August 26, 2009
Part of the Doc's SEC Week. (Brought to you by: Hard drive crashes! When your nose is to the grindstone, nothing hits the spot like a frozen laptop.)
It's a strange thing that, although I've been completely on board with LSU's rehabilitation as an SEC and darkhorse national contender since the Tigers dismantled Georgia Tech last December, it continued to surprise me as the preseason polls rolled out that almost everyone else is, too. They're in the top 10 in the AP poll, the Blog Poll and most of the magazines, and No. 11 according to the coaches; most projections peg the Tigers as the top challenger to Alabama in the SEC West, ahead of Ole Miss, despite the Rebels' head-to-head win in Baton Rouge, better overall season, significantly better quarterback situation and more experienced returning lineup. All hail the power of the brand.
But I'm right there with them, relatively unwavering, fully expecting LSU to give Florida its toughest fight of the season on Oct. 10 and possibly to take all three of the brutal road trips to Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss. If there's even the remotest chance of the season going down that way, all of the following has to be true:
The talent is still there. Not that anyone is really arguing this point, since we're talking about clearly one of the elite programs in the country over the past six years, where about a third of the starting lineup is still manned by starters or significant contributors to the '07 championship team. But just for a handy reminder:
The Tigers have put together four straight top 10 classes under Les Miles, and of the likely new starters, at least five -- T-Bob Hebert, Josh Dworaczyk, Terrence Toliver, Patrick Peterson and Ron Brooks -- were four or five-star prospects rated in Rivals' top 250 overall players in their respective classes, all of whom played a good bit last year as underclassmen.
They (probably) fixed the quarterback. The jury may be out on Jordan Jefferson, but it's safe to say they'll be better at quarterback, at least -- a deliberating jury is preferable to one giving Jarrett Lee a unanimous thumbs-down. It's also deeper if things start to go wrong: Whether or not freshman phenom Russell Shepard scares anyone yet with his arm, he should be able to find some use as a change-of-pace/spot duty guy who isn't made of glass like Andrew Hatch. (Or, even if he is, can at least elude the large men seeking to shatter him into a thousand pieces.) Given the choice, I think almost any Tiger partisan will take Jefferson/Shepard over Lee/Hatch.
Of course, to an extent, that's because the former combo hasn't really had a chance to prove its unworthiness; Lee and Hatch were widely presumed to be just fine going into last year, considering the surrounding talent. But Jefferson showed a better grasp of the offense in the bowl game than Lee showed at any point throughout the season, and none of the same penchant for routine giveaways, even while struggling through the losses to Ole Miss and Arkansas in his first significant action. Jefferson has the size, the projection and the versatility -- Gary Crowton can re-open parts of the playbook once intended for Ryan Perrilloux, sections Lee and Hatch were too immobile to contemplate -- to suggest the Chick-Fil-A Bowl breakthrough was more indicative of his future than the loss to Arkansas.
They (almost definitely) fixed the defense. Even after Bo Pelini left after three years of exploding offenses like a quarryman places and sets off dynamite, it was just assumed that last year's mostly intact D would keep to the same dominant course. But the "co-coordinator" experiment with Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory yielded startling results upon close observation, namely that the co-coordinator thing was probably a very, very bad idea:
The impressive numbers preceded Pelini's arrival with Miles in 2005 -- the Tigers finished in the top 15 nationally in total defense three years in a row from 2002-04, including No. 1 in both categories in the '03 championship season. A top-10 defense is normal here; last year's group barely finished in the top 10 in the SEC. Mallory and Peveto are now coaching elsewhere.
Not that you can blame them entirely: Just shy of half the regulars were freshmen and sophomores. That's good for John Chavis, who comes from somehow orchestrating the conference's best defense last year while going down with the Tennessee Titanic. LSU's secondary, clearly the weak link last year, could look a lot like Florida's young cover guys in their dramatic improvement from inept noobs in 2007 to one of the best secondaries in the country during last year's title run -- like Joe Haden and Major Wright, et al in Gainesville, Patrick Peterson and Jai Eugene are former blue chips who have taken their lumps at the outset and should be over the hump en route to fulfilling the hype with a year under their belts; as a junior, safety Chad Jones should be rounding into All-SEC form by now. But the big change is Chavis' steadying influence, and he should have enough at his disposal to take a full touchdown off last year's scoring average.
The central theme in all of the prescriptions is that LSU is still the LSU that loomed over the SEC throughout Miles' first two seasons, or at least still has the ingredients to be the same team. Last year was a mulligan, an aberration in the longer streak; adjustment have been made, miscalculations corrected, talented youngsters wizened, and the regression to the mean is imminent. LSU, for now, is still LSU.
But if that's not the case this year -- if the Tigers endure another four or five-loss debacle on the way to another second-rate bowl game -- the evidence of decay as the program drifts further from the Saban era will be too strong to argue away with past glories and recruiting stars. If they don't regain that edge immediately, the benefit of the doubt will not be waiting with such open arms next year.