Tuesday, August 18

LSU Tigers '09: Returning from relative disaster

The 2008 Season in a Box
2008 had to be a turducken – depending on when in the season we’re talking about, the emphasis may go in different places. I mean, it’s always nice to open a season 4-0 (even if we grossly misjudged the implications of that LSU-Auburn game, which was actually Auburn’s 2nd-highest output against a 1A team last year), but getting stomped at Florida is always a bit of a wakeup call. From there, it was a bit of a rough-and-tumble ride through the rest of the season, especially a disastrous 1-3 stretch to close the season. Of those losses, only the Arkansas one is really inexcusable, but don’t forget that win over Troy was only thanks to a pretty epic comeback. They made up for it by an utter curbstomping of Georgia Tech, but this was still a down year by the recent standards of LSU.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
No more Jarrett Lee for starters (aka Captain Pick-Six); he’ll be at best second on the depth chart and likely third. I could probably write a novel or two about how completely improbable is it to have seven(!) passes intercepted for TDs over the course of a season – and I doubt we’ll see anything like that for a generation or so – but there’s simply no way LSU will let Lee get too many snaps at QB this season. That alone should be enough to generate another win or so, maybe two. Since the losses on either side of the ball aren’t too severe, simple year-over-year improvement should point to a 10-win campaign at minimum, right?

On Offense
Well, Jarrett Lee’s gone – it was already said last paragraph but it bears repeating. That means Jordan Jefferson should get the majority of the snaps; Jefferson played sparingly most of the season before getting chucked into the fire against Ole Miss and Arkansas to close the season. After a couple of lackluster (but mostly interception-free; yes, the bar was set that low) performances, he also got the start in the Peach Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Georgia Tech, which mercifully went a bit better. Sure, a sub-50% completion percentage as a freshman isn’t something you want to hang your hat on, but given the alternative the Tigers will go with that. If Jefferson fails, elite true freshman Russell Shephard is waiting in the wings; Shephard and Jefferson have similar skill sets so LSU won’t really lose a lot other than experience by bringing Shephard in if needed. On the other hand, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to bring Shephard in as a change-of-pace either.

LSU’s running game has always been fascinating to me. Typically they seem to run 4 or 5 backs deep, yet they also tend to be a primary-back system under Les Miles. I suspect that I’m still conflating the Saban and Miles eras since there wasn’t much of a dropoff between the two (Saban in particular goes multi-back like it’s going out of style), but Charles Scott emerged from the fray last year as a legitimate power feature back, coming from relative obscurity to snag the #1 overall spot (and justifiably so, checking in at nearly 1,175 yards and 18 TDs). That relegated Keiland Williams to #2 overall RB again … for the third straight year. Even more impressively, he’s been between 400 and 500 yards every single year, too. Most of the other major rushers are of the bit player variety; Richard Murphy is the best known of the rest of the crop, but at this point we’re talking RB3 and beyond, so it’s not a big deal.

Although LSU’s passing game is largely going to be dictated by the success of whoever’s getting snaps at QB, they’re at least talented. Brandon LaFell is the unquestioned established star of the group – it always helps when you get to return a 1st-team SEC WR – but it’s the non-LaFell guys that are intriguing. (We know what we’re getting from LaFell.) TE Richard Dickson is one of the few TEs in the country who actually figure into the passing game; he’s no DJ Williams but he’s pretty good as these things go. With that being said, we know what we’ll get from him. What we don’t know yet is how Terrance Tolliver, Reuben Randle, or anyone else will factor into the passing game. Last year LSU had enough production for 2 WRs but that was it, and Demitrius Byrd’s 500 yards / 4 TDs paled next to LaFell’s 929 / 8. Tolliver – and to a possibly lesser extent, Randle – should be good enough to at least match Byrd’s output (and remember, with a better QB production should go up anyway).

This’ll be Gary Crowton’s third year serving as OC for the Tigers; as a result, there shouldn’t be too much to learn with respect to schemes. They’ll run some ace / shotgun variant most of the time, as Crowton really isn’t a big fan of a non-feature back set. The one wild card LSU has on offense is how they use Trindon Holliday. We seem to come back to this year after year, but Holliday is fast – one of the fastest players in football. However, even with that obvious speed advantage Holliday’s skills haven’t translated well to using him on offense. The downside with Holliday is that he pretty much has to have the ball when he’s on the field, as he’s going to be shorter and lighter than pretty much anyone he blocks saved undersized CBs. That in turn limits playcalls when Holliday’s in the game, which isn’t technically his fault but is his fault, if that makes sense. (It’s hard to run in stilts.)

On Defense and Special Teams
As LSU defenses go, last year’s outfit was pretty terrible. That may have been a function of having two DCs (when you have two, you have none?), but Les Miles canned both of them in the offseason and brought in ex-Tennessee DC John Chavis. Chavis was the best hire available from both a productivity and familiarity standpoint; not only was he responsible for fielding quality defenses – including last year’s Tennessee outfit that kept them in more games than the offense had any right to be – but he’s familiar with everyone’s schemes in the SEC. That in turn means he’ll be able to bring LSU’s defense up to speed a bit faster than another DC would, which means LSU’s already-talented defense should be in good shape going forward.

As LSU personnel goes, this is similar to most of their previous defenses in terms of talent. They’re replacing a lot of their defensive line, though; DE Rahim Alem is the only returning starter. Of course, Alem was also first-team SEC last year, so there are worse fates. Most of the LB and secondary returns intact, save the departures of Darryl Beckwith at MLB and Curtis Taylor at FS. However, they’re replacing both those guys with high-quality talent: Petty Riley moves into the starting MLB role and Chad Jones slides over to start at FS. On an unrelated note, he also doubles as a reliever for LSU’s baseball team and is so massively oversized compared to everyone else on the field that it looks like he’s throwing a pea. We’re also seeing the emergence of one heck of a secondary; CB Patrick Patterson started the last four games of last season as a true freshman, and the Tigers picked up the best CB recruit in the country in 6’2” Craig Loston – who made it in for the spring to boot. This won’t be the year that it all comes together, but this should scare any team looking to go pass-happy going forward.

The odd thing about this year’s defense is they’re not quite as heralded as typical LSU defenses; heck, they’re not even the best defense in their own division. (That distinction falls to Alabama.) For a team whose recent defenses have been known to strike fear in the hearts of opposing fans two weeks in advance, having a defense that gets to fight for the title of 2nd-best in the SEC West is one heck of a change. For now, I think they’re a slightly better defense than Ole Miss, although there are certainly arguments in either direction – the main thing that LSU has that Ole Miss doesn’t is upside in the secondary. That should offset Ole Miss’s decided advantage on the defensive line, but they will have some trouble stopping the run.

Since K Colt David departed after last season, kicking duties will fall to Josh Jasper. It’s a similar story with the punters; Brady Dalfrey is replaced by Derek Helton. Both guys were pretty talented, so their loss will sting a bit. The return games, on the other hand, are in pretty decent shape; Trindon Holliday slots in as the main punt and kick returner; Holliday in the kick return game in particular is dangerous and a half, and he pretty much can’t be caught in the open field if he gets behind defenses. Still, his numbers aren’t totally what you’d expect given his insane speed.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
LSU at this point is a darkhorse BCS contender. They’ve addressed their two main problems (QB play, iffy defensive play) as best as they can reasonably address them, and their talent level last year wasn’t 8-5 at all. Their biggest problem is the schedule; they draw Florida and Georgia out of the East and have to play both Ole Miss and Alabama on the road. If they navigate that stretch at 3-1, then they’re legitimate title contenders; however, 2-2 is more realistic and 1-3 may even be likely. Depending on how 2-2 breaks, they may be in decent shape to get to the SEC Championship with a little bit of help. At 2-2 without enough help or at 1-3, LSU’s probably looking at the Cotton Bowl provided they win the rest of their games, which aren’t too difficult with the possible exception of the season-ender at Arkansas.