BATON ROUGE, La. -- Even in Les Miles' worst season at LSU, he hasn't been in this position before.
The Tigers' coach has had disappointing years in Baton Rouge -- an 8-5 campaign in 2008 stands out -- but even in Miles' worst fall, when the Tigers posted their only losing record in SEC play under his leadership, they still finished third in the Western Division. If Arkansas beats Missouri this week and LSU loses to Texas A&M, Miles' Tigers will essentially finish last in the West at 3-5 in the division.
It would also mark LSU's first three-game losing streak since Miles arrived in 2005 -- a stretch of futility that seemed unthinkable for most of his decade at the school. But that is the harsh reality that LSU faces these days, the product of a roster that was far too young to contend in arguably college football's toughest division.
Let's not chalk up the Thanksgiving night visit to A&M as an automatic loss, however. The Aggies are in no better shape than the Tigers with an identical 7-4 overall record and 3-4 mark in SEC play. In fact, LSU opened as a narrow favorite to win Thursday's game.
Win or lose, LSU will still be at a crossroads as it nears the conclusion of the 2014 season. Winning in College Station would be a nice way to conclude the regular season, and it would prevent the Tigers from posting a losing conference record and plummeting into the division cellar, but Miles and his staff still have plenty to sort out between now and next season's opener against McNeese State.
For starters, is what they're attempting to accomplish on offense sustainable? Is relying almost exclusively on the running game and asking from their quarterbacks only that they not commit turnovers still a strategy that can win championships? Or was this just a one-year regression to past habits based on LSU's inexperience at quarterback, with more aggressive tactics returning once Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris establishes that he can be a reliable playmaker in the SEC?
This offensive quandary feels much like the 2008 season, as well. That year, the Tigers got inconsistent play from a number of young quarterbacks -- particularly Jarrett Lee, who seemingly developed a complex over the number of his interceptions that defenders returned for touchdowns -- and eventually settled on true freshman Jordan Jefferson as the starter. For most of the ensuing six seasons, LSU has employed a run-heavy, quarterback-light offensive philosophy that frequently frustrates Tigers fans.
It's difficult to argue with the overall results, however. By 2010, an emerging defense had helped LSU climb back toward the top of the heap, and the Tigers enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history the following season. Jefferson and Lee were the starters throughout that period and neither of them played like an all-conference quarterback. Perhaps next year either Jennings or Harris will follow their lead, teaming with what should be another strong John Chavis defense to launch LSU on a similar ascent.
But what if they don't? LSU might be facing a near-total rebuild on its offensive line, and that's hardly an encouraging sign if the Tigers intend to hammer the run 70 percent of the time again next fall. And depending on which underclassmen jump to the NFL, LSU could have other gaping holes to fill -- much like it has in each of the past few years, when the Tigers failed to create the same magic as the 2011 SEC championship club.
It all boils down to the quarterback position. It's difficult to imagine LSU opening up its offense if its coaches aren't confident leaning on the quarterback, and it's apparent that Jennings and Harris don't have their full trust, yet. That makes this an enormous offseason for the position.
If Jennings or Harris or even a mystery third option fails to seize the starting job between now and next August, expect to see more of the same from the Tigers' offense next season. That isn't necessarily a death sentence in the SEC West, particularly since LSU's defense should be tough, but this won't be the West of 2011, either.
Texas A&M's pass-heavy offense is in the division now. Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are all more aggressive on offense. Heck, even Alabama has opened things up under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Becoming a consistent winner in the division these days almost requires more aggression on offense than once was necessary in the West.
That will be the test for Miles and his staff next season. They felt that grinding it out on offense was the best strategy because of their experience on the offensive line and their lack thereof everywhere else. It kept them in most games, but the Tigers' record indicates this strategy wasn't effective enough.
LSU rebounded from similar circumstances after 2008 without overhauling their offensive philosophy, and Miles doesn't seem like the type to completely change course now. Developing the young skill talent at running back and receiver is important -- and there is plenty of reason to believe that youngsters such as Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn will be even better next season -- but developing a quarterback has to be the top priority.
Miles' tenure proves LSU doesn't need an all-star quarterback to win, but he can't continue to be a liability, either.