In terms of overall success in a brutal conference, how do you possibly argue against anything Les Miles has done while at LSU?
By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak
While he might not be doing in Baton Rouge what Nick Saban is coming up with at Tuscaloosa, going 103-29 in 11 seasons with seven ten-win campaigns, a national title and two SEC championships forms a resume as strong as any coach in college football just outside of the true gods.
But is the program stale? Worse yet, is the program the new Texas?
Miles is going to turn 62 this season, but he’s as active and energetic as ever and isn’t slowing down in any way. The concern, though, is that LSU under Miles might be turning into Texas under Mack Brown.
Brown came up with a talent factory that made ten-win seasons a given, and like Miles, got a national championship and two conference titles. But the Big 12 started to improve, there were a few recruiting errors – the list of superstar quarterbacks from Texas who didn’t play for the Longhorns over the last few years is dizzying – and all of a sudden, eight-win campaigns became the norm.
The SEC West has a way of humbling elite programs and coaches making over $4 million a year, and LSU, all of a sudden, doesn’t quite seem like it’s able to keep up the pace considering the bar is set at SEC championship-or-bust.
It’s not like there have been any cheap losses lately – the last loss to a team that finished with a losing record came against Arkansas in 2008 – but losing to teams with names like Auburn, Alabama and Notre Dame doesn’t make it easier. This is still an LSU program that can beat teams as good as Wisconsin and Ole Miss last year, and come within a miraculous late collapse of beating the Crimson Tide, but LSU is supposed to beat those teams. It’s supposed to be in the national title hunt. It’s supposed to be among the elite of the elite.
And it’s just not.
While Texas wasn’t able to pull up out of the muck of mediocrity at the end of the Brown era, and it’s still trying to rebuild into greatness under Charlie Strong, this needs to be the season that Miles and LSU can prove that this is a different situation, even if the division and conference are as nasty as ever.
But like Texas, LSU has to starting playing up to its talent level again.
As always, there are plenty of terrific players to get excited about. The starting 22 is good enough to beat anyone in the country, but the depth isn’t quite up-to-snuff – this could all go downhill fast with a rash of injuries, especially on the O line.
The quarterback play has to be stronger, the defensive line has to stop playing like it’s entitled to be great just because it’s the LSU defensive line, and overall, there has to be come semblance of consistency – last year’s team never came up with the same positive performance twice.
But Miles has been doubted before. He wasn’t on a hot seat after going 17-9 in 2008-2009, but cranking up an 11-2 2010 certainly didn’t hurt and coming up with an epic 2011, one of the greatest regular seasons in college football history, didn’t hurt. He could really, really use another ten-win campaign.
But it’s hard to relight the fire with an old coach and a program used to doing things a certain way. 2015 will show whether or not the pressure will truly be on in 2016.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: Coordinator Cam Cameron had a different quarterback situation and a different offense to work with after an impressive 2013, and it showed. The Tigers ran the ball well, but the offense sputtered too often and didn’t have enough of a passing game. The O line should be its typical solid self with all-star Vadal Alexander leading the way, and the running attack will be dominant if Leonard Fournette avoids the sophomore slump. Travin Dural, John Diarse and Malachi Dupre are next-level receiver talents, and the tight ends should have decent years, but they need someone to throw them the ball. Brandon Harris is fine, but he needs to be sensational as the main man at quarterback with Brandon Jennings encountering legal issues.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: There was almost no pass rush, and there were a few rough patches, but the defense overall was outstanding, finishing third in the nation against the pass and ninth in total defense. New coordinator Kevin Steele and line coach Ed Orgeron will ramp up the pressure from the line, but they need some ends to emerge to do it. The tackles will be as good as ever, led by Christian LaCouture, and the linebackers should be excellent. The real strength is a secondary that was so good last year and gets corners Jalen Collins and Tre’Davious White back on the outside to go along with safeties Jalen Mills and Jamal Adams.
What to watch for on offense: LSU still doesn’t have its quarterback situation figured out. Everett Golson is a Florida State Seminole and Braxton Miller isn’t leaving Columbus, and Anthony Jennings is out of the mix after his legal issues so the offense is now all about Brandon Harris at quarterback – a superstar prospect who didn’t light the world on fire last season. He’s young and learning, and he has a world of upside. After finishing 114th in the nation in passing, and 68th in passing efficiency, anything the Tigers want to do offensively will revolve around what Harris can do – and if there’s any improvement.
What to watch for on defense: John Chavis is out, Kevin Steele is in. Chavis left the defensive coordinator gig at LSU to be the head of the Texas A&M D, and in comes Kevin Steele in the hour of chaos. (Actually, the D was great overall, but I felt like throwing in a nod to PE.) He’s a no-nonsense coach who struggled as the head man at Baylor in the early 2000s before doing great things helping out the Alabama and Clemson defenses over the last eight seasons. He’s not going to change things up too much, and even though all coaches say they want to be more aggressive, that’s what he’s doing. LSU cranked out 34 or more sacks over a three year span from 2010 to 2012, and struggled a bit in 2013 and fell off the map last season with just 19 – and seven of those came in the win over Sam Houston State. Expect that to change in a big way.
The team will be far better if … the secondary does its job. Of course that sounds insane after finishing third in the nation against the pass, and with a loaded group returning, but when it had problems, the team lost. An argument could be made that LSU belongs in the Defensive Back U. discussion considering what it’s cranked out over the last few years, but with a weak pass rush there were times when the machine broke down. Overall, the secondary did a fantastic job last season – it didn’t allow a 300-yard day and gave up just ten touchdowns with ten picks – but the pass D allowed quarterbacks to click on 60% of their passes or more in four games. Those four were the losses to Mississippi State, Auburn, Notre Dame, and Arkansas. Okay, Brandon Allen hit 59.3% of his passes for the Hogs, but close enough. In the one other loss, Alabama’s Blake Sims threw two touchdown passes – LSU went 0-3 when giving up more than one scoring pass.
The schedule: The Tigers started out last season against Wisconsin. This year they begin with McNeese State. With a road trip to Mississippi State to follow, and Auburn right after, the Week One tune-up is forgiven.
– The non-conference schedule isn’t that bad, with Eastern Michigan and WKU to fatten up on, but going to Syracuse is respectable. At least the Tigers are travelling north, even if the game is in a dome.
– There aren’t two road games in a row all year, and there’s a good stretch of three home games in four weeks – the road game is at South Carolina – before getting a week off to prepare for Alabama on the road.
– Arkansas and Texas A&M will be dangerous, but both teams have to come to Death Valley. Going to Alabama and Ole Miss, though, will make for a tough November.
– WATCH OUT FOR … The SEC opener at Mississippi State. Lose that, and the pressure is on to beat Auburn the week after, or there could be big, big problems with the third conference date at South Carolina.
Best offensive player: Sophomore RB Leonard Fournette. The superstar recruit of last year will have to do even more this season with no Terrence Magee or Kenny Hilliard to count on. The quarterbacks will run a bit, and it’s LSU, so there are always going to be more talented running backs waiting in the wings, but Fournette is the Heisman-caliber star the offense will work around. Les Miles has enjoyed a fantastic group of running backs in his time, but No. 7 might be the best of the bunch.
Best defensive player: Junior LB Kendall Beckwith. Already really good, he might take his game to a whole other level with a linebacker-oriented defensive coordinator in Kevin Steele taking over the reins. As is, the veteran Beckwith should be in for an all-star caliber season as the main man in the middle of a D with more than enough good parts to be better. The team’s leading returning tackler is a thumper who can get into the backfield. He’s the star of the front seven going into the season.
Key player to a successful season: Junior DE Tashawn Bower. It’s obviously Brandon Harris, but the other side needs some standouts, too, starting with the new starting defensive end options. There’s no better defensive line coach in college football than Ed Orgeron – he’ll soon be a top-shelf defensive coordinator for someone again soon. Now he has to crank up the production from the ends without Danielle Hunter and Jeremauria Rasco. Bower, Deondre Clark, and several young ends will get their shot to try improving a mediocre pass rush, and the combination of Orgeron and Kevin Steele will get them to bring the heat. Sacks, sacks, sacks – that’s the focus more than ever up front.
The season will be a success if … LSU wins ten games. This isn’t a good enough team to pull out the SEC West, especially considering the schedule. However, if LSU is going to show the world that it really is a year away from being a true national title contender again – the 2016 team should be loaded – then it has to get back to being a ten-win program. It might take a bowl victory to get there, but the Tigers have to own Death Valley again after losing twice last year, and they’ll need to come up with at least one win at Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Alabama.
Key game: Sept. 12 at Mississippi State. Last season’s stunner was a key moment for both programs. MSU’s amazing performance – and ability to hang on late for the 34-29 win – was the national breakout moment. LSU would start out 0-2 after getting blasted by Auburn, and the season was never right the rest of the way. This year, the Tigers get a tune-up against McNeese State before going to Starkville. With road games against South Carolina, Alabama and Ole Miss to deal with, LSU has to get a new streak going after winning 14 straight in the series and 21 of 22 against Team Cowbell before last year.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Third Quarter Scoring: LSU 88 – Opponents 31
– Penalties: LSU 71 for 595 yards – Opponents 57 for 510 yards
– 2013 LSU Passing Yards: 3,263 – 2014 LSU Passing Yards: 2,118
Players You Need To Know
1. RB Leonard Fournette, Soph.
The No. 1 recruit in the nation, LSU was able to keep him home, and found the new star of its ground game. It took a little while before he became the lead dog, but he finished with a team-high 1,034 yards and ten scores, coming up with five 100-yard games closing out with 146 against Texas A&M and 143 on just 11 carries against Notre Dame. All the NFL tools are there right out of high school with 6-1, 230-pound size, power, and enough speed to hit the home run when he gets into the open. Always going forward and always getting positive yards, he’s both a downhill runner and a slasher – he can do it all. He might not have elite quickness or feet, but he makes up for it with good vision and cutback ability. Best of all, he has the attitude of a franchise back. This is the year he’ll show it.
2. OT Vadal Alexander, Sr.
La’el Collins was the best blocker on the line, but the 6-6, 320-pound Alexander wasn’t far behind and is ready for the NFL now. A guard throughout last season, he’s agile enough to take over now at right tackle while Jerald Hawkins moves to Collins’ spot on the left side. With his bulk and strength, Alexander is a massive hitter on the inside – he’ll be a guard at the next level. Likely a late second-to-early-third round pick next year, he has rare size and the versatility NFL teams love. He might not be for every pro offense, but the all-star performer is a road grader who’ll put together a highlight reel of dominant blocks.
3. LB Kendell Beckwith, Jr.
The team’s leading returning tackler, Beckwith is a great hitter in the middle with the speed and athleticism to be used as a pass rusher, and the 6-2, 245-pound bulk to be a pounder against the run. With a great burst, he gets to the ball in a hurry making 11 tackles against Ole Miss and coming up with solid performances all season long. A high school quarterback, he has elite skills, and now it’s salary drive time with NFL upside for a variety of spots.
4. WR Travin Dural, Jr.
Who was going to step up and produce with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry gone? The passing game might not have worked too hot, but Dural did his part with a team-leading 37 catches for 758 yards and seven scores, averaging 20.5 yards per grab. The 6-2, 192-pound veteran has elite, Louisiana state high school champion speed to go along with the fight for the ball. He ripped up Wisconsin for 151 yards and a score on three catches, and did what he could against Mississippi State with six grabs for 124 yards. If the QB play improves, his numbers will explode.
5. S Jamal Adams, Soph.
Used as a nickel defender, he came in right away as a big-time recruit and turned into one of the main men for the defense right away. With 6-0, 206-pound size and a next-level attitude, he isn’t afraid to attack the ball against the run or be a nice producer when the ball is in the air. While he had a few good games throughout the year, he came through late with eight tackles against Texas A&M and as a last line of defense against Notre Dame making a season-high ten stops. Expect a lot more production as he turns into one of the team’s leading tacklers.
6. WR Malachi Dupre, Soph.
The talent is there, now he needs the steady quarterback production to get him the ball. The 6-3, 187-pounder out of New Orleans was one of the nation’s top recruits two years ago, and he showed glimpses of why with his tremendous combination of size, skills, and next-level athleticism. The Louisiana state champion track star can jump out of the stadium and has the speed to get deep as a matchup nightmare. He only caught 14 passes on the year, but he roared for 318 yards and five scores averaging close to 23 yards per grab. Once he gets more of a chance, the production will follow. Smooth as glass, he looks the part, but he’s also not afraid of providing a bit of a pop.
7. CB Tre’Davious White, Jr.
A big-time recruit and considered by many to be the nation’s top corner prospect, he didn’t disappoint right away making 55 tackles with two picks and a team-leading seven broken up passes as a true freshman. Solid last season, he came up with 33 tackles with two interceptions and was fantastic as a punt returner. Bulked up over the last few years, he got up to 191 pounds on his 5-11 frame to provide more pop, but he didn’t lose any of his quickness or raw speed. A great running quarterback in high school as well as an elite defensive back, he showed off his wheels on special teams last season averaging 11 yards per punt return with a score against Kentucky.
8. S Jalen Mills, Sr.
Unlike most superstar defensive backs LSU gets, Mills wasn’t an elite recruit – he was considered a promising corner, but hardly a sure thing. That changed right away once he got off the bus. Is he a corner or a safety? It doesn’t matter – he’ll be one of the SEC’s best defensive backs no matter where he plays. With 6-0, 194-pound size, he’s a big corner, but with his speed and athleticism he’s a dangerous safety who’s perfect at free safety. He started out his career at corner making 124 tackles and five picks in his first two seasons, and last year he did it all with 62 tackles with an interception and five broken up passes. Very, very steady, he’s great in the open field, but he helps out well against the run.
9. DT Christian LaCouture, Jr.
He got to LSU early on and he showed the maturity and strength right away to be a part of the fun. The Lincoln, Nebraska native got away from the Huskers and showed terrific promise making 11 tackles with a sack in his limited time as a freshman, and then last year he came up with 40 tackles with 2.5 sacks doing a strong job of stuffing things up. While he might not be a typical elite of the elite LSU recruits, at 6-5 and 300 pounds, and with his athleticism, his upside is enormous with great quickness off the ball and the burst to turn into the main man up front.
10. QB Brandon Harris, Soph.
Leonard Fournette was last year’s star recruit, but Harris wasn’t far behind with 6-3, 188-pound size, all-star smarts in the classroom, and enough running ability to be slippery and dangerous. Thrown to the wolves during the first half of the season as a true freshman, he was great at times, completing 11-of-14 passes for 178 yards and three score against New Mexico State with two rushing scores, but struggling the next week against Auburn completing 3-of-14 passes in the loss. Anthony Jennings took over and never gave up the gig, but now that’s all changing. Harris is missing the at bats – with more seasoning and experience, he should be terrific. When will he get it? Jennings was the veteran option, but Harris is now more than the shot for the stars. He’s the main man.