Perhaps the most memorable and most surreal scene of the 2015 college football season took place on the night of Nov. 28 in LSU's Tiger Stadium. With rumors flying about his job security, Les Miles led the Tigers to a win over Texas A&M, then was hoisted on his players' shoulders and basked in the scene as the place known as Death Valley made it clear that it wanted nobody else to be its coach. Moments later, the wish was granted: Miles kept his job.
The LSU-Texas A&M game turned into a sort of pep rally for Miles, the most intimidating venue in college football proving to be the friendliest possible home for its coach. But it's not just Death Valley that gives LSU one of the greatest home-field advantages in sports; it's the entire state of Louisiana.
One week before National Signing Day, Tiger Stadium occupies the most valuable real estate in college football.
After five straight Alabama titles, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, the 2016 recruiting crown remains up for grabs, with LSU currently standing on top, trying to hold off Ohio State, Michigan, Ole Miss, Florida State, Florida and Alabama. It's nothing new for LSU to be near the top of the pack. Over the last five years (2011-15), only Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State have a better average recruiting ranking than LSU. Those also happen to be the only three teams to have won national titles in the last five years.
Miles, meanwhile, has posted a 50-15 record over the last five years, losing the 2011 national title to Alabama, then losing at least three games in each of the last four seasons, including an 8-5 record in 2014 and a 9-3 record in 2015. In other words, recruiting success nearly on par with recent national champions hasn't translated into similar success, as LSU has just two top-10 AP poll finishes in eight years since winning the BCS title in 2007. This is why Miles is on the hot seat. While he kept his job in November by winning a power struggle, he'll be able to play with fire for only so long. By no means does that victory guarantee job stability in 2016 and beyond.
Fortunately for Miles, LSU is set up for another breakthrough. The Tigers were ravaged by early entries to the NFL draft following the 2012 and 2013 season, which has resulted in subpar results, especially when the youth has been combined with the inability to find consistency at quarterback over the last two years since Zach Mettenberger moved on.
However, 2016 can be different. LSU lost just one player -- left tackle Jerald Hawkins -- early to the draft. The Tigers will return 18 starters, headlined by Heisman Trophy candidate RB Leonard Fournette, plus impact players like SS Jamal Adams, CB Tre'Davious White, LB Kendell Beckwith, DE Arden Key, CB Kevin Toliver, DE Lewis Neal, DT Davon Godchaux, C Ethan Pocic, WR Travin Dural and WR Malachi Dupre. LSU lost another defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, to another lateral move within the division (Auburn), but this time Miles landed an upgrade, poaching rising star Dave Aranda from Wisconsin.
While quarterback remains a concern, depending on the progression of Brandon Harris, LSU has as many key pieces in place as anyone in the country entering 2016. For once, it will have depth and experience, and it will also have a wave of young talent injected into the program to fill in the gaps thanks to its success on the recruiting trail. (Keep in mind that this is happening for reasons other than Shaquille O'Neal's claim, many years later, that "LSU paid me well.")
Concerns about job security have done nothing to affect Miles' ability to attract top recruits to Baton Rouge in a particularly fruitful season within the state of Louisiana. While the state is always among the best for producing talent outside of Florida, Texas and California, the class of 2016 is rated as one of the best ever. And only LSU has benefited, at a time when Miles needs it most.
Of the top 10 recruits in Louisiana, according to 247Sports, eight are committed to LSU. The other two are undecided -- five-star cornerback Kristian Fulton and four-star cornerback Shyheim Carter -- but LSU remains on the radar for both. Of the 21 blue-chip recruits (players graded as five- and four-star recruits by 247Sports' composite ratings) in the state, 12 are committed to LSU, five are uncommitted and one each is headed to Texas A&M, TCU, Florida State and Arkansas.
This is what makes LSU such a desirable job, with an argument that it may be the best job in college football. LSU is based in a talent-rich state -- from 2012-16, Louisiana is sixth in producing blue-chip recruits -- and while there are five FBS schools within the state, it is the only one in a Power Five conference, and thus the only one on the radar for most four- and five-star players.
The table below lists the 35 states that are home to at least one Power Five school (independents Notre Dame and BYU are included), with the number of Power Five schools, the number of FBS schools, the number of 247Sports composite blue chip players in each state the last five years, the total and average number per year of blue chip recruits per state and, lastly, the average per year divided by the number of Power Five schools within the state. For example, there have been 227 blue chip recruits in Florida over the last five years, for an average of 45.4 per year. There are thus 15.13 blue chip recruits per year for every one Power Five school in the state (Florida, Florida State and Miami).
For most top players in Louisiana, the choice is either to sign with the Tigers, or spurn the home state for an enemy, which is often within the SEC West. Staying home usually sounds better.
The only school in a similar situation to LSU is Ohio State, which is the only other Power Five school in a state that is a top-10 producer of blue-chip talent over the last five years. This year, Ohio has just 12 blue-chip recruits, with five committed to Ohio State as of Tuesday, two each committed to Notre Dame and Michigan State, one committed to Pitt and two undecided. Ohio is challenging LSU for the top class nationally, but it has branched out, landing blue-chip recruits from Indiana, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Maryland and Virginia.
From 2011-15, LSU landed 40 of the 65 four- and five-star recruits within the state of Louisiana. Ohio State got commitments from 39 of 87 in Ohio. None of the other 13 schools that are the only Power Five teams within their states signed more than nine, either because of a struggle to recruit at a high level and keep players home (Maryland, Rutgers) or the lack of available in-state talent (everybody else), as shown in the table below.
Of LSU's 18 five- and four-star commitments in the class of 2016, 13 are from Louisiana, four are from Texas and one is from Florida. That continues the trend for LSU: Own the state of Louisiana, push west into the fertile areas of Houston and Dallas and pick up a few key recruits scattered in Atlanta, Miami and elsewhere. If it wasn't enough that LSU is the king of a talent-rich state, it's located right next to the prep football behemoth that is Texas, and the SEC footprint now stretches into both Texas and Florida, touching Georgia as well.
The following map plots all of LSU's high school recruits who enrolled in the five classes from 2011-15. (Individually labeled blue markers are five-star recruits, red are four-stars, green are three-stars and yellow are two-stars, all via 247Sports.)
LSU's envious position as the lone power school sitting atop a goldmine is, of course, no guarantee of success. Nebraska built a dynasty in the '90s despite the lack of top-tier talent within the state. Oklahoma has built national champions by reaching across the Red River and plucking talent from Texas. Notre Dame has always recruited nationally. And despite being the most powerful school in the state of Texas, Texas has languished in mediocrity over the last few years, something that LSU knew plenty of before Nick Saban arrived.
But recruiting is a lot easier if you can just stay home and put a wall around the borders of the state. Every school tries to talk about doing it, but LSU is the one that actually accomplishes that goal on a regular basis.
The talent level in state of Louisiana in particular has improved in recent years. No state compares to Texas, Florida and California in terms of depth of prep talent, but all three are ferocious battle grounds featuring multiple Power Five teams, as well as an intense desire of schools around the country to break in and develop pipelines. The University of Georgia occupies an advantageous position as well in the state of Georgia -- the closest thing to the three powers in terms of depth of top-tier talent -- as the premier football program (Georgia Tech faces institutional recruiting disadvantages), but it does not have the same stranglehold on in-state talent that LSU does.
There is no home-field advantage in college football quite like Death Valley at night, but the advantage does not stop there. LSU also has the nation's best home-state advantage in recruiting. It puts a lot of pressure on Miles and the Tigers with heightened expectations, but as a home-grown, top-ranked class prepares to sign on Feb. 3, it also puts LSU in as good of position as anyone to push for a playoff bid and try to de-throne Alabama. Miles' job may depend on it.