In the LSU football history book, the 2010 season will be remembered for a lot of things.
An 11-2 record that included single-digit road losses to two BCS bowl teams and ended with a convincing victory against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl followed by another top-10 national ranking, the conclusion of the careers of a handful of players who etched their places in Tigers history, a head coach reaffirming his commitment to the program and an embattled offensive coordinator walking away and opening the door to a new beginning.
Now with his LSU tenure entering a new phase and a new offensive wingman at his side, Les Miles is ready to move onto a new season.
And 2011 — while there are questions and uncertainty to navigate — sets up as another potential watershed season for the Tigers and Miles.
Miles didn’t shy away from those expectations Friday when he made reference to big games in New Orleans and LSU playing in them recently. The BCS title game will be in New Orleans next January — and LSU won the 2003 and 2007 BCS national championships in the Superdome.
Is there reason for Miles to set lofty goals for his team that next fall has to replace three starters on offense, four on defense and three primary contributors on special teams?
Writers from CBSsports.com and SportingNews.com have pegged the Tigers No. 1 in preseason polls.
And after affirming his ties to Baton Rouge after the chance to coach his alma mater at Michigan passed for the second time in four years and by hiring Steve Kragthorpe as the new offensive coordinator, Miles seems emboldened when he talks about the future.
It doesn’t hurt that the Tigers head into this offseason of high hopes off one of their best performances since the 2007 BCS national championship game, a 41-24 win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
“Our team plays (well) in big games, and that was a big game,” Miles said.
Now the transition begins, with several young players poised to jump into new roles and Miles ready to adjust to Kragthorpe as the two take aim at reinvigorating an offense that has been a rusty wheel most of the last two seasons.
Kragthorpe is emblematic of a fresh start, but Miles said his philosophy is the same. He said an optimal offense would generate 250 passing yards and 200 rushing.
The last two seasons, the Tigers have been off-kilter on what Miles desires. Last fall, LSU rushed for 185.7 yards per game and passed for 155.6. In 2009, those numbers were reversed and worse overall: 122.8 rushing and 181.8 passing.
“I have always had an offense that had balance, both the run and the pass,” Miles said. “In every meaningful down and distance, it’s always been, for me, the opportunity to throw and to run.
“It was never about run first, and throw second. I’m going to be the first one to tell you, when you’re down 14 and it’s late in the game, we’ll throw damn near every down. And when we’re up 14 and it’s late in the game, many times we will use the clock and eliminate the opponent by running the football. Those are the things a quality offense has the ability to do.
“In a season where you win 11, I think the opportunity to close out some games like we did running the football probably skews the view a little. I am a balanced run-and-pass guy, and it shouldn’t be looked at any other way.”
For the Tigers to approach the 250/200 goals Miles set, Kragthorpe’s role will be key.
The new coordinator and quarterbacks coach will have veterans to work with, but veterans Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee have been inconsistent and newcomer Zach Mettenberger has yet to take a snap at the FBS level.
“I think it’s a great hire,” Miles said about Kragthorpe. “I talked to an offensive coordinator in the NFL (Friday) morning and he said ‘Man that’s a great hire. He’s a guy that has a great reputation for the ability to improve your quarterback.’ Now that is just what we need.”
Jefferson has started 27 of the last 28 games and has thrown for 3,996 yards and 28 touchdowns. Lee produced 1,873 yards and 14 TDs in 2008 and contributed 573 yards in spot duty this season. Mettenberger, who began his college career at Georgia, spent the 2010 season at Butler County (Kan.) Community College and passed for 2,678 yards and 32 scores in 12 games.
“To me, there’s going to be some competition at the quarterback spot; there’s no question,” Miles said.
“I think I’ve always been a guy who enjoys competition. I do recognize the experience that Jordan Jefferson has. … We’re going to go into the spring to improve our football team at quarterback and at every position.”
It’s also possible LSU could again operate with a two-quarterback system.
“The issue becomes is that quarterback that stays on the field the entire time giving you all the abilities to win the game, period?” Miles said. “And is it best for your football team to have him to take every snap, period? Those are the questions we have to ask and then answer as we move forward in the spring and then next fall.”
Quarterback isn’t the only focus for Miles and Kragthorpe.
With Stevan Ridley’s early departure to the NFL draft, the running back position is wide open.
Ridley plowed for 1,147 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2010 and when the Tigers needed tough yards — and when the defense knew a running play was coming — he was almost always the ball carrier.
Now that role is open, with rising sophomores Michael Ford, Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue in the running. Incoming freshman Kenny Hilliard will also get a shot.
“The tailbacks that are on campus will have a great opportunity to play, including those guys in the freshman class that are coming in,” Miles said. “The need for a quality back to step in there and come out of the freshman class is very sincere.
“It’s going to be interesting to see who the best tailback is.”
Revamping a defense that loses Kelvin Sheppard, Patrick Peterson, Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston will be a different challenge. But having the defensive coaching staff intact for a third year in a row is a benefit.
Miles’ eyes lit up when he rattled off the names of the next wave of defensive leaders, many of whom jumped into the thick of things this season: Ryan Baker, Sam Montgomery, Mo Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon.
One of the players who has moved on understands Miles’ excitement.
“I’m going to be watching those guys,” Peterson said earlier this month when he announced he was leaving for the NFL. “They’ve got a chance to be really good. When you lose guys like Shep and Drake and Pep and me, that’s tough. But they have a chance to be just as good or better, because those are some talented guys.”
Talented guys ready for the next challenge, just like their coach.
Can't wait 'til next season!!! GEAUX TIGERS!!!