What is it with everybody and cliffs these days?
After we've all been inundated with warnings and threats of America nearing its financial precipice the past month, now an even more sacred institution – at least closer to home – is somehow evoking a similar feel with its constituency.
LSU football, winners of last year's SEC championship and no less than 34 games over the past three seasons, is apparently done. The window is closed. The program is doomed. The Tigers, under Les Miles, are falling off the list of the nation's elite programs.
Listen to any number of LSU fans roaming the streets in the past week, and this sense of impending doom for 2013 and beyond is all you hear about.
One of the preeminent programs of the past decade loses its second straight bowl game and an admittedly large sum of talented underclassmen to the NFL Draft, and suddenly it seems a sizeable chunk (or at least a very vocal chunk) of the fan base is staring over the edge, contemplating if LSU as they know it is set to fall off.
I'm here to tell you, objectively and with a clear head, that it's okay to step away from the ledge.
And this isn't one of those ‘Do you know how many other programs would be grateful to win 10 games?' speeches. That's not what LSU's about nor what the program's built for. Miles has made that much clear, so I won't waste your time or patronize you with that rhetoric.
Instead, what follow are five cold, hard facts explaining why LSU is poised to remain among the SEC's – and therefore NCAA's – crème de la crème over the next few falls.
Fact No. 1: Youth grew up in 2012.
Ironically, I was of the mind before the 2012 season that 2013 could be somewhat of a rebuilding effort because of how many young, inexperienced cogs would be forced into the machine for the first time. Well, as we all saw, a combination of injuries, suspensions and one player just straight-up going AWOL forced the LSU staff's hand a year early.
The result is undoubtedly two-fold: The 2012 product suffered more than many expected at those positions. The 2013 product will be more improved than many – including myself, originally – expected at those positions.
People are so focused on the former of those two right now, with the agonizing loss to Clemson fresh, that they're forgetting the latter part.
Offensive line and secondary stood to be two major question marks for LSU in 2013. Now, with the growth and SEC initiation of Vadal Alexander, Trai Turner and, to a lesser extent, Elliott Porter underway, the O-Line projects as a major strength next season. Ditto to a degree for the defensive backfield, where Jalen Collins, Jalen Mills, Ronald Martin and Micah Eugene all played serious roles for the team in 2012.
The sting of losing 10 underclassmen surely smarts and is no small matter, but it's also the reality in major college football today. That makes it even more important to stay ahead of the curve by preparing young players early and, whether it intended to or not once Fall Camp began, LSU did exactly that this season.
Fact No. 2: Top-notch recruiting remains a constant.
The upside of losing almost a full recruiting class in an offseason due to early entries to the draft, attrition and graduation is that there's all the more room to add elite talent from the high school ranks. That's something LSU has done regularly and had very little problems with in the recent past.
The 2011 class, which featured current starters La'el Collins, Jeremy Hill, Anthony Johnson and Jarvis Landry, was widely regarded as one of the two or three best in program history. "The Fam" will continue to have an impact on the field for one or two more seasons in TigerTown.
The 2012 class was no slouch, either, as evidenced by 15 true freshmen earning at least some P.T. during this past campaign.
A quick look at the incoming Class of 2013 reveals 16 four-star commits and one five-star pledge to LSU. It also reflects players committed from the following states: Mississippi, California, Illinois, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Nebraska and Florida.
Clearly, the future is bright and the name brand is no joke for Miles, Frank Wilson and the Tigers on the national level.
Fact No. 3: Running backs, linebackers and defensive linemen are on a beeline to Baton Rouge.
This is really a subset of the second factoid, but it screams so loudly that I felt it deserved separate recognition when previewing LSU teams of the near future and their obvious strengths.
The Class of 2012 brought with it a ridiculous bounty of linebackers to flood John Chavis' system, and just about every one of them can run. Five of the six recruited players at that position even played this season on the defensive side, with Lamar Louis, Kwon Alexander, Debo Jones and Ronnie Feist making needed contributions and, at times, starts, for Chavis. They'll be around for a while, as will recently committed Kendell Beckwith (a bit of a LB/DE hybrid) and middle linebacker Melvin Jones.
The Class of 2013 is in a very similar way set to put a stamp on the defensive lines of the future for Brick Haley and LSU. Greg Gilmore, Christian Lacouture and Maquedius Bain will uphold the program's strong legacy at tackle while highly touted players like Frank Herron, Lewis Neal and Michael Patterson have a chance to do the same at end. Then there's the distinct possibility of 2014 stud Gerald Willis hopping on board to keep the rain rolling.
At running back the LSU stable remains full of premier options, beginning with Jeremy Hill (expected to play at least two more seasons), Alfred Blue (one) and Kenny Hilliard (probably two). The list of names may be shorter with Michael Ford and Spencer Ware off to the pros, but the likelihood of LSU earning the signatures of one or both of Louisiana prospects Leonard Fournette (2014) and Nicholas Brossette (2015) remains decent at worst.
Expect LSU to a force in all three areas from 2014 on (and in 2013 on for the linebackers and running backs) – a good thing considering the Tigers under Miles prefer to win games with a strong rushing attack and stout defense.
Fact No. 4: The quarterback situation is set to improve.
In some ways and in some games, the play under center for LSU did take a step forward in 2013 with Zach Mettenberger. The Georgia transfer didn't set the world on fire, but he proved to be an above-average SEC quarterback who bordered on special in several conference games down the stretch (Alabama, Mississippi State).
With a year of seasoning, Mettenberger should take another step in his development building toward his senior season and final opportunity to impress NFL types.
But something even more meaningful will happen in 2013. Two highly esteemed gunslingers from the high school level will hop on board, giving Miles and Kragthorpe two legitimate options to choose from when picking out the quarterback of the future for LSU. Even more helpful, Anthony Jennings and Hayden Rettig will get the chance to take in Spring Ball 2013, watch Mettenberger for a season and then have Stephen Rivers as a lean-on for 2014 and 2015.
It's safe to say Miles has ensured the Ryan Perrilloux and (and Zach Lee) situation(s) won't repeat themselves.
Fact No. 5: Underclassmen going pro can actually work to LSU's advantage.
This is something few in Tiger Country will want to hear in light of recent announcements, declarations and Twitter offerings, but it is a truth in the world of college sports in which we live, albeit more in the long run.
Most blue-chip high school players have aspirations of making it to the League. What LSU is showing of late, possibly with more consistency than anybody in the country, is that it can get you there as quickly and in as good of condition, stock-wise, as anybody.
And it's not just the Patrick Petersons and Mo Claibornes of the world who make it from LSU as underclassmen. Speaking to the strength of the program and the conference in which the Tigers play, you don't even have to be a first-round pick to make it with a team and make your mark in the NFL. Look at Stevan Ridley or Rueben Randle.
So while many are quick to jump Miles and his staff for the mass exodus, take at least one minute to consider that 17- and 18-year-old kids (at least a portion of whom come from low-income families and may have a child) are attracted to this opportunity, not repulsed by it.
It's a sad fact for amateur sport purists, but LSU football and any other program that aspires to be among the best in the country aren't going to be like Duke basketball was in the nineties. High-quality players aren't going to stay for four years. (By the way, in case some out there haven't noticed, Duke basketball today isn't even like Duke basketball used to be in that sense.)
The loss of 10 underclassmen may not sit well with LSU fans until National Signing Day, but it's important to consider that these players aren't fleeing LSU to get away from a bad element. They're running toward a pay day and to begin their professional careers.
Others after them – with equal amounts of talent and ability – will want to do the same.
It is possible that next season, as in many others in the recent history of LSU football under Miles and Nick Saban, the Tigers could be in a position to lose three or maybe even four games.
It is my personal belief as we stand in mid-January, though, that LSU will be better than that.
Time will tell if I'm right on my hunch, but I'm willing to bet the farm time will exonerate me on my prediction that LSU football isn't going anywhere in the bigger scope of the next four to five years.
If this column's done anything to help you along the path of believing the same, you might find life away from the cliff is more comfortable.
COLUMN: LSU nowhere near cliff
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