The Tiger Rag blew from the band’s horns as the confetti sprinkled down on the field. If you closed your eyes, or simply listened on the radio, it was easy to picture LSU celebrating a thrilling national championship to open 2017.
But thanks to multiple squandered opportunities, that fiction never turned into a reality. This party was for Clemson’s purple-and-orange Tigers rather than LSU’s purple-and-gold variety.
Despite fielding its most talented team since reaching the national championship game five years ago, LSU never came close to fulfilling its potential in 2016. According to the number-crunchers at Football Outsiders, the Tigers were the fourth-best team in college football this season despite their four losses. Their final AP Top 25 ranking was a distant 13th.
Years from now, when the likes of Leonard Fournette, Derrius Guice, Jamal Adams and Arden Key are achieving NFL success, people will look back at the 2016 Tigers and wonder, “How the heck didn’t that team do more?”
By now, that answer has made itself apparent. It is why Joe Alleva recognized that the program needed to part with Les Miles in 2015, and was about to do so before fumbling at the goal line. As it turned out, Miles was to the program as a wounded arm was to a Civil War soldier — something you’d prefer to keep out of comfortable familiarity and basic functionality, but necessary to amputate for long-term health.
Miles was given a mandate to open up the offense when he was permitted to stick around another year. Instead, he seemed to misread the popular uprising that kept him in office and doubled down on the conservatism that got him on the hot seat in the first place.
In the season opener, Wisconsin should have known what it was getting from LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who led the Badgers in that role the prior three years. Instead, Wisconsin seemed far more aware of what Cam Cameron’s offense was going to do on every down.
As upsetting as it was at the time, the loss to the Badgers probably would not have kept LSU out of the playoff picture had the Tigers won out. And they certainly had the talent to do so. Error-prone losses against Auburn and Florida ended in the shadow of the goal line at the final gun. Had LSU played either game cleanly, that drama and disappointment would have been avoided entirely.
But even with victories in those blown games, the question is whether LSU was capable of beating Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson to actually win a national title. And that’s where Tiger fans can take some solace when they look back at 2016. Even if things turned out differently against the Crimson Tide in November, LSU didn’t have the quarterback play necessary to run through all three of those opponents.
While Danny Etling was certainly a steady upgrade over the erratic play of Brandon Harris, there were precious few plays made by Clemson’s Deshaun Watson in the national championship game that brought to mind the thought, “Yeah, I can definitely see Danny pulling that one off.”
Every team that reached the College Football Playoff had a quarterback capable of taking control of a game. The Tigers did not. So even had this team played to its fullest potential, that’s the stumbling block that would have tripped it up short of a title.
Ultimately, that is the reason why LSU fans should not look back at the last season as one that begs the question, “What could have been?”
Instead, it should be remembered in the future as the year of rebirth. Had Miles been fired in 2015, Ed Orgeron never would have sniffed the head coaching job. And if it turns out that Coach O is the man who pushes the right buttons to modernize the Tigers offense, it will be borne out of the moments of frustration that were this season’s hallmark.
If the Tiger Rag plays after a national championship game in the next decade and LSU is the team celebrating, no one will lament the lost opportunity of 2016. They’ll remember it as the reason LSU is back atop the mountain, whenever it may be.