It would be easy to assume that Les Miles's resume at LSU speaks for itself. There's the 51-15 overall record in five seasons in Baton Rouge, along with a BCS national championship, a SEC championship, two SEC West Division titles and four bowl trophies. But even so, Miles finds himself clearly on the hot seat in the pressure cooker otherwise known as the SEC.
There are plenty of critics that claim the sixth-year LSU coach dined on Nick Saban's leftovers in the bayou, posting a 34-6 record with three straight top-5 finishes and a national championship in his first years on the job. Since then, however, the Tigers have dropped nine of their last 17 SEC regular season games, including a late-game clock debacle in a 25-23 loss to Mississippi last November in which Miles wasted 17 seconds before calling his final timeout and then had to watch the clock run out at the five-yard-line.
The Tigers posted a 9-4 (5-3 SEC) record in '09, but were outgained by an average of 23.1 yards per game (327.6 to 304.5), good for eighth in the SEC. Not helping LSU was a knack for mental mistakes at inopportune times, as evidenced by the 86 penalty flags drawn last fall (78th nationally). It doesn't help matters that LSU only returns 10 starters from last season, which helps explain why the Tigers were picked fourth in the West in the preseason media poll.
"I recognize that North Carolina has some NCAA issues, but I can only tell you that we are planning to play their best players and playing a quality football team. Whoever is there will certainly be representing a very good, well-coached and well-prepared football team, and our team is looking forward to that endeavor." – Miles
"If they're losing their key guys, then they should have been way more aware of what they did before they did it. We're preparing for them to play, like I said, but if [Austin] doesn't, then that's their loss… I don't think [a backup] would be as strong as the starter would, so that's kind of a better situation." – LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson
Junior quarterback Jordan Jefferson completed 182 of his 296 passes for 2,166 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions in '09, ending the season with a decent performance (13-of-24 passing, 202 yards, TD, INT) in a loss to Penn State in Capital One Bowl.
But decent doesn't get it done in Baton Rouge these days.
After a lackluster spring game, completing just eight of his 23 attempts for 94 yards with numerous bad decisions, a quarterback competition opened up to include junior Jarrett Lee, who watched as seven of his 16 interceptions in '08 were returned for touchdowns.
While Jefferson is responsible for a portion of LSU's offensive woes in '09, a quarterback is rarely the lone problem – see North Carolina's offense last season as an example. Jefferson constantly found himself under attack, often tucking the ball and running instead of exercising patience.
"There were times I was afraid to throw a pick, instead of taking the risk," Jefferson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. "Another thing is I felt I needed to do was step up in the pocket, I lacked that last year. I just faded away out of the pocket, or tried to run it… I need to step up in the pocket and let the ball go."
Jefferson is prepared to improve upon his '09 season and make amends for a shaky spring game, and he's hoping his triumvirate of wide receivers in Terrence Toliver, Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard provide ample weapons in improving LSU's offense this fall.
Matchups to Watch
LSU's Offense vs. North Carolina's Defense
If Miles is on the hot seat, offensive coordinator Gary Crowton may be out on the plank. The fourth-year coach has collected roughly $470,000 per season as the Tigers' offensive production has gradually dropped from 417.5 yards per game (11th nationally) in ‘06 to 304.5 yards per contest (112th nationally, 12th SEC) last season.
Jefferson and Toliver (53 receptions, 735 yards, 3 TD) highlight the six returning starters, but the real question marks reside on the offensive line and at running back. The Tigers return three starters on the offensive line, last season's group allowed 2.85 sacks per game (T-105th nationally) and managed just 122.8 rushing yards per outing (90th) despite a pair of standout tailbacks in Charles Scott and Keiland Williams.
The Tigers have yet to name a starting running back for Saturday's game. The competition has been whittled down to senior Richard Murphy (ACL injury in ‘09) and junior Stevan Ridley (180 yards, 3 TD).
"I'm ready to find out myself," Ridley said. "I'm preparing as if I'm the starter. That's the only thing I can do. ... It's almost like Christmas Day for me. I'm just waiting for the day to come."
North Carolina counters with nine returning starters from a defense that finished '09 ranked top-15 in six different statistical categories (total defense, scoring defense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense, rushing defense and tackles for loss). Defensive end Robert Quinn and defensive tackle Marvin Austin highlight a unit that is loaded with potential NFL Draft picks, but the pressing question in Chapel Hill is how many of those players will be available against LSU due to the ongoing NCAA investigation.
North Carolina's Offense vs. LSU's Defense
If there's been a silver lining with the NCAA review for North Carolina, it's that the glaring spotlight focused on quarterback T.J. Yates has been reduced to nothing more than a flashlight. The fifth-year senior completed 214 of his 355 passes for 2,136 yards, 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in '09, drawing an unhealthy dose of criticism as he directed a unit that finished the season ranked 108th nationally in total offense (307.8 ypg).
Yates admitted during the offseason that he needed to regain the coaching staff's trust with regard to his decision-making, and he apparently did just that in training camp. While battling red-shirt freshman Bryn Renner for the starting job, the Marietta, Ga. senior indicated that out of roughly 500 live practice reps in August, he only threw one interception – a tipped ball that backup defensive tackle Jared McAdoo hauled in.
"I think it's just knowing when to take your chances and when not to," Yates said on Monday.
North Carolina's offense returns 10 starters from last season's Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to Pittsburgh.
Second-year LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis has a history of fielding strong defenses, and that will hold true yet again this fall. Despite only returning four starters from a squad that ranked 26th nationally in total defense (327.6 ypg) and 11th nationally in scoring defense (16.2 ppg) in '10, the Tigers face no shortage of talent. Middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard (110 tackles, 7.5 TFL) returns as the leading tackler and second-team All-SEC cornerback Patrick Peterson (52 tkl, 2 INT) anchors a solid defensive backfield along with strong safety Brandon Taylor (41 tkl, 2 INT).
Redshirt freshman linebacker Lamin Barrow will start in place of the injured Ryan Baker on the weakside on Saturday night.