BATON ROUGE — Before he had annointed a new quarterback and long before he said goodbye to his most talented player, Les Miles returned to his office the day after the BCS title game in January and popped in a DVD. He planned to watch the game once. But only once.
“I didn’t need to see it any more,” Miles said.
So with the pain still raw, he sat in his office and relived the carnage. He watched his Louisiana State team get dismantled, 21-0, by an Alabama team the Tigers had beaten earlier that season. The DVD over, Miles pressed eject and decided to move on, college football’s inevitable changing of the calendar.
“I think it was hard for other people to get past that,” Miles said recently. “I don’t think it was hard for me, though. I suspect no one likes to lose their last game. It doesn’t make any difference which game that happens to be, it’s a miserable event and an ugly feeling. I can’t stand it.”
Eight months passed. Miles had to tweak his offense, handing the quarterback job to Zach Mettenberger, who has 11 career passes. Miles had to watch as 15 of his key contributers signed NFL contracts. Most recently, he had to part ways with Tyrann Mathieu, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season who was booted from the team and reportedly entered a drug rehabilitation program. Still, Miles will start the new season with perhaps the best team in college football, ranked No. 1 in the preseason coaches’ poll.
The turmoil and turnover doesn't stir much in the veteran coach. Change is perhaps the lone constant in college football, and few handle it better. Miles lives in the moment. A championship game, a big win, a crushing defeat — all disposed of in short order, his target constantly dancing along the horizon.
A season ago, the Tigers won 12 games by double-digit margins. The way Miles sees it, there’s only one way to improve upon a one-loss season. To him, it doesn't really matter how similar to dissimilar this year’s crop is from the one that was four quarters away from a perfect season.
“We want to win every one. I'd love that. I would,” he said. “I don’t want to be just okay. I want to be up there at the top, be there at the end of the season with no regrets and no excuses.”
Barely a week into summer practices, Miles surprised many with a news conference on Aug. 10, where he said Mathieu broke unspecificed team rules and was no longer a Tiger. But the coach’s concerns with his star defensive back started long before that.
Sitting in his office not long before the start of summer practices, Miles said he was concerned with preseason hype undermining his star player’s effort and motivation. He’d already decided he wouldn't endorse any sort of Heisman campaign on Mathieu's behalf entering the 2012 season.
“It’s all about next year, all about the next play,” Miles said. “There’s no room for entitlement. What did you think you really earned? Really accomplished? Well, you accomplished a lot, but frankly there’s more to get. There’s something else out there.”
The position with perhaps more intrigue this season for LSU is quarterback. Miles’s recent offenses have been recognizable by their run-first philosophy. In last season’s BCS title game, the Tigers had just 53 passing yards. Their quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, had more than twice as many rushing attempts as any tailback. That will not be the case this season.
Mettenberger, a junior, revamps what the LSU offense is all about. As good as the defense has traditionally been, Mettenberger’s arm might be what dictates how much LSU can improve on last season.
“A lot will come down to quarterback play,” said ESPN analyst David Pollack, a three-time all-American at Georgia. “I don’t think it can get worse than it was at times a year ago.”
Miles can’t hide the differences. Mettenberger stands 6 feet 5 and has a booming right arm. More than 33,000 fans gathered to watch LSU’s spring game in March and saw Mettenberger lead all passers, going 14 of 25 for 270 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He didn’t run the ball but did connect on two passes of 50-plus yards.
“Being the starter is something I’ve been looking forward to all my life,” Mettenberger said.
Mettenberger threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 32 touchdown passes at Butler County (Kan.) Community College in 2010.
Last season as the Tigers’ No. 3 quarterback, he completed 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown. Miles said Mettenberger would have played a role in the championship game had he not hurt his thumb earlier that week in practice.
Mettenberger’s presence in the pocket means opposing safeties and linebackers can no longer anticipate the run on every play. A chess player like Miles relishes what he can do with this offense. He compares Mettenberger to Matt Flynn, the quarterback who led LSU to a national championship in 2007.
“I think it’s going to be fun,” Miles said. “Obviously, I think we’ll throw the football better, we’ll throw it more often, we’ll be more efficient.”
While the defense adjusts to Mathieu’s absence and the offense tries to incorporate Mettenberger’s unfamiliar talents, the team as a whole must establish its identity early in the season, an important step that Miles began stressing as soon as the Tigers left the title game.
From year to year, Miles and his staff represent the lone connective tissue. This is a different team. Five players were drafted into the NFL, including two underclassmen in the first round. Ten others signed free agent contracts this spring.
“If anything, we’ll use [the championship game] as motivation for this year,” safety Eric Reid said. “We had an amazing year. It didn’t end the way I wanted it to, but we’re looking forward to putting it behind us.”
Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was more succinct. He said this season’s squad can’t afford to relish their 13 wins from a season ago, nor can it wallow in its lone loss. “If you dwell on the past, you can’t move on,” he said.
That’s precisely what Miles has been preaching the past eight months — and what he’s been doing the past 11 years as a college head coach. Does the title-game loss to Alabama still sting? Of course, he concedes. But so does LSU's triple-overtime loss at Kentucky in October 2007. Three months later, LSU hoised the BCS trophy.
“Proper perspective is always difficult the day of the loss,” he said. “But it becomes a little more clear as you go forward. We can recognize that certainly we didn’t play our finest game at the end, but that doesn’t discount everything we accomplished. And regardless of how it ended, we knew we’d have to turn the page, that we’d come back and aim even higher this season.”