Booger McFarland says LSU's 2016 squad is Tigers' 'best team since Nick Saban left'
By Ron Higgins, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
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on June 01, 2016 at 11:56 AM, updated June 01, 2016 at 12:45 PM
But McFarland, here at the league's business meetings that run through Friday, also believes that LSU coach Les Miles is one of three SEC Western Division coaches on the hot seat along with Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Auburn's Gus Malzahn.
"LSU has its best team its had since Nick Saban left (after the 2004 season to coach the NFL's Miami Dolphins)," said McFarland, 38, an all-American nose guard in 1998 before winning two Super Bowl rings in his nine-year NFL career. "This team is better than the 2011 team. This team has more star power than the 2011 team.
"So in the words of (ESPN NFL analyst) Tom Jackson, 'If you can't win now, when?'
"If you look at the West this year, Alabama is breaking in a new quarterback, its star tailback is gone, defensively its stalwarts are gone. Ole Miss all the defensive guys (graduated or left early for NFL) are gone. Mississippi State, (quarterback) Dak (Prescott) is gone (to the NFL).
"It's kind of setting up if you look at it. Who's better than LSU? When you say, Alabama because of the (Nick) Saban factor. I'll give you that. But if you look at the SEC from top to bottom, who's better on paper?
"So what does it come down to at that point? Health and execution week in and week out. Nobody can predict health, but the execution comes down to how well the team is prepared and the coaching staff."
McFarland said he understands Miles' love of a power running game.
"The hardest thing to do in football is physically move a man against his will," McFarland said. "But when you do that, if you physically take a man and hit him in his mouth over and over, you take something from him inside. That's hard to do in football.
"Les knows that. If's tried, true and proven. The problem is when you hit the guy in the mouth and you can't take his will away. They (LSU) can't take it away from Alabama.
"You can't physically impose yourself on everyone. That's when you've got to be multiple. You've got to also do it schematically."
McFarland said he's heard that Miles' brush with being fired at the end of last season has forced him to make tweaks to his conservative, predictable I-formation based offense.
"I also heard that two years ago," McFarland said. "LSU has been so successful doing it one way and it's worked well for them.
"But I want to see how well the evolution is taking place, not against Wisconsin. They can lineup and play basic football and beat Wisconsin. I don't think going to Auburn will be a big deal.
"But when LSU goes to Florida, because of Florida's talent, that's the game you're going to see the first test on the road in that environment. Then, the biggest test is the first Saturday in November (vs. Alabama in Baton Rouge.
"Everyone knows Nick Saban is the greatest coach in college football history. Not because of how much he has won, but because of how well his teams are always prepared. So can Les have his team prepared as Nick will have his?
"Because talentwise, LSU is better."
McFarland said it was LSU's dismal performance in a 30-16 loss at Alabama last season that led to the LSU administration to consider making a coaching change.
"We can talk the kumbaya of Les Miles being carried off the field against Texas A&M," McFarland said. "But the weeks proceeding that, everything I said was valid about the (LSU) administration was unhappy, they were thinking, talking about it, looking in a different direction."
"LSU lost to Alabama because they tried to play one way, and every knowledgeable college football analyst in America knew they couldn't play that. When you go in there and try to do things that way for whatever reason, it's stubborn.
"I said this in Les' office to him. I wouldn't say anything about Les that I wouldn't say to his face. Les has been tremendous in Baton Rouge. His biggest knock is being stubborn. He wants to win one way. I think he's evolved this spring. We'll see if he can put it into action once it starts counting."
McFarland said Alabama has kept a fresh edge because Saban hired Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator two years ago to inject a no-huddle passing attack to mix with the Tide's traditional running game.
"He (Saban) didn't want three yards and a cloud of dust," McFarland said. "He got out of his comfort zone."
But will Miles make that same step this year?
"One of the things Les shared is 'as players evolve we'll evolve offensively,'" McFarland said. "Well, who's helping evolve the coaching staff?
"I don't care how you slice this pie, it points back to the coaches, whether you're recruiting the players that are good enough, whether you're teaching the players good enough when they get there or if you're allowing those players to play on Saturday.
"I can go get a Mercedes Benz SLS that goes 240 on the dash, but if I drive it 55 it does me no good."
McFarland said the narrative for Miles' job survival is not just beating Alabama, which owns five straight wins over LSU.
"It's how you play, how well your team is prepared," McFarland said. "That ultimately will determine Les, Kevin and Gus' jobs."
McFarland said it's hard to say last year's 9-3 LSU team that started 7-0 before losses to No. 7 Alabama, Arkansas and No. 22 Ole Miss, actually improved.
"They got better in some areas," McFarland said of the 2015 Tigers, "but it's hard to say they improved because of the games they lost down the stretch.
"The talent level is now a year older, they return guys at key positions. I like where they are, but a lot of people are under scrutiny.
"Les is under scrutiny, people have questioned bringing back Offensive coordinator) Cam (Cameron)."
McFarland does believe the hiring of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda from Wisconsin is a huge plus.
"Dave has to be sleeping on clouds now, for what he did at Wisconsin with three-star talent," McFarland said. "They played with fundamentals, they played with technique. They played sound football.
"Now, take better athletes and put them in that same defense. Yes, it's in a different conference, but techniques and fundamental will travel. I think he's going to bring that to the SEC. I love what they are doing defensively."
So everything circles back to LSU's offense. Will there be more formation and passing, less predictable play calling? Will the season again be placed on the sturdy legs of all-American running back Leonard Fournette, college football's leading rusher last year?
"Multiplicity of offense is going to be the key," McFarland said. "Leonard Fournette will be a Heisman contender, but he won't come close to winning it. If he does, I don't think LSU is having a big year and here's why.
"If you give him the ball that much, you're not giving Derrius Guice the football. To me, Guice is a guy who needs 15 touches a game. You've got to get (wide receiver Malachi) Dupre a couple of deep balls.
"(Quarterback) Brandon Harris doesn't have to be (Ole Miss 4,000-yard passer) Chad Kelly. He just can't be Brandon Harris from last year.
"If Brandon Harris has a stat line 15-for-22 for 205, 2 TDs and a pick, it will be hard to beat LSU, because there's that's much talent."