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The Curious Case of LSU Basketball

In College Basketball, General LSU, History, Me on February 25, 2019 at 6:19 PM

Why I Generally Don’t Cover College Basketball

If you’ve been following my blog, you’re probably aware I don’t write much about college basketball.  It’s not because I’m not a fan – I actually pride myself on picking mostly correct tournament brackets over the years – but when I have free time during basketball season, a lot of times I’ll have 6 or 7 games recorded to watch and do that instead.  If I don’t watch as many teams who may be in the tournament as possible, I tend not to pick as well.

With college football, I usually watch whatever it is I’m going to watch on Saturday, leaving other days for writing, preparing, etc. I don’t concern myself as much with any kind of postseason picks. Given that only four teams are playing for anything important, the postseason in football is kind of a crap-shoot anyway. I usually finish my computer rankings before I go to bed Saturday night/Sunday morning; so other than writing and research, all of the effort I put into following football is confined to about 14 hours on one day of the week.   

Another part of a sport with so many games is whether I want to write about my team doing well or poorly, there’s always another game looming that can change that.  So if there is a game on Saturday and I don’t have time to write, edit, and post a blog about it until Tuesday, what I’ve written might be moot by then.

Brief Description of Recent LSU Basketball History

I’m writing this now because even if LSU doesn’t finish well, there are milestones and things to be proud of.  The last several years I’ve expected to be disappointed.  Since the Final Four season in 2005-06, I can’t think of one season in which we made it farther than I thought we should have.  When I’ve gotten my hopes up, I’ve just waited a few days (or maybe a couple of weeks) and with the help of the team I’ve gotten over it. 

Former LSU head coach John Brady was fired after the Tigers went 25-28 over the 53 games immediately following LSU’s last Final Four appearance. The Tigers have returned to the NCAA tournament only twice since.

With as bad as things have been for the program at times, it’s amazing that there have been three Final Fours in the last 40 years (and 4 in the last 65 years). For instance, the Tigers lost 10 games or more in all but three seasons in the 27 years between the first two Final-Four appearances. In all but one season since the last Final Four appearance (in which the Tigers entered the tournament with 8 losses), the Tigers have also suffered 10 losses or more. During that second span, LSU has only won a single NCAA tournament game.

The 26 seasons that included the second, third, and fourth Final Four teams weren’t exactly full of success either. There were only four other teams in that span who won one NCAA tournament game or more. Only two of those teams (not including any of the teams for which Shaquille O’Neal played) made the Sweet 16. Seven teams during that span, by contrast, finished with losing records.

LSU went only 2-3 in NCAA tournament games with Shaquille O’Neal on the roster.

What Makes This Team Special (So Far)

With the win over Tennessee, who for much of the year has been #1, I have to acknowledge things are a bit different from the situation to which I’d become accustomed.  It’s certainly possible that LSU or someone else could have been 16-10 and just shot really well and things fell into place for a win over a team like this.  Last year, for instance, the Tigers beat #11 Texas A&M on the road (despite ending up with a losing record in conference).

But this year, one of LSU’s expected starters (Wayde Sims) was killed in the lead up to the season.  On Saturday, arguably the top player on both sides of the ball (Tremont Waters) was sick and did not play.  The Tigers’ second-leading scorer, Naz Reid, who is normally also one of the main defenders in the post, went 0 for 9 from the field and sat for 17 minutes due to foul trouble.  In other years, this would have been an ugly blowout loss under these circumstances; and I wouldn’t have even faulted the team if it had been.

What makes the current situation stand out even more is LSU beat another then-5th-ranked team on the road 11 days before.  It had been almost 40 years since the Tigers beat a team ranked that highly on the road.  Even the 1980-1981 Final Four team, the last LSU team with this small a number of losses this far into the year, lost in Rupp Arena, one of only two regular-season losses for that team. With apologies to Billy Gillispie (who was fired after failing to win an NCAA tournament game in consecutive seasons), this was the first LSU team to win there over a ranked Kentucky team since.

The Kentucky game was another comeback win and another night where some of the top scorers (such as Waters and Skyler Mays) were held in check. 

A couple other notes from that game. Only three times in 52 years had the Tigers overcome a halftime deficit of 8 points or more, and the Kentucky win was the second time in less than a week.  It so happened that both were on the road against ranked teams (the other had been in Starkville).  Also, John Calipari only averages one home loss per season since he took over the Kentucky program in 2009.

The Tigers recorded two wins over top-5 teams, although Tremont Waters (who leads the Tigers in points, assists, steals, and free throws made per game) did not play in one of them and made only 3 of 13 field goal attempts in the other.

This team is actually unbeaten on the road in conference (the Tigers did lose to now-#6 Houston in pre-conference).  Another remarkable thing is how many close games there have been.  The last 7 consecutive games have been decided by 5 points or fewer, and LSU has won 5 of them.  The Tigers are also 4-1 in overtime in conference play.  Three of those overtime wins were on the road. 

I’m going to backtrack a little bit to when I really started to pay close attention. Although I was encouraged by the win at Ole Miss (I’d seen the Rebels beat Auburn and Mississippi St.), I was still skeptical. I wasn’t sure if that might be something like the A&M game I mentioned last year: just one game not particularly apropos of anything (and maybe like the Aggies, the Rebels just happened to peak right before the game, which was apparently the case). 

I first really got the feeling there might be something a little different about this team with the overtime win over Missouri.  Missouri isn’t a great team, don’t get me wrong; but when you end up winning after being down 14 with 2:08 to play, you’ve done something impressive. It wasn’t a Division II school in a November tournament or exhibition; it was a road game against a credible program in a major conference.

Conclusion and Why You May Not Want to Bet the Farm on LSU

Before I finish, I want to include a couple of caveats. I don’t mean to suggest that the moment you get your brackets you need to put the Tigers in the Final Four regardless of the region or seeding.

While I think LSU can beat anyone anywhere now, the team also has a tendency to play down to the opposition, which can certainly cause problems in the postseason.  The Tigers lost to Arkansas at home by 1 and beat the Razorbacks on the road in overtime.  I think Arkansas is better than its record, but there is no reason LSU should be making a team 5-9 in the SEC look better than Tennessee and Kentucky regardless.  After beating Kentucky, the Tigers only got out of Athens with a 4-point win.  Georgia is only 1-13 in conference. There likely won’t be a worse team that LSU will play in the postseason.

After Georgia (and before Tennessee), LSU lost to Florida at home.  The Tigers will have to play the Gators again and also have rematches against Texas A&M (whom the Tigers beat easily in College Station) and Alabama (whom the Tigers struggled to put away in Baton Rouge), so finishing at the top of the conference or even top two is far from guaranteed.  They’re projected to be a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament, which usually makes a team safe to enter the round of 32, but if they fall below that I’d be very concerned about a loss in the first game.

Also, some of LSU’s second halves and final stretches would be less remarkable if it didn’t tend to fall behind in the first place, often due to poor shot selection. Although the Tigers were able to claw back against Kentucky and Tennessee as well as against some lesser teams, there could be an opponent in the post-season against which they are not so lucky.

For the reasons I mentioned though, I think it’s worth noting the accomplishments so far. 

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Week 12: Not Rivalry Week Yet

In Bowls, College Football, General LSU, History, Me, Preview, Rivalry on November 16, 2018 at 7:42 PM

Apart from some remotely possibly upsets of top teams (I mentioned Clemson and Notre Dame in the Rankings blog), I’m not wildly excited about any of the matchups this week.   I still thought of somethings I’d like to talk about. 

The Former Rivalry Week

I miss the days where this was THE main rivalry week. 

The Big Ten used to finish up for good, but now they have 3 more weeks including the championship.  Tomorrow it will be exactly 11 years since Ohio St. beat Michigan, probably with no suspicion that they were about to be involved in the craziest ending to a college football season in recent memory.  Although the Buckeyes were ranked only #7 going into that final game, they would enter the bowls as the #1 team in the BCS standings.  Despite its second loss coming in the last regularly-scheduled game, LSU would become the surprise #2 after winning the SEC championship on the same day Numbers 1 and 2 in the BCS (Missouri and West Virginia) both lost. 

LSU LB Ali Highsmith gets to the ball before Ohio St. QB Todd Boeckman can throw it in LSU’s 38-24 championship win in New Orleans on January 7, 2008.

Anyway, I bring that up because the normal time of year for Ohio St. to play Michigan going back to the 1930s was between about November 17 and November 24.  2007 just happened to be the last time the game was on the 17th.  The end of the Big Ten season got pushed closer to the end of November in 2010; and then with the start of the Big Ten Championship game in 2011, the Big Ten season now extends into December.. 

Some Big Ten teams finished conference play even earlier.  For instance, in 2005, Wisconsin played its last Big Ten game on November 12.  There were 11 teams in the Big Ten then, so I guess the Badgers were the odd men out for the rivalry week.  Other end-of-season rivalries in the Big Ten were Minnesota-Iowa, Michigan St.-Penn St., Purdue-Indiana, and Illinois-Northwestern.

Althoughit was often played later (and only became the traditional final regular-seasongame in 1977), Florida played Florida St. on November 17 as recently as 2001.  2001 was also the last time UCLA played USC onNovember 17.  Sometimes there was a latergame for one or both schools, but it was the second-to-last Saturday inNovember going back to the 1970s.

17 Nov 2001: Kevin Arbet tackles Craig Bragg as USC upsets UCLA 27-0 to qualify for a bowl game in Pete Carroll’s first year with the Trojans.

Another big rivalry that used to be the second-to-last Saturday in November was Oklahoma-Nebraska.  It was permanently moved to the last Saturday in November in the early 1990s before it stopped being an annual game in 1998.  Of course Nebraska was a much more important team in those days than they are today.  The date would sometimes vary a week or so, but the rivalry had been played around that time of year since the 1940s.

The Iron Bowl was played between November 17 and November 23 every year from 1993 through 2006.  Those were the first 14 seasons in which I had a meaningful interest in college football on the national level, though I followed LSU for about 5 years before that. 

Anyway, so I think that’s enough explanation of why I always feel like something is missing this week, especially since it became the week for the SEC to take it easy. 

How the SEC Schedule for Mid-November Deteriorated

Although it had been done occasionally a few times before (for instance, South Carolina played Middle Tennessee the week before Clemson in 2006; and LSU played Conference-USA opponents before Arkansas a few times in the 1990s), Alabama led the way with a real commitment to this trend. 

Startingin 2007, the Tide has usually had a bye before the LSU game, so since theycouldn’t have another bye before Auburn, they played UL-Monroe.  The ended up losing to LSU, Auburn, and ULMin 2007; but that didn’t deter Alabama from that strategy.  In 2008, the Tide did the opposite (byebefore Auburn, non-conference game before LSU), and it worked.  Alabama only went a combined 3-3 against LSUand Auburn between 2009 and 2011, but they’re a combined 11-2 in regularly-scheduledgames against the two rivals since.

For itspart, LSU played Tulane the week before the Alabama game in 2008 and 2009,which did not work.  Then LSU went to thebye before Alabama (which worked for two years and hasn’t worked since), but theprecedent was already set.  Sometimes it’sin late October instead of November, but the Tigers have had a late-seasonnon-conference game most of the years since. They did not have one in 2016 only because of rescheduling that resultedfrom the hurricane that hit Florida. 

Auburn has been more consistent.  Except for 2013 when the Plains-Tigers were able to use a second bye before Alabama, Auburn has had a non-conference opponent the week before Alabama every year since 2011.

Georgia originally scheduled its late-season non-conference opponent before Auburn, but in 2014 the Bulldogs changed it to the week before Georgia Tech.  I’m not sure why it wasn’t done that way last year, but Georgia is back to that pattern this year. 

A few of the less significant SEC programs are still playing regular games, but the SEC schedule leaves a lot to be desired…

Ole Miss-Vanderbilt Headlines This Week’s SEC Schedule

Anyway, so we are now at the stage where the big SEC rivalry game this week is Ole Miss-Vanderbilt.  I’ll explain why.

Arkansas has played Mississippi St. annually since 1992, but the Bulldogs have won 5 of 6 in the series, and the Hogs are only 2-8 on the season.  Arkansas could back into a single-digit game like they did against LSU last week, but I hardly expect high drama.  So that’s not a game to watch. 

Missouri and Tennessee (the CBS game of the week) have slightly better combined records than Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, but that’s only been a rivalry (of sorts) since Missouri joined the SEC in 2012.  It hasn’t been a very interesting one either.  Missouri ended both 2015 and 2016 really badly and lost to the Vols in the process.  The Tigers won the other games.  The only game of the six decided by fewer than 8 points was in 2012 (when each team would finish 5-7).

Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, however, is a competitive longstanding rivalry between fairly evenly-matched teams. Since 2005, the only SEC team against which the Commodores have a winning record is Ole Miss (7-6).  Vanderbilt won 5 of 6 in the series from 2007 to 2012, but Ole Miss responded by winning the next 3.  The two programs have exchanged home wins over the past two years.  The Commodores have won 4 of the last 6 games played against the Rebels in Vanderbilt Stadium. 

The three touchdowns by Vanderbilt RB Ralph Webb (#7) were the difference in Nashville two years ago. The Commodores had ended a 3-game series winning streak by the Rebels.

As for this year’s respective teams, both are near .500 and have identical 1-5 conference records.  Nonetheless,Vanderbilt could still guarantee a bowl game by finishing the season with home wins over the Rebels and the Volunteers, their two biggest historical rivals.  The Rebels are still on probation and ineligible for a bowl, but I’m sure there is motivation to avoid a losing record and potentially finish with a winning record (which they could do by beating Vanderbilt and winning the Egg Bowl over Mississippi St.).

LSU and Rice Renew a Rivalry Few Missed

One other rivalry I’d like to mention is LSU-Rice.  It was before my time, but this used to be an annual series.  Other than in-state (former/sporadic) rival Tulane, LSU has played Rice more than any other team that is currently outside of the SEC. LSU and Rice played each other every year between 1932 and 1952 and every year but one between 1955 and 1983.  The only meetings between 1983 and this season were in 1987 and 1995.

Rice has only beaten the Tigers once since 1966.  However, despite LSU winning a national championship in 1958, it was a competitive series between 1955 and 1966.  Rice had a 5-4-2 record against LSU during that span. 

The most notable Rice win was in 1961.  The Owls denied the Tigers a chance at second national championship in four seasons.  After losing the opener to Rice 16-3, LSU would win the next 10 games including the Orange Bowl.  Rice would finish 7-4 and lose in the Bluebonnet Bowl, the Owls’ last bowl appearance until 2006.

Rice made 5 bowl games from 2006 to 2014, winning 3 of them, their only wins in bowl games since 1953 (they also lost the 1957 Cotton Bowl and the 1960 Sugar Bowl). 

The Owls have returned to their prior form since that 2014 bowl win though.  After falling just one win short of qualifying for a bowl for the fourth consecutive year in 2015 (with a 5-7 record), Rice has only won 5 games since the start of the 2016 season.  Two of those wins were over FCS opponent Prairie View A&M, including in the opener this year, which was Rice’s only victory in its last 21 contests.  Two of the other wins since 2016 were over UTEP, which finally ended a 20-game losing streak two weeks ago against Rice. The fifth win was over UNC-Charlotte, which only began playing in the FBS in the past few years.  

SEC Wednesday #1 (Delayed)

In College Football, Me, SEC Wednesdays on October 1, 2015 at 2:32 PM

I said this would be a Wednesday thing (obviously); but I couldn’t concentrate, and there is no point posting in the middle of the night.

A friend and somewhat of a fan of my content passed away at the age of 28, and it’s been extremely hard to focus on anything.  I mentioned this on twitter (@TheBayouBlogger) and you can find out his name from there.  Just out of sensitivity for his family I don’t want to post his picture or elaborate further on his identity.  He was a big FSU fan, so that’s why I say “somewhat”. He really wanted them in the top 10.  I will miss his perspective and support.

I'm hardly a visual computer artist, but you get the idea.

I’m hardly a visual computer artist, but you get the idea.

Anyway, Saturday started about as well as I could have hoped as far as predictions.  The first four games went exactly as I’d predicted.  South Carolina went just past the line, Alabama fell just short of it.  LSU fell a little more short of it than I’d hoped, and Georgia beat Southern (ESPN didn’t have a line on that one).

Then it all came crashing down.  After my good luck was snapped by Florida’s comeback, I got all of the remaining picks against the spread wrong to finish 3-5 for the day.

I only got two other of the winners wrong (I had picked Missouri and Auburn), so in that category I was 6-3.

The first two partly hinge on ones reaction to the 52-20 Georgia win over South Carolina.  I’m going to fault South Carolina for being bad rather than credit Georgia for being great.  Central Florida is absolutely atrocious, and the Cocks were lucky to win on a neutral field against North Carolina.  So I’m taking Missouri minus the points.  They may only win by 3 like they beat Connecticut (even though they had a 90+ yard drive during which they failed to score), but I still think they may be another somewhat late-blooming team like last season.  Anyway, even 3 is still better than the line.

So since I’m not heaping praise upon Georgia, I also have a feeling Alabama will win that one (though I’d love if the Tide never won a game again the rest of the year).

Saban doesn’t lose two conference games in a row, at least apart from his first year at Alabama in 2007.  He didn’t lose consecutive conference games at LSU even once, although he did lose to Auburn and UAB in consecutive weeks in his first year (2000).

Anyway, speaking of Auburn, I’ll pick them to win.  However, they were so far away from the line the last few weeks, there are probably only about 15 teams in the whole FBS I’d pick them to beat by 20.  2-2 San José St. isn’t one of them.  The Spartans did lose to Air Force by 21, and that’s probably where that line comes from, but only after the Falcons scored 20 points in the fourth quarter.  I’m just not seeing a similar offensive output from Auburn.

I’m going to take my lesson from previous games and resist the temptation to take a road favorite against the line, especially when it’s 7.5 like the Ole Miss/Florida line is.  Last year, Ole Miss was #3 and they visited a team who was ranked #24.  That team was LSU, and LSU not only kept it within 7 but won.  I don’t pick Ole Miss to lose this one because despite the final record LSU was a bit better last year than Florida is this year, but I will take the Gators and the points.

Tennessee is favored by 6.5 over Arkansas, and even though they’re at home, I’m taking the underdog again.  Arkansas is having a bad year, and Tennessee may do all right.  But the Hogs gave A&M all they could handle, and I don’t think the Vols can run away (or throw away?) with it like Texas Tech did.  I will pick Tennessee to win though.

This brings me to LSU, who is favored by 44.5.  It’s rare that LSU beats anyone by that much, but they did beat NMSU and Sam Houston St. by 56 apiece last year.  In 2013, they only beat UAB by 39, but what sold it for me is late last year Western Michigan even beat the Eagles by 44.  So it is a generally insane margin, but I think LSU will more likely than not beat it.  EMU is a team that gave up 58 points to Army (who scored 17 and 14, respectively, in the Cadets’ other games against FBS opponents).  Les Miles does take his foot off the gas at times, so there is some hesitation; but LSU could score over 50 without even trying particularly hard, and I don’t see the defense giving up more than a score or two.

Next up is Vanderbilt.  At least they’re not a favored road team. The Commodores have done better than I would have expected in their last three games, and they did better than they were supposed to in Week 1 (I just wish they could have gotten that 2-point conversion and won in overtime).  I’ll take Vandy and the point and a half.  I’ll even take them to win.

Another team that keeps surprising me is Mississippi St.  I definitely would not give seven points in that one, but I think the 12th man gives the Aggies another close win.

There is no line for the FBS/FCS games, but of course I’m picking Kentucky over Eastern Kentucky.

In  sum:

To win – Missouri, Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Tennessee, LSU, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Kentucky

Spread – Missouri -2.5, Alabama +2, San José St. +20, Florida +7.5, Arkansas +6.5, LSU -44.5, Vanderbilt +1.5, Mississippi St. +7

Week Four SEC Preview

In College Football, General LSU, History, Me, Preview, SEC Wednesdays on September 25, 2015 at 11:44 AM

This won’t be the full “SEC Wednesdays” feature I have planned, but I thought I’d start off with comments and predictions of the coming week so I’ll have more to talk about when Wednesday gets here.

Central Florida @ South Carolina

South Carolina’s season hasn’t been pretty so far, but it’s been better than that of Central Florida, who has lost to both FIU and Furman (as well as Stanford) to start the year.  Despite this, the Gamecocks are only favored by 15.  Perhaps it was due to the fact that they didn’t win easily in their only win, only scoring 17 in that contest with a maximum output of 22 points in the loss to Kentucky.

Still, I think this is by far the worst opponent the Gamecocks have faced and expect them to win something like 31-10.

LSU @ Syracuse

This is also a tough one.  Not that I think LSU will be sweating out the fourth quarter like they did in the game in Starkville, but 24 points is a large spread to expect a road team to beat, especially when it will be 11 a.m. Central at kickoff.

I'll have to get up early if I want to see the kickoff live.  I am excited the Tigers will be playing at this venue...

I’ll have to get up early if I want to see the kickoff live. I am excited the Tigers will be playing at this venue…

But these uniforms hurt my eyes already. Imagine how much worse they'll be when I'm just waking up.

But these uniforms hurt my eyes already. Imagine how much worse they’ll be when I’m just waking up.

Even the 2007 LSU team that won the BCS championship struggled at Tulane early, and that was a short trip with a relatively friendly crowd.  Also, Tulane was a losing team of the CUSA that year.  Syracuse isn’t guaranteed a bowl berth out of the ACC this year, but I still think we can assume they’re a good bit better than Tulane was in 2007.  LSU still eventually won that game 34-9, but the Tigers were more pass-oriented with Matt Flynn under center (he threw for 258 despite the slow start).  I’d expect something similar to score I picked for South Carolina above even if things go well, so I would take the points.  I could be wrong though. I would have taken the points for the Auburn game as well.

Southern @ Georgia

ULM @ Alabama

I don’t think it’s even worth discussing whether Georgia will beat Southern or Alabama will beat ULM (despite what happened in 2007).  I don’t have a line for Georgia, but I know Alabama is favored by 38.  The Warhawks lost to Georgia by “only” 37, so I’m not sure I see Alabama beating ULM by 38.  I’d take the points.

Tennessee @ Florida

I usually lean against favored road teams.  The line is only 1.5 though, so it’s essentially a pick ’em. The Gators did a good job to win by 5 at Kentucky, but I have to guess Tennessee would have won by more than that given the Vols defeat of Bowling Green by 29.  Florida also didn’t play great at home against East Carolina, winning by only 7.

Texas A&M vs. Arkansas (Arlington, TX)

Texas A&M is favored by 7.5 on a neutral field against Arkansas.  Arky kept it close last year, but I’m not seeing the same fight they had last season.  A&M has done significantly better, including comfortably beating Arizona St. on another neutral field.  I would take the Aggies minus the points.

Vanderbilt @ Ole Miss

Vandy has done well in this series in recent years, but I don’t see them doing so well against this Ole Miss team on the road.  I don’t know that Vandy is much better than the Fresno St. team the Rebels beat by 52, so I’d take Ole Miss minus the 25.

Mississippi St. @ Auburn

LSU just beat both of these teams, and obviously the Bulldogs did better against the Fighting Tigers, but maybe the location (and it being LSU’s first game) had something to do with it.  This is a very good line.  I would pick Auburn by 3.  That puts them just over the line of 2.5.

Missouri @ Kentucky

The Wildcats are favored in this one.  Might have something to do with the Tigers’ underwhelming performances against Arkansas St. and Connecticut, but after the last couple of years I’m not underestimating Missouri in conference play.  As I mentioned, Florida won by five in Lexington, and I don’t see the Gators knocking it out of the ballpark against the likes of East Carolina.  I’ll take Mizzou and the points.  I also think they’re the more likely victor even though they haven’t beaten the Wildcats for 29 straight years like the Gators have.

Twitter

I am not really an expert at Twitter and as you might guess, I’m not a huge fan of the character limit.  If you want to read my tweets, my handle (I also don’t like the whole nomenclature of Twitter) is @TheBayouBlogger.

I had an interesting exchange with Chris Low (@ClowESPN) about Bear Bryant today.  Low mentioned the Bear visited the Mississippi St. locker room to congratulate the Bulldogs after they ended a long Tide winning streak in 1980.  I mentioned a story I liked after another rare Alabama loss.  I guess there was a weekly local football show, and the homer announcer said something like, “Well coach, I guess the Lord just wasn’t on our side in that one.”  Bryant uttered in a low tone: “The Lord expects you to block and tackle.”

Low is probably my favorite writer for ESPN.  He’s certainly better than anyone they typically put on TV to cover college football.

10 years: Les Miles and Hurricane Katrina

In Bowls, College Football, General LSU, Me on September 6, 2015 at 5:13 PM

It was oddly fitting that 10 years after the LSU-North Texas game was postponed due to Hurricane Katrina, another game that was scheduled for Tiger Stadium was cancelled.

That North Texas game was supposed to be the home opener of the Les Miles era at LSU. Instead, this strange guy from Ohio with a goofy grin (his original nickname at LSU was “Less Smiles”) found himself in the middle of makeshift field hospital and landing zone at the LSU athletic area.

If you’re not familiar with the LSU campus, most of the major facilities operate in the shadow of Tiger Stadium. This included the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, which served as the triage area for new arrivals, many of whom landed in a helicopter on the infield of the Bernie Moore Track Stadium (which had hosted the NCAA meet in 2002). Care and shelter was provided to the injured at the Carl Maddox Field House.

A helicopter above the LSU athletic facilities. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center is to the right.

A helicopter above the LSU athletic facilities. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center is to the right.

Here is Miles talking about the experience recently:

The Athletic Director at the time was Skip Bertman, formerly the long-term head baseball coach with the Tigers. These were some of his comments:

This part isn’t really related to Les, but I thought it was an interesting observation. Skip said no one understood how bad it was until they got there:

Personally, I have to agree. I grew up in the New Orleans area, and I knew a lot of the locations that I saw on the news and so forth. Still, you couldn’t grasp the magnitude of it from a television set.

It’s like when you see a tornado touch down some place. Not to minimize tornadoes (which are actually one of the many risks posed by hurricanes), but everything on the screen can look completely devastated; but a few blocks away, there might not be any damage at all. This was nothing like that.

Seeing mile after mile of roofs with blue tarps on them, dead lawns, and boarded up concrete with spray paint on the front was really intense. As was traveling at night and seeing nothing but pitch black where you used to see the lights of civilization. I didn’t see any of this until a few months after Katrina, so I missed things like refrigerators bursting with rotting food and sky-high piles of trash that result from having everything in your house soak in rancid water for weeks in the natural heat and the resulting mold.

I wrote about this when I wrote on the Sporting News site, but people have this annoying habit of injecting partisan politics into this. I want to address that briefly. There were a lot of people in the federal government of both parties that neglected the levee system in the 40 years between Hurricane Betsy (the previous time hurricane winds actually reached New Orleans) and Hurricane Katrina. In the first 30 of those years consecutively the House of Representatives was predominantly Democratic, for instance. So assigning part of the blame on the federal government does not require having a dislike for George W. Bush.

It also does not imply that state and local officials did all they could to coordinate relief efforts or otherwise direct available resources to their best purposes. Even though Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin were both Democrats, I’m told they butted heads because Nagin had endorsed the Republican (who happens to be current governor, then known as Congressman Jindal). So just put that aside and realize that something like this doesn’t happen just because of one party or the people who were in office at the time.

To bring this back around to football, Miles’ home opener was then supposed to be Arizona St. This game was moved to Arizona and LSU won in a bit of a shootout (at least it was at the end), 35-31. The Tigers had scored 28 points in the fourth quarter with the winning touchdown coming with 1:13 remaining.

So after not having a home opener either of the weeks he was supposed to, surely LSU would just have it the next Saturday against Tennessee, the second consecutive top-15 opponent. It could have happened that night, but Tennessee threatened to forfeit because of another approaching Hurricane named Rita (although it was far enough away not to pose a threat to anyone in Baton Rouge that night), so the date was moved once again.

Finally, Miles’ home opener took place the following Monday, 23 days after the North Texas game was supposed to have been played. It looked good early, as LSU’s offense scored early in the first and second quarters. The Tiger defense had completely rattled Tennessee QB Erik Ainge though. He went 7 for 19 for 54 yards with an interception (pick six) and two sacks in the first half. It was 21-0 LSU at halftime. Ainge also was hit a few times, but that came back to haunt the Tigers when he was knocked out of the game. One-time LSU player Rick Clausen started the second half for the Vols with some success and Chief John Chavis’s defense held the Tigers to just three points in the second half. This allowed Tennessee to come all the way back to tie, and they won in overtime.

I remember Miles somewhat nonchalantly mentioning he thought LSU would win in overtime, which didn’t exactly make me feel better. I didn’t realize that this attitude was based on things generally working out for him one way or another.

That would be LSU’s only loss until the SEC Championship game that December, but that game didn’t affect national title hopes since the BCS championship was already going to be undefeated USC against undefeated Texas. After finally getting a break, the Tigers would dominate Miami in the Peach Bowl.

Les Miles (with Larry Coker) before his first bowl game at LSU.

Les Miles (with Larry Coker) before his first bowl game at LSU.

I’m not sure if they would have beaten Tennessee had the season proceeded as scheduled, but for your only loss in your first 11 games as an SEC coach to be in overtime under those circumstances was pretty good. I don’t care who recruited those players.

So even before witnessing some of his eccentricities, I will always have a soft spot for Miles, and this will continue even if we have an awful year or two and Les has to find a new line of work. I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of his success though.

Les has won 78% of his games in 10 seasons. His first three years he won 85%, and from 2010 to 2013 he won 83%. There have been three years, including last year, where LSU didn’t have double-digit wins. But when LSU started 13-0 for the only time in its history in 2011 (actually they were perfect in that calendar year), that was only two years removed from an 9-4 season and three years removed from an 8-5 season. Going back to Miles’ predecessor, LSU’s first BCS championship in 2003 came directly after an 8-4 year.

New Orleans has thankfully only had one big rebuilding process in the last 50 years, and hopefully it will be a long time before another is needed. College football doesn’t work that way, but whether it’s a good year or a rebuilding one it can be a welcome distraction from disasters, as it certainly was 10 years ago.

Back To the Future: High-School Championship

In High School, History, Me on December 12, 2014 at 3:30 PM

This isn't the classification in question, but it was the best picture I could find of the trophy.

This isn’t the classification in question, but it was the best picture I could find of the trophy.

I haven’t written about high school sports since high school, but I had to comment about the high school I went to winning its first state championship since 1960. Hopefully it’s an interesting story. Some may know or be able to figure out the school, but I’ll avoid mentioning names.

What made it even stranger is that in watching the clips posted online (I subscribed to nola.com’s YouTube channel mostly for LSU content a while back), I saw a familiar face. It was the coach who had left my school in 1996. I honestly thought I was imagining things until I heard his name. He didn’t look much older either.

I’ll just call him Coach M. Since he left for a rival school, he wasn’t exactly my favorite person at the time. He did not do particularly well at that other school and had gone into other lines of work, although he had returned briefly to my school as an assistant at some point between the two stints. I would find out this was his first season back as head coach.

The administrators who were there while I was a student were all gone, so I guess that helped lessen any misgivings as well. Still, I’m sure some were skeptical he could just pick up where he had left off as a head coach. An NFL situation I thought of was Art Shell’s ill-fated return to the Raiders. Unlike Shell, however, it seems that Coach M had really kept up with the game.

I also compared it to Jim Mora (Sr.), who also left the Saints rather suddenly when I was in high school, coming back to the Saints and at least going to the Super Bowl in his first season.

Mora presided over a lot of improvement in New Orleans but was not able to win a playoff game with the Saints (although the Saints did have a first-round bye one season).

Coach M had won playoff games but had come up short on at least a couple of occasions in the semifinals. I mentioned the prior state championship had been in 1960. That was before the Saints even came into existence.

One difference is in recent years, the Saints did better than had ever done before. They won a few playoff games, won the Super Bowl one season, and made the conference championship in yet another season. But I’m pretty sure my junior year (two seasons after Coach M left) was the last time my high school had made the state semifinals. So I guess that all helps you imagine why it was so surreal.

After a bit of an upset in the quarterfinals (#6 over #3 on the road), it looked like it might be another year where they made it to the semifinals and fell short, which happened three times while I was there.

The last two games were remarkable too. In the last few seasons, my high school played really well against a rival school from the same district but ultimately came up short in both the regular season and the playoffs. That school was seeded #2 and had won the previous two state championships, as well as the district championships, and was undefeated. Somehow my school had them on the defensive all right, and my school prevailed,

In the finals, my school played a school that had 26 state titles. That school also did not exist in 1960. To be fair, it is a smaller school, so it wasn’t in the same classification in most of those years.

It was a low-scoring game with a lot of turnovers, but it seemed that the school that was used to state championships would pull it out when that school took a 14-7 lead into halftime (after a long drive to end that half) and still led 14-10 after the third quarter.

A number of second-half drives by both teams had stalled (or ended in turnovers) right outside of field-goal range, and obviously one ended in field-goal range. The other team got as close as the 25-yard line, but apparently that wasn’t quite a comfortable enough distance.

The player of the game was a running back, so the success my school had was mostly on the ground. But somehow with about 9 minutes to play, they drew up and completed a long touchdown pass of 45 yards. The team only had 112 yards of passing the entire game, including that play, against 217 rushing yards.

A combination of running down the clock and good defense took care of the rest of the game.

Normally you get more used to things like this after you find out, but due to the result, it’s only gotten more surreal since seeing that video. What adds to it is I ran (without much success) on the cross-country team in high school, and when I graduated we had never won a state championship in that sport. This was not the cross-country team’s first state title since I graduated; but it still adds to my feeling of disbelief to know my school holds what I consider the two biggest state titles of the fall, both of which seemed so elusive 10-20 years ago.

College Football Top 25 Week 6

In College Football, Me, Rankings, Rankings Commentary, Rivalry on October 6, 2013 at 2:56 PM

I do have my computer ratings up. They’ve been edited within the last couple of hours, so you may want to check them out again if you were one of the early birds. However, I decided on one more transitional week to my top 25. The order of the teams is still too far off of the way I have it, and next week is a huge week in the SEC (LSU/Florida, Georgia/Missouri, Texas A&M/Ole Miss) in addition to other games such as Washington/Oregon, Oklahoma/Texas, Louisville/Rutgers, Wisconsin/Northwestern, and USC/Arizona. USC and Texas have had disappointing years so far, but they still have a chance to win their respective games.

I’m confident I will feel a lot more comfortable in standing by whatever comes out of the computer formula after these games than I am with the way it is now. This week seemed more about teams just confirming their status as top teams (barely, in a few cases) rather than sorting out the top teams relative to one another.

I also updated my LSU/Miss. St. Rivalry entry.

Top 25

rank / team / prior

1 Alabama 1
2 Stanford 2
3 Clemson 3
4 Ohio St. 6
5 Georgia 4
6 Florida St. 10
7 Oregon 7
8 Washington 5
9 LSU 9
10 Miami 14
11 Oklahoma 8
12 Michigan 19
13 Texas Tech 13
14 Va. Tech 18
15 S Carolina 12
16 TX A&M 16
17 UCLA 17
18 Louisville 11
19 Fresno St. 15
20 Auburn 21
21 Baylor 22
22 Missouri —
23 Florida 24
24 N. Illinois 25
25 N’western 23

Out of rankings: (20) Ole Miss

Prior rankings:
Preseason
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Week 5

For September, I got my most views in a month since November 2011, when LSU beat Alabama. I got almost 70 views that day alone, so doing so without a similarly big event is encouraging. I’m nowhere near TSN days when I got as many views in a few days as I get in a month now, but I finally feel like this blog is going in the right direction again. Thanks for reading.

I want to thank intheneutralzone.com for posting my blogs. That may be giving me a boost here.

Week 1 Top 25

In College Football, Me, Rankings on September 5, 2012 at 8:09 PM

I was spending some time with family, so I didn’t get to see much of the actual games, but here are my rankings anyway. I did get to see my first live game in 13 years. It wasn’t much of a game, but the L.A. Coliseum alone was worth the trip.

rank / team / prior
1 Alabama 1
2 Oklahoma 2
3 LSU 3
4 USC 4
5 Georgia 5
6 Oregon 7
7 S Carolina 6
8 Michigan 8
9 Arkansas 9
10 W Virginia 10
11 Florida St. 11
12 TCU 13
13 Kansas St. 14
14 Nebraska 15
15 Mich St. 12
16 Clemson 16
17 Texas 17
18 Okie St. 18
19 Va. Tech 19
20 Ohio St. 21
21 Notre Dame 24
22 Cincinnati 25
23 Florida 22
24 Baylor —
25 Tennessee —

Out of rankings: (21) Stanford, (23) Wisconsin

Playoffs: Are You Kidding Me?

In College Football, General LSU, History, Me, Rankings Commentary on July 6, 2012 at 5:16 PM

There has been some big news in how college football is going to handle the end of the season starting in a couple of years (Also check out this post on my ratings site with top 4 lists from the past few seasons), but I can’t help but think about the end to the most-recent season.

As you might have guessed, I’m still slightly traumatized by the way college football ended 6 months ago. At first, I couldn’t even listen to “Sweet Home Alabama”. While I’ve gotten over that, I was still moderately offended by what appeared to be a houndstooth wall in a hotel room I stayed in recently, for example.

I also don’t like that Monarchy of Roses song by Red Hot Chili Peppers (which mentions a “crimson tide is flowing”), but that might just be because it’s not a good song.

It’s not just because I’m an LSU fan. It’s also because of the special regard I have for the University of Alabama. I’ll explain. Unlike most other teams, LSU does not have an unquestionable #1 rival. The most equally reciprocated rivalry is probably that with Arkansas, but I think Hogs fans would still rather beat Texas despite that being an irregular rivalry in the last couple of decades. Texas of course seems more interested in their rivalries with Texas A&M and Oklahoma (or I guess I should use past tense in the former case). I don’t know if I’m representative of most LSU fans, but if the Tigers could only beat one team all year, I would choose Alabama. I don’t really care if Alabama regards its rivalries with Tennessee and Auburn as more important. I’m generally happy to cheer for them to lose to the Vols or to those other Tigers too.

Something else that bothered me was that LSU had successfully navigated the great SEC without a single loss. This included 8 regular-season conference games and a game against a ninth team in the SEC championship. Also, the Fighting Tigers had beaten Oregon and West Virginia, who each went on to win BCS bowls, and had not lost out of conference.

Despite the change of heart by the voters in 2006 to avoid a rematch scenario, I knew it would happen one of these years, but for this team, my team, to have to play a team they had already beaten on the road in order to claim a championship, that especially wasn’t right, even before knowing the result. If LSU had lost a game to another team, then I would have had absolutely no problem with it. But in the ONE game to win a national championship (after already winning 13), they had to line up against this same team again? You can’t pretend that’s the same thing as playing and beating a new opponent.

I also wasn’t a stranger to history. I knew that although LSU beat Ole Miss in 1959 on Billy Cannon’s historic punt return, Ole Miss would win the Sugar Bowl (by a score of 21-0) in a rematch.

Billy Cannon on his way to the end zone on October 31, 1959.

But at least LSU had lost to Tennessee, so they weren’t playing for a national championship anyway. The two teams were on equal footing. Yes, they had played one another, but each had finished with one loss against a similar schedule before that Sugar Bowl game. It wasn’t 9-0 in conference play vs. 7-1 with at 6 common conference opponents like it was last year.

And not just looking at it from LSU’s perspective, shouldn’t another team who wasn’t on LSU’s schedule get the opportunity to be the one team to knock them off?

Getting to the point, I hope there is a silver lining in that LSU fans aren’t the only people with a bad taste left in their mouths from this game and that this game helped lead to the 4-team playoff. I’m a big SEC fan, I will demand that the SEC gets every bit of credit it deserves; but it can’t be good for college football to claim a championship of 120 teams should simply be two teams of the same division of the same conference playing one another for the second time. I don’t believe it was right to tell Oklahoma St. (a team I thought should have gone ahead of Alabama anyway) that in order to go ahead of a team who didn’t even win its division that they should have gone undefeated. The sport should demand at a minimum access to a championship for other teams. Even though only 9 teams did, all 11 SEC teams had a chance to play LSU. The other SEC East teams (Vanderbilt and South Carolina) should have beaten Georgia or at least finished with a better record than Georgia did. No one should have been concerned about SEC teams having a fair chance but about the 100+ teams that didn’t have even a theoretical chance to play LSU outside of a national championship game last season.

There are going to be some people who want to say that based on the results Alabama must have been the right choice. What happened after the fact does not go back in time and change the arguments. But even if that were valid, assuming LSU’s offense was similarly inept, maybe the first five scores by Oklahoma St. would have had some touchdowns mixed in, so the result could have easily been worse.

I didn’t even notice this development with the semifinal format until the last couple of days. I guess it’s the fact that while I mostly only blog about football, I have been a bit distracted by the European “Football” Championships, Wimbledon, and baseball, not to mention certain recent political developments and having a job.

Reflections on non-playoffs

My feelings about Alabama precede the arrival of Nick Saban by the better part of a decade, although he did increase my desire for LSU to win this annual game. It’s also the fact that for the first time since the early 1990s Alabama seems to have a good team every year once again. 1992, Alabama’s last pre-Saban championship, was actually the year where I didn’t feel slightly cheated by not having a playoff. Although I was new to the sports word at that time (1988 was basically the first year I understood and remembered what was going on for any sport) I was aware of there being some controversy between Miami and Notre Dame. But I didn’t worry about them playing one another because, as I’m sure someone explained to me, they did play one another, so voters had information from that game to inform them. 1988 had also been a presidential election year, so some aspects of voting had also been explained to me. It didn’t seem to be a problem that this is how it was done in college football.

1990 and 1991 showed that voting wasn’t good enough. The two teams that claimed national championships should have played one another. Georgia Tech should have played Colorado, and then Miami should have played Washington the next year. But these were just two-team controversies.

In 1992, Miami did play Alabama. Unlike their games against Notre Dame in the prior years, this was actually played at the end of the season in the Sugar Bowl. While I didn’t particularly care about that outcome either way (to me, Miami seemed like the more dominant team and this was before I heard talk of Alabama’s dozen national championships or whatever it was at that point), it was nice to have it decided on the field once and for all. So if someone had told my 11-year-old self at that point that we’re going to have the best two teams play each other for the championship every year, I probably wouldn’t have thought of any objection to this.

Then came 1993. There were two extremely good undefeated teams, Auburn and Nebraska. Auburn wasn’t eligible for a bowl game, but I still wanted to know whether they were as good as those other teams. Florida St. had lost at Notre Dame before the Irish lost to Boston College. So Boston College was the only team from outside of the top 4 to have beaten a top-4 team, and I believe they did so by a single point. Florida St. would narrowly beat Nebraska in a bowl game and Notre Dame won their bowl game as well. Nebraska playing Florida St. didn’t seem to really solve anything. It just made it so that, along with undefeated Auburn who wasn’t in any bowl game, we had a team who lost to Notre Dame, a team who (beat Florida St. but) lost to Boston College, and a team who lost to Florida St. Contrary to the apparent opinion of Notre Dame fans, I did not believe the bowls strengthened the Irish’s position. They beat Texas A&M while Florida St. beat Nebraska. Had Notre Dame beaten Auburn, then I might have given more credence to the idea that you knock it down to the top two and pick the winner. But even that wouldn’t have been satisfactory. Losing to Boston College was certainly worse than losing to Notre Dame.

So we really would have needed another game. This is what I touched on earlier, there can be a circumstance where such a rematch makes sense.

Florida St. should have played Auburn (assuming Auburn didn’t deserve to be higher) and Notre Dame should have played Nebraska. If Florida St. and Notre Dame had both won, so be it.

After nothing too unusual happened in 1994 (the then-common two-team dispute, when Penn St. should have played Nebraska) and 1995 (when Nebraska beat Florida), another situation, also involving Florida St., took place in 1996. Florida, despite the big loss at the end of the 1995 season, looked like the #1 team (almost) all year until they lost a close game in Tallahassee. Ohio St. looked on its way to perhaps an undefeated season when the Buckeyes lost to archrival Michigan by 4 points the week before. There were two undefeated teams, Florida St. and Arizona St. What actually happened was Ohio St. beat Arizona St. in the Rose Bowl, and Florida beat Florida St. in the Sugar Bowl. Florida, like Alabama did last year, took a close loss and made it into a big win in the rematch. But Florida St. should have played Ohio St., and Florida should have played Arizona St. This was another instance where the solution was clear, there should have been a way to have these four teams play to decide the championship.

Regardless, it has seemed to me since that time that four should be the minimum number involved. Of course, there have been other times since then when two wasn’t enough (2001 and 2003 come to mind), but all that did was confirm what I already believed.

Conclusion

I would mention one proviso that I think should be added regarding possible rematches. In 2009, my ratings suggest that Alabama should have played Florida in the semifinal. I think college football should adopt a modified version of the baseball rule where two teams in the same division could not play one another in the first round. Except I would say that in the semifinals two teams that played one another already should not play again. If a rematch of some type is unavoidable, then you have a non-conference rematch rather than an intra-conference rematch. So I think it should avoid rematches but obviously not forbid them entirely.

I wouldn’t have had any problem at all last season with Alabama being included in the top 4 and settling the question of which team should be in the title game with Oklahoma St. on the field. I think some of LSU’s problems stemmed from having played Alabama, but if the LSU offense played just as poorly and the coaching staff failed to make adjustments similarly, LSU could have lost to a number of teams in the semifinal. But none of those teams would have had an advantage the way Alabama did, so I think the loss would have been easier to take. And from a more neutral fan perspective, it would have also been better to let other teams see what they can do against these two great SEC teams.

One criticism that is always going to take place is, no matter what number we get to, someone will always say they should be #4 instead of #5, #8 instead of #9, #68 instead of #69, whatever. (I’ve forgotten how many at-larges there are in college basketball, but apparently at-larges can be as bad as 14-seeds, which is a tie for 53rd.)

I can’t think of a #5 team that I really thought should have been a national champion or strongly considered for a championship. The best team I can think of that wouldn’t have made any of the top 4 lists was Utah in 2008, but I didn’t think they were so good until they beat Alabama the way they did. But maybe that was more a reflection of Alabama than it was of Utah, like I think LSU’s performance in the 2011 championship was more a reflection of LSU failing to execute, well, anything offensively than it was of Alabama having an overwhelming performance on either side of the ball.

So let’s say Alabama gets blown out by Oklahoma instead of by Utah (and Oklahoma then went on to lost to Florida as they did in the real championship game that year), and Utah had beaten the ACC or Big East champion. Although Utah would have still been undefeated, I don’t think their case looks the same.at the end of the day.

So far, the Boise St.’s and TCU’s and Utahs haven’t been able to play for a championship. That’s a far different dynamic, but the fact that, as mentioned on my rating site, one of those teams might have had a chance just about every year, that’s a lot better even if there may be a situation where there are two such teams in the mix and a committee has to pick just one. Even if they lose out to someone like the 2009 Florida team, that team went 12-0 to start out too. You can’t really argue they had a tougher road, they just suffered the inconvenience of having to play a championship game which those other teams did not. So I can’t imagine feeling that bad for a #5 team.

But on the other hand, if that Florida team had been left out, I wouldn’t have had a problem with the argument of, “You had your chance and you lost.” Same thing if somehow this year LSU had lost to Georgia and was not included in the semifinals.

Putting all the technicalities and arguments aside, this is exciting. So when this is implemented in 2014, I’ll have been waiting for about 20 years. Even though I have time to prepare myself, I don’t quite believe it right now and probably won’t quite believe it then. I just hope nothing too silly happens in the next two seasons.

Week 13 Top 25

In College Football, Me, Rankings on December 2, 2011 at 11:58 PM

All apologies for my absense. I’ve been trying to move and also very busy at work. Nonetheless, November set another record for most views in a month. I expect December and January may not keep up, but I’m optimistic about next year especially. My goal will be to hit 1000 views in a month at some point in the next year. I was going to write about Oklahoma St. versus Bama as #2, but I’ll address that if Oklahoma St. wins. I can’t see any other reasonable argument taking place.

Top 25:
rank / team / prior
1 LSU 1
2 Okie St. 2
3 Alabama 3
4 Houston 4
5 Boise St. 5
6 Stanford 9
7 Va. Tech 6
8 Michigan 8
9 USC 12
10 S Carolina 13
11 Oklahoma 11
12 Oregon 14
13 Arkansas 7
14 Georgia 16
15 Kansas St. 10
16 Mich St. 19
17 Nebraska 20
18 Wisconsin 21
19 TCU 18
20 Clemson 17
21 Penn St. 15
22 Baylor 22
23 Ark. St. —
24 Notre Dame 23
25 W Virginia —

Out of rankings: (24) Tulsa, (25) Rutgers

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Prior weeks
Week 12
Week 11
Week 10
Week 9
Week 8
Week 7
Week 6
Week 5
Week 4
Week 3
Week 2
Week 1
Preseason