LSU Should Be a National Championship Favorite in 2016
The scene following LSU’s 19-7 victory over Texas A&M last November was anything but ordinary.
The Tigers might have started the season 7-0, beating three ranked teams in the process, but LSU went into the matchup with the Aggies losers of three straight games to conference foes by a total of 99-47.
Sure, it was the regular season finale, but LSU finished with a disappointing 9-3 record. The Tigers weren’t heading to the SEC Championship Game or even a New Year’s Six bowl.
But there was coach Les Miles, being carried off the field by offensive lineman Vadal Alexander and defensive tackle Christian LaCouture.
Yet, just hours earlier, Miles, who had compiled a 110-32 record with LSU, was thought to be a dead man walking.
“I’ve heard as early as Sunday or Monday, Les Miles will be let go as the coach of LSU” - @BruceFeldmanCFB just now on Texas/Tech Pregame.
— Peter Burns (@PeterBurnsESPN) November 27, 2015
It is still unclear how Les Miles saved his job or whether it was ever truly in the peril that insiders suggested. But one thing is for sure: the advanced metrics suggest that, despite the turmoil, Miles’ Tigers are not just a contender but actually a favorite for the national championship this season.
It easy to understand why there is so much hype around LSU coming into the 2016 season. The Tigers return a Heisman favorite, running back Leonard Fournette, and four defensive starters who Athlon ranked as first-team or second-team all-SEC. According to Pro Football Focus, the Tigers also boast the nation's fifth best offensive line. And while LSU is on their third defensive coordinator in three years, this season, the unit is led by arguably the best coordinator in football, Dave Aranda (from Wisconsin).
But surprisingly, the national magazines I analyzed -- Athlon Sports, Lindy’s, Phil Steele, and The Sporting News -- were largely hesitant on LSU as a title favorite. They came in at an average rank of 8.25 (7th-best in the FBS), with only one publication, Phil Steele, ranking the Tigers in the top 8 nationally. In various magazines, LSU is ranked behind the likes of Baylor, Michigan, Michigan State, and Tennessee.
Conversely, the metrics’ systems – Brian Fremeau’s FEI, ESPN’s FPI, Bill Connelly’s S&P+, and Ed Feng’s The Power Rank – have a massive crush on the Tigers. They are tied with Alabama as the top ranked team by The Geeks.
In our Geeks-and-Guru analysis of top 25 teams in 2016, only Arkansas and Georgia had a bigger disparity between the metrics’ preseason rankings versus the magazines’.
|Team||Avg. Metrics Rank||Avg. Magazines Rank||Difference|
The metrics favor LSU in part because of the Tigers’ ability to excel year after year. While there has been much ballyhoo over the Tigers’ poor offensive play and inability to beat elite teams in recent years, the objective numbers show equivocal, high-level consistency.
Connelly’s S&P+ rated the Tigers second in the nation only behind Alabama in five-year average. LSU is at least a full point better than Oklahoma and Florida State and just under a point better than Ohio State, all of whom are ranked ahead of LSU in the magazines’ average top 10.
But over the last four seasons, it’s easy to recognize the source of concern among the Les Miles critics. After being the most efficient team in college football in 2011, LSU suffered a noticeable slip between 2012 and 2014 before a slight uptick last season. But the regression must be taken in context: being a top-15 team in overall efficiency still puts you in the national title conversation.
After all, Michigan State made the playoff last season despite an average efficiency ranking of 14th by FPI, FEI, and S&P+.
Miles has taken his fair share of heat for in-game mistakes, from conservative play calls to gross clock mismanagement. But no one can quibble with the Miles’ ability to load up on talent. Load and reload. Load and reload. It is the key to his team’s ability to perform at a high level year in and year out.
In the last four recruiting cycles, LSU’s classes have ranked no lower than sixth, according to 247Sports Composite rankings. During the same period, only Alabama (ranked first all four years) can boast that kind of recruiting consistency.
The conclusion is that LSU’s talent is simply elite. Teams like Oklahoma and Stanford that recruit at good, but not great, levels deserve praise for overachieving with slightly inferior talent. In contrast, Les Miles could be chastised for not getting the most of the 4- and 5-star players sprinkled all over the field. But this exercise is about projecting forward, and talent cannot be ignored.
For the metrics, returning production eclipse what may be viewed as a shaky situation at coach and quarterback. LSU’s roster is downright gaudy from an experience and output standpoint. Not a single team in the country brings back more -- 96 percent of production on offense and 88 percent on defense.
The Gurus have concerns about undoubtedly the most important position in college football: quarterback. Athlon summed it up this way: “LSU’s offense will need to, once again, refine its passing game and get consistent quarterback play if the Tigers hope to live up to their lofty preseason expectations.”
So, once again, the pressure is on junior Brandon Harris. Harris been a whipping boy of the college football Pundit Class. His raw statistics do not help his case. In 2015, excluding LSU’s exhibition (bowl) game against Texas Tech, Harris only twice completed more than 20 pass attempts (in big losses to Arkansas and Mississippi), and he threw for more than 250 yards only three times (once against Western Kentucky). And on the biggest stage, a primetime game against Alabama, Harris looked anemic, going 6-for-19 for 128 yards.
The advanced metrics painted a slightly less gloomy picture. LSU finished a respectable 32nd in numberFire’s passing efficiency rankings last season. Pro Football Focus also rated Harris the most accurate SEC quarterback under pressure and the conference's second best deep passer. That combined with numberFire's fourth-best rushing attack in 2015 makes the Tiger offense look potent. And, of course, all the top contributors are back.
The case the metrics is making is that there is so much talent and experience around Harris that he may not be the linchpin. Harris may not need to be prolific. Like in LSU’s runs in 2003, 2007, and 2011 the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In each of LSU's national championship game appearances, the Tigers did not have a first-team all-conference quarterback. The defense and running game led the way and will likely be counted on to do the same this year.
As is always the case with an SEC team with title hopes, the schedule is a gauntlet. ESPN’s FPI rates the LSU schedule the 10th-toughest in the country, while FEI rates it 9th. With question marks around Harris and a daunting schedule before the Tigers, Vegas is exercising similar restraint to the magazines. The Tigers are consensus 12-1 to win the national championship, behind Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, and Ohio State. At the Westgate Las Vegas, the Tigers come in at a 5-2 favorite to win the SEC.
Despite the path that includes a neutral site game against Wisconsin, home games against Ole Miss and Alabama, and road tests at Auburn, Florida, Arkansas, and Texas A&M, FPI give LSU a 32 percent chance to win the conference and 5.3 percent chance to run the table. In fact, FPI gives LSU a 65 percent or better chance of winning each one of their 12 games.
It will now just be up to Miles and the Tigers to win close SEC games and do something they haven’t been able to do since 2011: beat Alabama.
If they do, Miles may get one more ride off the field on his players’ shoulders, this time carrying the playoff trophy. The Geeks like the Tigers’ chances.