College Football Nation: LSU's Les Miles is crazy good

Eric Avidon
LSU head coach Les Miles leads his team out.

He's often called eccentric, and sometimes crazy. He's been nicknamed The Mad Hatter, and it frequently seems he's more lucky than good.

He's been caught on camera eating blades of grass. He's won despite bizarre clock management, and he once eschewed an easy tying field goal - against Florida, no less - in favor of a risky fake as time expired.

He's said some strange things.

But the moniker, and the impression that he toes the line between insanity and genius - that he's more mad scientist than true leader - do Les Miles a disservice. The LSU head coach is good, and the Tigers have consistently been one of the best college football teams because of it.

It was there for all to see last Saturday night.

LSU, unlike so many highly ranked teams, didn't start the season in a game devoid of risk to work out the kinks. The Tigers opened with Oregon, last year's runner-up for the national championship and a legitimate contender this year.

And when the teams played at Cowboys Stadium, it was LSU that looked prepared and Oregon that didn't.

The Tigers didn't dominate the Ducks. They won handily, beating Oregon 40-27 in a game they led 40-13 heading to the fourth quarter, but it wasn't because they were clearly more talented or markedly faster. It wasn't because they lit up Oregon with an overpowering rushing attack or went bombs away through the air.

It was because LSU played a more disciplined game, despite starting backup quarterback Jarrett Lee rather than starter Jordan Jefferson, who is suspended indefinitely for his role in a barroom fight last month.

And that's coaching.

"I thought we played well in all three phases," Miles said during a press conference Tuesday. "We talk about the need for all three phases to contribute significantly and I felt like they did that."

The difference in discipline showed immediately.

The Ducks received the opening kickoff, and were called for holding. They gained five yards on the first play from scrimmage, and were poised start playing their wicked fast offense. But on the next play a run was called back because of clipping. On their third attempt from scrimmage a short pass was wiped out by a personal foul.

The drive, naturally, fizzled. Oregon punted after incompletions on second-and-long and third-and-long. The undisciplined Ducks were penalized nine more times, and lost 95 yards because of self-inflicted wounds. LSU committed just five penalties, and lost only 47 yards.

The Tigers' advantage in preparation also showed in the turnover battle. It wasn't merely that LSU committed one while Oregon lost three fumbles and had a pass intercepted. It was the was the way the Ducks gave up the ball, the silly decisions made by players who hadn't had proper choices drilled in to the point of muscle memory while the Tigers gave proper homage to possession.

A momentum shift occurred early in the second quarter when Oregon's Kenjon Barner fielded a punt around his own 15-yard line, then ran back toward his own goal-line to try and escape the LSU coverage. Tyrann Mathieu caught Barner inside the 5, and while attempting the tackle Barner somehow punched the ball loose. It bounced right to Mathieu, who grabbed the ball and stepped into the end zone to turn a 6-3 deficit into a 9-6 lead.

LSU then took command in the third quarter, playing controlled football while Oregon was out of control.

With the Tigers up three points, and the Ducks pinned deep in their own territory, De'Anthony Thomas carried the ball loosely, and when he was hit by Sam Montgomery it popped out. LSU recovered on the Oregon 21. Five plays later the Tigers scored, and went up by 10. Thomas was then the man sent back to return LSU's kickoff. He fumbled again. The Tigers recovered. Five plays later, they led by 17.

Game over.

"Those are self-inflicted wounds," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said after the loss. "The drops, the turnovers and the penalties are the things that really killed us. Against a team like that, you're not going to win the game."

Beyond simply preparing his team better for one big game than Oregon's Kelly did, Miles' expertise can be seen in his overall body of work.

Miles is in his seventh year as head coach at LSU. His record is 63-17. He started with back-to-back 11-win seasons, followed by 12 wins and the national championship in 2007, beating favored Ohio State. There was a step back after losing significant talent to graduation, but after consecutive five-loss seasons the Tigers were 11-2 last year, and are clearly contenders to win the national title this fall.

And Miles isn't leading LSU to wins against easy opposition.

He's doing it while playing in the SEC, without question the best conference in college football. His teams are 32-15 in conference play.

He also hasn't avoided playing difficult non-conference opposition, especially of late. Virginia Tech was on the schedule in 2007, a 48-7 victim of the Tigers. North Carolina and West Virginia were both on last year's slate. And of course the Ducks were there this year, as is a trip to Morgantown for a repeat matchup with the Mountaineers.

Before going to LSU Miles was head coach at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys had gone 13-20 the three years before his arrival, then went 28-21 in four years under Miles.

Yes, Miles is eccentric. Yes, he sometimes makes unusual choices.

But focusing on The Mad Hatter misses the point. Les Miles can coach.

What We Learned

Boise State is back for another run.

Yet again, the Broncos are in position to reach a BCS bowl. But not only that, they're right there in the chase for a spot in the BCS Championship Game.

Boise State traveled thousands of miles last weekend, from way out west to the Southeast in Atlanta, and took on what's believed to be a strong Georgia team in its own backyard. The Broncos beat the Bulldogs, 35-21.

"Boise State did a great job," Georgia coach Mark Richt said Saturday night. "Obviously we knew going in that they were pretty darn good, and they just beat us. They were better than we were."

There are 11 games left for Boise State, and the Broncos will be handily favored in every one. The toughest test that remains is a visit by TCU, which was undefeated last year and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. But the Horned Frogs lost a lot to graduation, and it showed in their opening-night loss to Baylor - a shocking result not because they lost but because their usually spectacular defense was torched for 50 points.

The simple fact is that as teams like Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU, Stanford and Nebraska will play powerful opposition many weekends between now and the start of December, the Broncos won't.

They played one tough game and that's about all they'll play all season.

And it's been that way for years, with Boise State going undefeated during the regular season in 2006, 2008 and 2009 and nearly doing it again last year. Despite those perfect records, the Broncos haven't gotten the chance to play for the national championship.

There were no unbeaten teams from the BCS conferences in 2006, but Boise State was properly passed over because it hadn't yet shown it could compete with the big boys. In 2008 there were two one-loss teams, but there was still plenty of doubt about the Broncos, who by that point had one marquee win. And in 2009 there were two teams with perfect records from the Big Six conferences, and those teams played for the crystal trophy.

That remains how it should be.

But something seems different this year. It finally feels like if Boise State is one of only two undefeated teams at the end of the season - or the last one standing - it should head to New Orleans to play for the title of national champion.

The Broncos don't play a strong schedule. It's very possible they'd lose - perhaps more than once - if they played the same level of competition week in and week out that exists in the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12. But for years now they've beaten well-respected teams from the power conferences, showing they belong on the same field.

Their victims include Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl to close out 2006, Oregon in 2008 and 2009, Virginia Tech last year and Georgia this year.

They've won two BCS bowls in the last five seasons.

It's time to show a little faith. Somehow Boise State has crossed a threshold. It no longer feels like the BCS title game would be cheapened with the Broncos' presence, or would devolve into a sure blowout in favor of their opposition.

Barring a shocking slip, Boise State will be undefeated yet again this season. And if the Broncos are the only one or one of just two, they've earned their due.

Game of the Week

The Week 2 schedule is weak. Most of the teams at the top of the polls play easy opponents.

Except Alabama.

The Crimson Tide heads north on Saturday, up to Happy Valley to play Penn State. They won't be facing the Nittany Lions of old, a team that will be among the nation's best, but a trip into a stadium filled with well over 100,000 Penn State-mad people to face a decent team will be a good first test for Alabama.

And if the Tide quarterbacks throw four interceptions the way they did last weekend against Kent State there could even be trouble. But assuming A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims don't throw two picks apiece and Alabama plays even near its potential, Penn State shouldn't pose too big a problem.

"I think both guys are capable of playing better than they did, not that we're disappointed in either one of them," Alabama coach Nick Saban said on Monday. "But we still feel like we have two really good players at that position and both of those guys will continue to develop and help us somewhere down the road."

Beyond the top-tier teams, three other matchups stand out from the rest.

Early in the day tomorrow, kicking off at noon, No. 16 (in the AP poll) Mississippi State plays at unranked defending champion Auburn (the Tigers are 22nd in the coaches' poll). The game will reveal whether the Bulldogs can live up to the expectation that they will emerge as a challenger to Alabama and LSU in the SEC West, and whether Auburn is in real trouble now that Nick Fairley and Cam Newton are in the NFL.

At 4:30 a pair of SEC East contenders take the field. No. 12 South Carolina, which started slowly last week against East Carolina, visits unranked Georgia, which obviously is looking to bounce back from its loss to Boise State. The winner will emerge as an early favorite to represent the SEC East in the conference championship game.

And then at 8 p.m. lights will go on at Michigan Stadium for the first time its storied history, and the Wolverines will host Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish were stunned at home by South Florida last Saturday in a game twice-delayed by lightning and will be fighting to avoid a shocking 0-2 start. Michigan, meanwhile, has the opportunity to get its first statement win under first-year coach Brady Hoke, and in the process show that the disaster that was the three-year Rich Rodriguez reign is a thing of the past.

There are no monster games this weekend, but there are plenty of storylines.

My Top 10

1. Alabama (1-0): Four interceptions needs to be cleaned up.

2. Oklahoma (1-0): The Sooners get two weeks to prep for a trip to Florida State.

3. LSU (1-0): The Tigers will be 2-0, but then have a test at Mississippi State.

4. Boise State (1-0): The Broncos will drop as others get big wins, but rise again when others fall.

5. Stanford (1-0): It was only San Jose State, but the Cardinal looked good.

6. Nebraska (1-0): The Huskers get Fresno State and Washington next as they prep for the Big Ten.

7. Florida State (1-0): One more "scrimmage" before Oklahoma arrives.

8. Texas A&M (1-0): Circle Sept. 24 against Oklahoma State.

9. Wisconsin (1-0): The offense looks scary-good with Russell Wilson at QB.

10. Oregon (0-1): Don't be surprised if the Ducks run the table the rest of the way.

Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at 508-626-3809 or eavidon@wickedlocal.com.