Note: Over the two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the 2016 College Football Playoff. We continue this series with LSU, a team that finished 9-3 last year and is ranked fifth in the 2016 AP preseason top 25 poll.
|LSU will make the 2016 CFP because...||LSU won't make the 2016 CFP because...|
Janie Harris: With only a few days until the first game of college football season, LSU, most recently ranked fifth in AP’s preseason poll, keeps our college football countdown going.
Even with plenty of power in the SEC this year, LSU looks to be one of the more feared contenders for the 2016 title, and, while the young team struggled through the end of last year’s season, it still finished with a decent record. But, this year, a decent record would be highly disappointing for LSU fans across the nation. This year, LSU shoots for something higher than a bowl-game win.
The College Football Playoff doesn’t seem to be that much of a reach for the Tigers this year, as they have a team full of talented, experienced starters. I believe with what the Tigers showed fans last year as a young, inexperienced team, they look like they will secure a place in the CFP and potentially even win it.
What do you think, Jack?
Jack Freifelder: Setting aside the health of Leonard Fournette and the efficacy of the defense, there are some big offensive questions for this year's Tigers squad to answer. Chief among them is where does quarterback Brandon Harris stand in terms of his maturity as a play-caller.
LSU only threw for 13 touchdowns in 2015, albeit with a good TD-to-interception ratio (13:6), but 20 teams, only five of which had winning records, in all of FBS football threw for fewer scores through the air.
When opposing teams step into Tiger Stadium they will certainly look to key on the run and force the home team to make plays in the passing game.
My second concern focuses on the wideouts that will work in tandem with Harris, the junior signal-caller. This is a team that returns its top two receivers in Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, junior and senior, respectively. The duo accounted for 70+ receptions, 1200+ yards and 9 touchdowns in 2015, but another year means likely higher expectations from the upperclassmen.
This team gave Fournette the ball 300 times on the ground, a total that doubles the amounts of touches receivers got through the air. I'll admit that's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but this team will need to throw the ball at times to keep their opponents honest.
I'm going to need a little convincing if I'm going to trust in the process given what I've seen from the LSU offense.
JH: Brandon Harris may not be a stand-out, explosive player, but he is not a bad quarterback. His completion average early in the season last year was solid, but as the Tigers moved later into the season, his completions took a dive, resulting in a lower average for the season.
This year, Harris brings experience with him for the first time. As a freshman, he played in nine games with a single start, making last year his first year starting in all 12 games. He has ability to make an impact with his quick feet and strong arm. While he may not stand out as one of the elite quarterbacks, especially with a quarterback like Chad Kelly in the same conference, he has all the tools he needs to be successful as a passer. However, if he struggles, he can always live in the few seconds before handing the ball off to Fournette. It worked well for most of 2015.
And when talking about LSU’s offense, we can’t leave Leonard Fournette out of the discussion. Yes, he has a sprained ankle, but it’s a sprained ankle, he should be fine by game time. Heading into the 2016 season as a junior, Fournette is widely considered one of the best players in college football. He continues to break records and lead in rushing yards. However, he remains fairly versatile. He is able to catch the ball in the backfield, help with pass protection and can even run the ball back during a kickoff return. But, one man cannot take on an entire defense on his own, and LSU’s offense is not as one-dimensional this year.
LSU’s passing game should improve from last year to this year. Throughout the offseason, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron emphasized working on LSU’s passing game, hoping to better utilize wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. From their stats last year, the issue wasn’t that these two didn’t have the talent to catch the ball. It was more that they didn’t have the ball thrown to them too many times and that Harris remained inexperienced as a starting quarterback. In 2016, both WRs remain deep threats with plenty of speed and hands that look to always find the ball in the air.
Overall, the offense looks to be even stronger than last year, and with an average of 32.8 points per game in 2015 and so many improvements slated for 2016, LSU’s offense could lead the Tigers to the CFP.
JF: I will concede to you that Harris' growth could be a pleasant surprise. Here's hoping that he develops some chemistry with his wideouts because some of those other teams in the SEC can just plain score the football: Ole Miss (40.8 points per game); Tennessee (35.2); Alabama (35.1); Mississippi State (34.4).
However, if this year's team is going to make a run at the College Football Playoff we can't see anything like the three-game losing streak that put a thorn in the team's side in 2015. Granted two of the losses came on the road (at Alabama, at Ole Miss), but LSU was not competitive at all during that three-game period. A 7-0 start lost all its momentum, but hey that's just "Any Given Saturday" in the rough and tumble SEC.
Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the two close calls that LSU had last year.
A 35-28 victory over the then-No. 8 Florida Gators was aided by a fake field goal, albeit a great play call given the circumstances, and an early-season 21-19 victory over Mississippi State only was secured with a failed two-point conversion attempt.
If either one of those ballgames goes the other way we are talking about a team that's way closer to the middle of the pack than the CFB Playoff. Are we sure that LSU has grown up enough to take that step into the upper echelon of college football?
JH: I agree that LSU cannot afford to lose those games again this year. The Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas games are LSU’s key to making it to the CFP or not. However, the Tigers look stronger this year when matched against these teams.
Bama has a new quarterback, and the Tide won’t have its first or second leading rushers back. The major strength for the Tide’s offense is in its receivers, and while its defense is known for its strength and did stop Fournette last year, the core of the line moved on to the NFL. So, LSU may have a chance in overtaking them.
As for Ole Miss, with a team that has plenty of holes to fill, LSU should be able to gain a win in Tiger Stadium against the Rebels.
Even though the Tigers will be facing Arkansas on the road, the Hogs lost a large chunk of talent from 2015 and looks to have trouble filling those holes. LSU should be able to take the Golden Boot back to Baton Rouge this year. With those key wins in 2016, the Tigers may not be able to be stopped on the road to the College Football Playoff, especially since their defense is so strong in 2016.
One of the nation’s top cornerbacks, who passed on the NFL to play one more year at LSU, Tre’Davious White returns along with safety Jamal Adams, defensive end Arden Key and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux. Each had tremendous seasons last year and look to make that kind of impact again.
Key, as a freshman, played in all 12 of LSU’s games last year. He was credited 41 tackles, five sacks and nine quarterback hurries in 2015. Now, he steps onto the field for his second year as a more experienced defender and looks to be a game-changing player.
New defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has been spending the offseason implementing new systems to improve the already powerful defense, hoping to help the team better stop the passing game of its opponents. Aranda developed the number one FBS defense the past three years at Wisconsin, so with the speed and talent acquired with LSU’s defense, Aranda’s tactics may prove to be highly detrimental to any team the Tigers face in 2016.
JF: When it comes to college football, experience reigns supreme. The Tigers have that in spades, no argument especially with 9 upperclassmen slated to start on defense. Your point about Aranda at D-coordinator may be valid because this LSU defense was not as impressive as some might think last year.
The defense showed signs of bending in 2015, not just during the team's three-game slide. Allowing 24 points a game is a far cry from the vaunted Tigers defenses of years past, and the defensive unit failed to force as many turnovers as it should. LSU is a ball control team that needs to force the other team into mistakes. The team's turnover margin was positive last year, but it was not where it needs to be. An appearance in the Top 50 nationwide would be an accomplishment for some, but it is nowhere near the standard that LSU faithful hold dear.
Another knock against the defense was its penchant for drawing defensive penalties. In 2015, LSU's defense drew 96 penalties over 12 games. With a team that struggles on offense, an inability to get off the field is a pockmark that needs to be addressed.
This team has too much experience and too many senior leaders on the defensive side to play what amounts to knuckle-headed football at times.
JH: As long as both the offense and defense improve from last year and the Tigers keep their penalty count low, LSU looks poised to have one of its best seasons since 2011. I think we can agree while there are events that could stop LSU on its road to the CFP, there are only few. Right now, it looks like it is going to be a year where fans are proud to shout “Geaux Tigers.”