas A&M’s offense last season in a 19-7 victory, but everything was falling apart behind the scenes for the Aggies. This encounter could be different, but don’t expect it.
4. Nov. 12 at Arkansas
LSU fans may hate losing to Alabama but Arkansas has been just as much a thorn in the Tigers’ paw. Since 2007, the Razorbacks lead the series 5-4, including two straight wins. The Razorbacks have benefitted from the schedule, facing LSU right after the Alabama game in consecutive seasons. This has resulted in the Tigers having to navigate back-to-back physically demanding and emotionally exhausting games against run-oriented offenses. If LSU loses for a third consecutive year to the Hogs, don’t be surprised if some backroom negotiations are made to shift the schedule going forward.
Arkansas could play spoiler at home if LSU comes into Fayetteville too high after beating Bama. The Hogs also have nine starters back on defense, which held Fournette to 91 yards rushing last season.
3. Nov. 5 vs. Alabama
Make no mistake, this is the biggest game of the season for LSU, but this is a ranking of the toughest games not the biggest or most important games. All things hedge on LSU being healthy when the Crimson Tide roll into Baton Rouge. This may be the year Miles ends his five-game losing streak to Nick Saban, dating back to the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.
Alabama should be down after losing a ton of talent to the NFL with 11 total starters back, six on offense and five on defense. Alabama always reloads but LSU, along with Fournette, will seek revenge for last season’s 30-16 loss in Tuscaloosa, which started the Tigers’ painful three-game slide. Fournette had a season-low 31 yards on 19 carries with one touchdown against the Tide’s stout defense.
The toughest part of Alabama’s schedule will be behind it when the Crimson Tide make their trek to Death Valley. Both teams come off a bye, but Alabama will have just finished a stretch of games against Kentucky, Arkansas (road), Tennessee (road), and Texas A&M. LSU’s slate leading up to this game is much easier overall, especially if the Tigers can get past Florida and Ole Miss.
2. Oct. 22 vs. Ole Miss
By all accounts, Ole Miss could be in trouble in 2016, and in more ways than one. The Rebels have just five starters back on defense and four on offense. However, one particular returning starter on offense could make all the difference in the world. While every other team in the SEC West is replacing its quarterback, Ole Miss returns 4,000-yard passer Chad Kelly.
Kelly played well against LSU last season, throwing for 280 yards, two touchdowns and no iinterceptions. Kelly is the only proven returning quarterback LSU will face this season, making this contest noteworthy. The success of the Rebels against LSU rests on Kelly’s capable arm.
1. Oct. 8 at Florida
No one really expected that much out of Florida in Jim McElwain’s first season yet he led the Gators to a 10-4 record and the SEC East title. Florida has 12 starters back, a number that is split evenly on offense and defense. One minor note, 2015 starting quarterback Treon Harris is returning but he moved to wide receiver, making this another year Gator fans enter a season wondering what kind of production they will get in the pocket.
What could make this game so important? It is a swing game (game No. 6) for both teams and it will be played in the Swamp. Florida gave LSU all the Tigers could handle a year ago before falling 35-28 in Baton Rouge. One key to the game is how the Gators fare against Tennessee (Sept. 24) with Vanderbilt sandwiched in between. If the Volunteers romp on the Gators, this may give LSU confidence about notching an easier than expected road win.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.