It was only three years ago, but it already feels like a bygone epoch: Do you remember that time LSU beat Alabama 9-6 in the Game of the Century (2011 ed.) and critics were declaring that college football’s upper echelons – or at least the upper reaches of the SEC, which, you know, same thing – had played themselves a hundred years into the past?
Well, as you may well be aware, everything’s gone full-on schizo since then. The spread offense, already in ascendance everywhere outside of the SEC, began infiltrating from within. Last Saturday evening, three key conference games played out at once: In the first two, Auburn outlasted South Carolina 42-35, and Alabama’s Amari Cooper set a school-record with 224 receiving yards in the newly Kiffinized Crimson Tide’s 34-20 win over Tennessee.
All of these evolutionary leaps and concessions to modernity have been enjoyable as hell to watch, but these advances in offensive football also appeared to leave behind the weirdest man in the sport, a dude who is renowned for dining on chlorophyll and inventing new metaphors for, among other things, rainstorms and defeat. I am speaking, as you’ve probably figured by now, of Les Miles, the LSU coach who had largely been out of our lives the past couple of years – or at least until Saturday night, when the Tigers upset previously undefeated Ole Miss, 10-7, in a rare specimen of a football game that felt as if it should be preserved in amber.
It was a bit dispiriting, the way Miles’ team had “fallen off” the past couple of seasons, and I use those quotes because I don’t know if it’s even fair to describe a couple of 10-3 campaigns as falling off, except that LSU had played in two national championship games in the past five seasons before that. For a long time, the Tigers appeared to be the one team that could occasionally out-Alabama Alabama, in terms of conservative offensive strategy and raging physical play on defense. As everyone else appeared to adapt to the new reality of the spread offense, Les stayed Les: Even last year, with future NFL quarterback Zach Mettenberger under center for 12 of the Tigers’ 13 games, LSU was still a team that ran the ball more than it threw.
This season, the Tigers have regressed into the kind of old-school football that feels thrillingly illicit: Through their first nine games under a “developing” (hey, I’m trying to be charitable here) quarterback named Anthony Jennings, the Tigers have run the ball on two-thirds of their offensive plays. They are 113th in the country in pass attempts, and 2nd in the country in rushing attempts; on Saturday, facing an Ole Miss defense that had allowed fewer than a hundred yards per game, LSU frequently lined up the near-extinct I-formation and ran for 264, led by increasingly formidable freshman back Leonard Fournette.
In the fourth quarter, trailing 7-3, LSU executed a 13-play, 95-yard touchdown drive: The first 12 of those plays were all runs, until Jennings (who completed 8-of-16 passes for 142 yards and two interceptions, the sort of stat line that felt reminiscent of a high-school game played in 1996) finally passed for a short touchdown off play-action on 2nd-and-goal that gave LSU the victory.
It is almost certainly too late for the 7-2 Tigers – who have already lost to Mississippi State and got routed by Auburn – to join in on the furious hunt for one of the four College Football Playoff berths. But there was something thrilling in watching the way they methodically and classically spoiled the season of an Ole Miss team that went toe-to-toe with them until the final seconds of the game. And in those final seconds, it was not Miles who did something utterly counterintuitive, as he is wont to do, but instead, it was Rebels coach Hugh Freeze who resorted to Les-like bravado: Instead of attempting what would have been a game-tying 47-yard-field goal with under ten seconds to play, he allowed his Jekyll-and-Hyde of a quarterback, Bo Wallace, to throw one more pass. Wallace hurled the ball toward the end zone instead of winging it out of bounds, and LSU safety Ronald Martin intercepted it, securing the victory.
Afterward, the focus of the college football world was once again on Miles, whose 91-year-old mother had died less than 24 hours before kickoff. And as always, Miles’ postgame press conference was full of strange cadences and unintentionally poetic phrasing; as always, he proved himself one of the few football coaches whose public persona appears too consistently eccentric and too oddly endearing to be anything but genuine, and who isn’t afraid to emote before our eyes.
In two weeks, the Tigers and Alabama meet again in Baton Rouge. LSU has lost three straight games to the Tide since that 9-6 game in 2011 (including a rematch in the 2012 national championship game), but suddenly, the prospect of another 9-6 doesn’t seem so bad anymore. After a Saturday where one playoff contender put up 82 points and another dropped 59, the prospect of a little regressive football sounds almost as refreshing as a stiff dew.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb