It's not hard to find something nice to say about LSU. The Tigers have lots of returning players, they're a contender in the SEC West, and they likely will be a top-ten team when college football's national preseason polls are released later this month.
The only problem? All of that might not be good enough—at least, not for a fan base that wants and expects so much more.
Heading into the final week of the 2015 regular season, LSU coach Les Miles looked as good as gone. After starting the season 7-0, the Tigers had lost three games in a row—to rivals Alabama, Arkansas, and Ole Miss—and were out of major bowl contention. Fans wanted Miles out. In fact, some boosters were so eager to pull the trigger that they were reportedly willing to foot the coach's $15 million buyout.
Ultimately, Miles won LSU's last game and held on to his job, but there still are plenty of detractors calling for his head. "In Louisiana, we expect national championships, and we're not in it," someone close to the Tigers program told ESPN last November.
This is madness. Miles is arguably the best coach in LSU history. He won a national championship in 2007, and led the Tigers to the title game in 2011. He just landed a star-studded recruiting class. Outside of Baton Rouge, there is no universe in which Miles is a bad coach, or even a mediocre one.
Inside Baton Rouge, however, people want his head. All because he isn't Nick Saban, the current Alabama coach and Miles' predecessor at LSU. And whatever else the Tigers accomplish this season, it likely will pale next to how they fare against the Crimson Tide.
Indeed, you can make a strong argument that LSU's record against Alabama eventually will be Miles' downfall. The Tigers have lost five in a row to the Crimson Tide; their last win was a 9-6 triumph in Tuscaloosa in 2011, followed by a loss in a national championship game rematch. For Miles and Tigers fans alike, the ongoing issue is that LSU is in Alabama's division, so if the Tigers lose to them in any given season, they essentially have to win out and hope the Crimson Tide lose two conference games, something Saban's team hasn't done since 2010.
In other words: lose to Alabama, and suddenly, LSU is out of the SEC Championship Game and probably the College Football Playoff.
Reasonable or not, that's the bar. And it's something of a shame. By any rational standard, the Tigers are a model of sustained college football success, a program that looks like it will once again be good this season, maybe even great. LSU returns a whopping 19 starters, including running back and Heisman Trophy favorite Leonard Fournette. The school's schedule is favorable, too—games against Alabama and Ole Miss are at home, and the most difficult SEC East opponent is Florida, which figures to be rebuilding.
LSU should be able to win ten games and make a New Year's Six bowl fairly easily. That would be a successful season almost anywhere, and frankly, it should be considered a successful season by Tigers fans. But that's not the reality.
The reality is that there is a significant chance Alabama is once again the better team. The Crimson Tide have more talent, thanks to six straight No. 1 recruiting classes as ranked by 247Sports. Alabama only returns 11 full-time starters, but the ones coming back—Calvin Ridley, Cam Robinson, Jonathan Allen, Marlon Humphrey, Eddie Jackson, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, among others—are absolutely good enough take down LSU in Baton Rouge.
Yes, Alabama has question marks at quarterback—but so does LSU, given that returning starter Brandon Harris has been less than impressive in his time with the Tigers. LSU has more players returning on defense, but Alabama has more returning star power.
LSU could easily go 11-1 next year. Heck, the Tigers could make the College Football Playoff. Yet thanks to Alabama's ongoing strength, and the accident of conference geography that put both teams in the SEC West, LSU's entire season likely will come down to its November 5th game against the Crimson Tide.
That's not fair to Miles, but as we saw last season, fairness has nothing to do with it.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.