April 22, 2010
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Tigers.
Les Miles spent his first three years at LSU escaping Nick Saban's towering shadow, a mission he could count as more or less accomplished by 2007: By then, Miles had delivered three straight 11-2/top-10 finishes, a pair of BCS bowl wins and finally an unlikely national championship in his third year, during which he emphatically rejected reports he was bound for the new vacancy at Michigan, his alma mater, and came into his own as Head Tiger. (A raise to make him the highest-paid coach in the country didn't hurt.) Only two years later, that start is looking more and more like what you might call an extended honeymoon.
That's all the time it's taken for Saban to loom large over Miles again, this time as the maddeningly efficient architect of the Alabama Death Star that's supplanted LSU as the reigning juggernaut in the SEC West, on the field and on the recruiting trail, and increasingly as the foundation for Miles' early success: As Saban's recruits trickle out of Baton Rouge, the championship ambitions the Tigers took for granted from 2003-07 have faded amid the first back-to-back four-loss seasons since Saban was hired in 2000. After tough losses at Alabama and Ole Miss, LSU was a late field goal and overtime against Arkansas away from dropping three straight SEC games last November, had a four-year bowl winning streak snapped by Penn State on New Year's Day and kicked off the offseason by self-reporting recruiting violations to the NCAA. Statistically, especially on offense, it looked nothing like a 9-4 team.
As it stands, the enduring image of Miles as the gutsy gunslinger whose crunch-time cajones once led the Tigers to critical fourth-quarter comebacks over Florida and Auburn en route to the national title has been replaced by Miles as the oblivious bungler who helped blow a chance to win at Ole Miss. This team is not built for a national run, but for Miles' sake, it cannot afford another obvious slide from its suddenly not-so-recent glory.
What's Changed. Last year's middle-of-the-pack defense was nowhere near the killer units that led the SEC in total D five years in a row under coordinators Will Muschamp and Bo Pelini, but it was a vast improvement over the 2008 experiment that ended in wholesale collapse and the very welcome departures of co-coordinators Bradlee Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory. The more that rebound has to do with the addition of longtime Tennessee assistant John Chavis, the better: The Tigers lose four of their top five and eight of their top dozen tacklers with five new starters in the back seven and two more at defensive end. If there's any good news, it's that the returnees include last year's top pass rusher (tackle Drake Nevis), top tackler (linebacker Kelvin Sheppard) and top cover guy (cornerback Patrick Peterson), but despite the outrageously high recruiting rankings over the last four years, only Peterson looks like a possible star.
The real story on defense is the dramatic fall of the once-impenetrable front seven, which fell off the wagon last year in a big way compared to its often dominant predecessors:
LSU is used to a steady pipeline of first-rate talent on the defensive line, but there's no Chad Lavalais, Claude Wroten or Glenn Dorsey in sight among the defensive tackles -- the former blue-chips who were supposed to fill that void the last two years, Charles Alexander and Al Woods, have both graduated to little fanfare -- and the defensive ends are sophomores and redshirt freshmen without a significant snap to their name. There is some young talent -- notably redshirt freshmen Chris Davenport at tackle and Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo on the outside -- but they'll have to be instant stars to make the run defense and pass rush anything like the disruptive forces they once were.
What's the Same. On that pessimistic note, I should reiterate that the defense generally improved last year relative to 2008, which was definitely not the case on the offense -- with eight starters, the Tigers finished dead last in the SEC in total offense, worse than Vanderbilt, cracking 400 total yards and/or 40 points only once, against hopelessly outmanned Tulane, and failing to crack 300 yards in four of the last five games. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson was efficient -- 17:7 touchdown:interception ratio, and no multi-interception games -- but hardly a revelation as a sophomore. In general, the big-play prowess, especially in the running game, was sorely lacking.
Whatever the problem, it's certainly not a lack of game-breaking personnel: With massively hyped quarterback prospect Russell Shepard now spending all his time at receiver, the Tigers' top four receivers -- senior Terrance Toliver, Shepard and fellow sophomores Rueben Randle and DeAngelo Benton -- were all five-star recruits out of high school, and another, Chris Tolliver, came out ranked as the top prospect in Louisiana in 2007. Somewhere in that group, especially among the highly-touted sophomores, there must be a playmaker or two on the verge of restoring some of the pop the offense was badly missing last year. Whether that spark is lit will depend on a) Jefferson's progress in the offense and willingness to take chances in his second full season as a starter, and b) How much leash coaches are willing to give him to challenge downfield.
Many happy returns. One of the reasons the Tigers were able to score a few more points than the moribund offensive numbers would suggest was the return game, the best in the nation by more than a full yard per return over No. 2 Florida State thanks to Trindon Holliday and Chad Jones, both of whom have taken their talents to the next level. (Or, just as likely, to their other sports, track and baseball, respectively.) LSU wouldn't have beaten Mississippi State without Jones' 93-yard sprint to extend a tenuous lead to 30-21 in the fourth quarter, and likely wouldn't have beaten Arkansas (an eventual overtime win) without Holliday's 87-yard runback in the second quarter of the regular season finale, the fourth return touchdown of his career. Holliday also set up a short touchdown drive with a big return into Penn State territory in the second half of the Capital One Bowl.
There's never a shortage of promising candidates to step into the return role, but few wind up leading the nation in the category or ever actually providing the decisive edge in close games. All else being equal, breaking a few big plays here could easily be one of the hidden factors that separates a big year from a mediocre one, especially if the offense falls into the same rut it was stuck in last fall.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. The spring scrimmage -- oh, you can watch the L Club game in its entirety, by the way, right here:
Anyway, if you're not willing to sit through two hours of quasi-football, the spring scrimmage was dominated by the running backs, namely junior Stevan Ridley, who had 70 yards on the opening drive alone and 104 for the afternoon on just 13 carries, and redshirt freshman Michael Ford, who responded to the growing buzz around his emergence with 139 yards on 19 carries; Shepard, also ran for 58 yards out of the shotgun. All of which instills some optimism that there will be a recognizable ground game on the order of the deep, consistent, between-the-tackles attacks that characterized the offense in Miles' best seasons, even if it remains purely speculative: Shepard led all returning rushers last fall with 277 yards, almost all out of the occasional Wildcat set. Among the every-down backs, Ridley had 171 yards, mostly after starter Charles Scott was lost for the season in early November, and didn't have any runs as long as the 25-yarder he broke off against the Purple team last month.
Best-Case. Man for man, LSU still ranks among the most physically gifted rosters in the country, which makes it a threat to win any game; with an old, proven hand like Chavis coordinating a talented defense and Jefferson coming of age along with his young, first-rate wideouts, the Tigers can win any game on the schedule. The SEC gauntlet is as brutally impossible to navigate as ever -- even Miles' best teams from 2005-07 all lost a pair of conference games -- but a sweep of the home schedule (most crucially, over West Division frontrunner Alabama on Nov. 6) and a win at Arkansas or Auburn could be enough to get to 10 regular season wins with a return trip to the SEC title game awaiting. Imagining national championship opportunities is a little too zero-to-sixty for this team, which is still very green. But based on raw talent alone, with a veteran quarterback, the BCS is only an upset or two away, as a conference champion or an at-large upstart.
Worst-Case. On paper, this looks like Miles' worst team for the sobering lack of proven playmakers outside of Patrick Peterson. The presumptive improvement on offense is mostly of the "can't get any worse" variety, but without concrete steps forward by Jefferson and the offensive line, it doesn't necessarily have to get any better, either. The defense, with so many new faces, is probably even less likely to improve. Within the division, Arkansas and Auburn both seem to be on the rise; add dangerous non-conference dates with North Carolina and West Virginia, and there are eight imminently losable games on the slate, as well. Even with two or three wins in those games, the potentially is unusually high for a full-scale collapse into the Independence or Papajohns.com Bowls a full-scale hot seat for Miles.
Non-Binding Forecast. I think this is a critical year for the program in the long term: The Tigers appear more vulnerable than at any point since Saban's departure, but if they can hold the line at nine wins with a New Year's Day bowl, 2011 shapes up as a possible return to form. Again, based on talent alone, 2010 could be a return to form in its own right. Given the extreme youth throughout the lineup and the killer schedule, though, nine wins would be an achievement. If the diehards can handle 8-4 with a subtle uptick toward the end of the year, the outlook could be a little brighter at this time next year. You can do subtle, right, Tiger fans?
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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments (alphabetically by team): Boston College ... Central Michigan ... Clemson ... Colorado State ... Connecticut ... Florida Atlantic ... Iowa ... Kansas State ... Kentucky ... Oregon State. ... Pittsburgh. ... Stanford.