Four ‘what ifs’ that could turn LSU football into a title contender in 2021

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We know the expectation level for the Lousiana State Tigers football program for the upcoming season.

After a perfect campaign in 2019, the Bayou Bengals didn’t have a great follow-up season. They came into the year as the No. 6 ranked team in the country and that lasted all of one week. After Mike Leach’s Air Raid picked apart the defense, they fell to No. 20.

The Tigers finished with a record of 5-5, they played three ranked opponents going 1-2 in those games.

They knocked the Florida Gators out of playoff contention with the 37-34 victory ahead of the shootout with Ole Miss. With the changes made over the offseason, can the Tigers return to form and challenge for the SEC Championship?

According to ESPN’s Bill Connolly, there are four “what ifs” the Tigers need in order to become a title contender. According to BetMGM, LSU has the eighth-best odds at winning the College Football Playoffs for 2021. This is how ESPN sees how the Tigers can become title contenders (subscription required):

It all starts at the quarterback position

If small sample Myles Brennan is large sample Myles Brennan

(Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Last season Myles Brennan stepped up to take the place of the departing Heisman Trophy winner, Joe Burrow. In three games as the quarterback for Ed Orgeron’s team, Brennan completed 60.3% of his passes for 1,112 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. If you could extrapolate those numbers across a full 12-game slate, then you are looking at a highly productive season.

At that rate, Brennan would throw for 4,448 yards with 44 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. One would think that any Tiger fan and the coaching staff would take that level of production at the quarterback position. Of course, this means they are banking on Brennan to beat out Max Johnson for the starting nod.

What ESPN Says…

Brennan is battling sophomore Max Johnson in 2021; Johnson improved late in the season but never matched Brennan’s small-sample upside. The winner of the QB job will have an almost guaranteed star in Kayshon Boutte (last three games of 2020: 27 catches, 527 yards) and solid complements in Jaray Jenkins and Koy Moore, plus every starting lineman and last year’s top two RBs. To some degree, a rebound is imminent. Can either Brennan or Johnson conjure sustained elite play?

Next, a change at defensive coordinator

If the new defensive coordinator hire is infinitely more successful

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The Bo Pelini experiment was a failed one after losing Dave Aranda to the Baylor Bears. Former NFL assistant Daronte Jones comes to Baton Rouge looking to right the ship for the defense. With so many returning starters to the defense, Jones has the talent ready to make a difference. The question is can he get them back to where they were two years ago?

What ESPN Says…

In Bo Pelini’s lone year as DC, LSU fell to 69th in defensive SP+, and while there were bad breaks from an injury perspective, communication errors and questionable tactics doomed the D. Ed Orgeron replaced Pelini with Daronte Jones, a longtime NFL assistant with ties to LSU’s successful former DC, Dave Aranda. LSU returns nine defensive starters and could rebound quickly if Jones is the man for the job.

Next, an impact freshman steps up

If the defensive front finds some push

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The LSU Tigers defense is no stranger to applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks at the college and NFL levels. In 2021, the defense needs to do more of that to help out their chances at the College Football Playoffs in the upcoming season.

Defensive end Ali Gaye finished with 9.5 tackles for loss but only two sacks in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. The leading sack artist played on the opposite end of Gaye with Andre Anthony finishing with 5.5 sacks on the season. Anthony’s primary backup in BJ Ojulari was second with four himself. Could the defense get help from a blue-chip freshman in Maason Smith?

What ESPN Says…

LSU ranked 110th in rushing success rate allowed in 2020; last year’s top six linemen return, but it could be necessary that a couple of blue-chip freshmen — especially 330-pounder Maason Smith — are ready to steal time from the veterans.

Finally, a lockdown cornerback returns to form

If 2019 Derek Stingley Jr is back

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Coming out of high school in the 2019 recruiting class, there wasn’t a higher touted cornerback than Derek Stingley Jr. He finished his freshman campaign on a National Championship team playing in all 15 games. Stingley finished with six interceptions, 15 passes defended, and one fumble recovery. When it came to throwing the ball, you had to be careful throwing the way of No. 24.

Last season it was a completely different story in seven games played. He forced one fumble and recovered one. His passes defended dropped to just five and Stingley didn’t intercept a single pass. We do know that his health was a major reason. For the Tigers to roar in 2021, the No. 1 cornerback from the 2019 class needs to return to his freshman form.

What ESPN Says…

Stingley suffered the ultimate sophomore slump in 2020. He was barely 100 percent healthy all season, and his and the LSU secondary’s production slipped significantly. Any chance of a big LSU rebound requires a big Stingley rebound.