During the summer, when Les Miles, Louisiana State's new coach, was making dozens of speaking engagements across the state, he got a pretty good idea of the sky-high expectations he and his team face this season. At one of Miles's last stops in the past few days, the LSU fan who picked the coach up at the airport talked about the Tigers winning nine games. When another booster introduced Miles before his speech, the fan talked of LSU winning 10 or 11 games.
"Then a guy said, 'Well, you know, 12 victories is probably just what we'd like, Coach,' " Miles said. "I said, 'Well, you know, frankly, that's only one game left.' We'd like to win and certainly that's what we will pursue."
Rarely has a college football coach inherited a team as talented and deep as the Tigers, and rarely has a coach faced such enormous expectations in his first season at a school. Miles was hired in January from Oklahoma State to replace Nick Saban, who left for the Miami Dolphins after coaching LSU to 48 victories, two Southeastern Conference titles and a share of the 2003 national championship.
Miles, 51, and Saban come from similar backgrounds. They both attended college in the Midwest and worked as assistants at their alma maters -- Miles at Michigan and Saban at Kent State. Both spent time working in the NFL before becoming college head coaches and both produced remarkable turnarounds. Before Saban arrived in Baton Rouge, LSU had seven losing seasons during the 1990s. Oklahoma State was 13-20 in the three seasons before Miles was hired; he led the Cowboys to 28 victories and three consecutive bowl games in four seasons.
But while Saban is considered one of football's best defensive minds (his 2003 LSU team, which shared the national championship with Southern California, led Division I-A in scoring defense and total defense), Miles is known for his expertise on the other side of the football. Miles's last two Oklahoma State teams averaged 34.3 points per game.
Miles seems to be a little more relaxed than Saban, who, despite his ultra-successful record, was criticized for not being more affable off the field.
"Coach Miles is more of an offensive guy and Coach Saban was more of a defensive guy, but they both have the same goals and strategies," LSU tailback Joseph Addai said. "What Coach Miles has to offer will help us out a lot. Mostly, he is building on what Coach Saban taught us. The guys have adapted and we like him and are excited to play for him."
Saban left behind one of the most talented teams in college football. The Tigers return 16 starters from a team that finished 9-3 and won six of its last seven games. All five starting offensive linemen are back, after center Rudy Niswanger delayed entering medical school and tackle Andrew Whitworth returned to school instead of entering the NFL draft. Though LSU lost leading rusher Alley Broussard to a season-ending knee injury during preseason camp, the Tigers have three capable runners, including Justin Vincent, who was the most valuable player in the 2003 Southeastern Conference championship game.
LSU might have the deepest core of wide receivers in the country, led by senior Skyler Green and juniors Dwayne Bowe and Craig "Buster" Davis. Senior defensive tackles Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams and defensive end Melvin Oliver could all be chosen in April's NFL draft, along with junior free safety LaRon Landry.
The Tigers' wealth of talent is the primary reason they're being picked to win the SEC West ahead of defending champion Auburn.
"I think it's a compliment to the talent that's on our team," Miles said. "I don't think talent in and of itself is the reason why you win championships. I don't think that that will determine where we finish. It will be a character and style and chemistry that's developed through a season at LSU that will determine where we finish."
In fact, Miles said, the Tigers still have several areas of concern less than a week before Saturday's opener against North Texas. He still hasn't settled on a starting quarterback -- sophomores Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell and freshman Ryan Perrilloux are all in the mix -- and both starting cornerbacks must be replaced.
"Here are the three spots where the cupboard needs a little improvement for us to do the things that we need to accomplish: One of them is on offense, one of them is on defense and one is special teams," Miles said. "Every coach sees its team, its strengths and its weaknesses. Certainly, we need to improve to be the best team that we can be. But certainly there is talent and that's enjoyed. I don't think that there will be limitations based on talent; it will be limitations on other variables."