Can LSU challenge Alabama and Auburn for supremacy in the SEC West this season?
The college football season is rapidly approaching, with the anticipation building each day. As the hunger for the upcoming season gets stronger we’ve got something here at SQ that will wet your appetite. Over the next few weeks we’ll be rolling out previews of the teams in our top-25. Today we continue our countdown with #12, LSU.
Team Name: LSU Tigers
2016 Record: 8-4
Finish in AP Poll: 13
Coach: Ed Orgeron (13-6, second full season)
Key Arrivals: S JaCoby Stevens, DE K’Lavon Chaisson, OT Austin Deculus, DT Tyler Shelvin, LB Jacob Phillips, S Grant Delpit, S Todd Harris, CB Kary Vincent, QB Myles Brennan, OG Edward Ingram, QB Lowell Narcisse, WR Mannie Netherly, DE Breiden Fehoko (TRANSFER - Texas Tech), TE Thaddeus Moss (TRANSFER - N.C. State), WR Jonathan Giles (TRANSFER - Texas Tech)
Previewing LSU’s Offense
LSU’s offense rests entirely on its capacity to run the ball and avoid turning it over.
The offensive line is one of the best units in the country. The Tigers return three full-time starters from last season, including first-team All-SEC center Will Clapp, and fill the final two spots with players that have some starting experience as well. Star running back Leonard Fournette left for the NFL, but the Tigers shouldn’t have any problem replacing him. Junior Derrius Guice led LSU in rushing last season thanks to Fournette’s lingering ankle injury, and he’ll look to improve upon his 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns now that he is the clear top dog in the backfield. Guice has the ability to be one of the country’s best backs, he is an early Heisman contender, and he will likely see more than 200 carries due to continued deficiencies in the passing game.
LSU is now infamous for its long-term struggles at the quarterback position. Last season Brandon Harris entered the season as the starter but promptly lost his job two weeks in to Purdue transfer Danny Etling. Harris has since transferred while Etling returns as the projected starter.
Etling was mediocre at best last season. He threw for only 2,123 yards on 59.5 percent passing with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and considering he posted those numbers during his fourth year as a college football player, that’s probably about his ceiling as a quarterback. Unfortunately, his team also lacks weapons in the passing game. LSU lost four of its top-five receivers, returning only speedster D.J. Chark, who is talented but not talented enough to carry a passing attack by himself.
Because of the problems in its passing game, LSU will need to lean heavily on its ground game as it has done in the past. Fortunately for the Tigers, Guice is capable of handling that responsibility and the offensive line is strong enough to assist him in that effort. LSU finished 31st in OFEI last season, not great, but also not terrible considering the mediocre quarterback play and Fournette’s injury. The Tigers could improve on that mark slightly if Etling improves at all, but it shouldn’t be expected that they fair too much better regardless.
They also potentially benefit from new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme and leadership. His Pitt offense averaged 40.9 points per game last season compared to LSU’s meager 28.3. Over 40 points per game is unattainable for LSU, but if Etling can be a serviceable game manager, this offense can be strong enough to win games behind the extremely talented LSU defense.
Previewing LSU’s Defense
LSU’s defense is its greatest weapon, and it looks to rank second in the SEC this season behind only the Crimson Tide. Orgeron and the Tigers lost a lot of their best players from last year’s defense, which ranked fourth in the nation in DFEI and third in points per game allowed. Safety Jamal Adams, cornerback Tre’Davious White, linebackers Duke Riley, Kendell Beckwith, and Tashawn Bower, and defensive linemen Lewis Neal and Davon Godchaux all either graduated or left for the NFL. However, multiple key players return ready to take on larger roles and there are plenty of talented players waiting in the wings to emerge as future NFL talents.
On the defensive line, redshirt senior Christian LaCouture returns to man the defensive end spot of this 3-4 front. LaCouture missed all of last season with a knee injury he suffered during camp, but he has plenty of starting experience. He started 10 games in 2015, 13 in 2014, and appeared in all 13 games as a freshman in 2013. He’ll bring speed and strength to the interior for the Tigers this season and will serve as both an excellent run stopper and capable pass rusher. He’ll be joined on the defensive line by nosetackle Greg Gilmore (12 starts, 34 tackles, 1.0 sacks in ‘16) and fellow defensive end Frank Herron (10 GP, 20 tackles, 1.0 sacks in ‘16) who, combined with LaCouture, will form a formidable front for LSU and defensive-line-coach-turned-head-coach Ed Orgeron.
At linebacker, junior outside linebacker Arden Key returns to star for the Tigers. Key is a dominant pass rusher with 20 career starts, 17.0 career sacks, and 21.0 tackles for loss under his belt in just two seasons of work. Now the face of this defense, Key is already one of the top projected picks in next year’s NFL draft and he will live up to that billing with a second-consecutive double-digit sack season. LSU does have to account for the losses of Riley, Beckwith, and Bower, but the men stepping in to replace them do not lack for talent. Senior Donnie Alexander is the second-leading returning tackler for the Tigers this season and appeared in all 12 games last year, as did sophomore Devin White who had 30 tackles and 3.0 tackles for loss of his own.
Replacing Adams and White in the secondary will be tough, too, but LSU does return three players who started five or more games in 2016 including junior Kevin Toliver II. Toliver will take over for White as the go-to shut-down corner and he should be capable of handling the role. Currently projected as a potential first-round pick in the upcoming draft, the 6-foot-3, 204-pound Toliver has the ideal size, speed, and athleticism to lock down every team’s top receiver. Joining him in the secondary are seniors John Battle and Ed Paris, and junior Donte Jackson, who started 11 games last season and accumulated two interceptions and 10 passes defended.
Yes, this defense lost a ton of talent at each level to the NFL, but it also has plenty of returning talent to fill the void. This will once again be an elite-level defense with several prominent NFL prospects that will be able to carry this team throughout the season.
Three Key Games
1. Oct. 7 at Florida - LSU’s first true test of the year, it won’t be easy to go into the Swamp and come out with a victory. The Tigers have to pay the price for their short-term folly last season when they forced Florida to come to Baton Rouge to make up a game originally scheduled to be played in Gainesville that was postponed due to Hurricane Matthew (the Tigers ended up losing that rescheduled game anyway). Now, instead of having a normal slate of four conference road games, LSU has to play a fifth game away from home against one of the country’s top teams. A win here would be huge for an LSU team that hopes to reach at least a New Year’s Six bowl, and a loss could potentially derail the season before it even starts.
2. Oct. 14 vs. Auburn - The gauntlet that is the SEC – particularly the SEC West – gives you no days off. One week after a tough road test against Florida, the Tigers have to take on Auburn. The Tigers of Auburn have championship hopes of their own, though. This game will serve to give one of these two teams the right to vie with Alabama for the SEC West crown. The odds that the Crimson Tide drop more than one conference game are slim, so if the Tigers were to drop this game against Auburn, they would be all but forced to settle for second. The same is true for Auburn, which is what makes this contest all the more compelling. Both teams will be going all out in this mid-October game with the hope of staying in the race.
3. Nov. 4 at Alabama - For any team in the SEC West with championship aspirations, the most important game of the year is against Alabama. If the Tigers reach November still in contention for the SEC crown, than this game will obviously hold more importance. Unfortunately for LSU, this year’s game takes place in Tuscaloosa, not Baton Rouge, which will add to the difficulty level of an already extremely tough matchup. By this point in the season, the Tigers will be heading down the stretch-run, and we’ll likely have an idea of how capable this team actually is: championship-level or just really good. But if LSU lives up to its billing through the first two months of the season, all hope for the rest of the year will come down to this game.
After a reasonably disappointing 8-4 finish in 2016, expect an improvement in record for LSU this season. The Tigers have a tough slate ahead of them with five true road games against conference foes, and although I expect the Tigers to be a strong team this year, that extra road game will more than likely prove the difference between second and third place in the SEC West.
A 9-3 finish seems well in-line with this team’s expectations, with a potential for double-digit wins if the offense – particularly Etling – outperforms projections. Although LSU probably won’t steal the crown from Nick Saban and Alabama, the Tigers could still grab a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl if they outperform Auburn on the year.
The defense is elite and the running game is strong. The ceiling of this team largely depends on the passing game. We’ll see if there are any improvement this season after so many years of mediocrity. Either way, the rest of this LSU team is good enough that it should be imbedded in the top-15 throughout the year.
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