Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 6 LSU

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State | No. 11 Oregon | No. 10 Florida | No. 9 Notre Dame | No. 8 Texas | No. 7 Michigan

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No. 6 LSU

2018 record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)

Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense

LSU’s progression under Ed Orgeron

When Ed Orgeron landed his dream job at LSU, there was plenty of skepticism. Orgeron was known for his prowess on the recruiting trail and coaching up defensive linemen, but a disastrous three-year term at Ole Miss loomed over his head. But he learned from that failure, and from being passed over for the head job at USC, and vowed to lead the program he grew up idolizing back to the top of college football.

But when Nick Saban and Alabama are in your division, that’s far easier said than done. After all, falling behind Alabama in the SEC West pecking order is a big reason Les Miles was let go. Miles’ firing put Orgeron back in an interim role like he had at USC. But this time, the interim tag was lifted and he was given the job full-time.

Orgeron’s first season got off to a tumultuous start, but the Tigers closed out the year with a 9-4 record by winning six of their last seven regular season games.

Even after a strong finish to 2017, not much was expected of Orgeron’s group in 2018. But the Tigers opened the year by surprisingly punching Miami and Auburn in the mouth. There was also a triumphant victory over No. 2 Georgia, but the Tigers’ struggles against Alabama continued. There was also the absurd 7OT loss to Texas A&M. Still, LSU, with a Fiesta Bowl victory over UCF, reached double-digit wins for the first time since 2013.

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Entering 2019, Orgeron acknowledged that he’s “more comfortable” in his role, but he knows there is still plenty of room for the program to grow if it wants to reach the College Football Playoff.

“Last year I felt we had a good season. We were two plays away from being 12-1. We've got to expound on that this year. We cannot make the mistakes we made against Florida. We had opportunities to win at Texas A&M. Those are the two things we need to look at,” Orgeron said at SEC Media Days.

“Now, we had some big wins. Auburn was a big win. Miami was a big win. Georgia was a big win. Those were big wins. We did not play well against Alabama. Now we have to go on the road and play them again. We have a tough schedule this year, but we have a good football team. We should be able to answer the bell.”

Ed Orgeron is entering his third season as LSU's full-time head coach. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Ed Orgeron is entering his third season as LSU's full-time head coach. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Will this new-look LSU offense stick?

Orgeron has pledged to change LSU’s offense again. When he got the job, he brought in Matt Canada to be his offensive coordinator. Canada put up big numbers as the OC at Pittsburgh with his motion-heavy offense. That was a pretty drastic shift from the smash-mouth style LSU had instituted throughout the decade, and it didn’t take long for Orgeron to figure out that wasn’t what he wanted. Canada was not retained and longtime Tigers assistant Steve Ensminger was promoted to coordinator for 2018.

Orgeron also found himself a quarterback. Joe Burrow, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, won the starting job and quickly endeared himself to the fanbase with his fearless play. But the offense wasn’t very dynamic, especially through the air. The Tigers were 10th in the SEC in total offense and were shut out by Alabama for the second time in three seasons.

The lack of a competent passing attack isn’t foreign to Baton Rouge, so Orgeron made an intriguing hire for 2019, plucking 28-year-old Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints to be his passing game coordinator. At SEC Media Days, Orgeron said Brady has been a “game changer” and that the offense would cater to Burrow’s dual-threat capabilities.

“We went to the spread. We hired Joe Brady. He came from the Saints, very talented coach. He spent some time at Penn State where he learned the RPOs, the run pass options, and he has been a game changer for our staff. He and Steve Ensminger work together wonderful,” Orgeron said. “I expect those two to run a very prolific offense led by Joe Burrow. This is Joe's type of offense.”

And don’t expect Orgeron to change his mind, either.

“We're going to run the spread offense. It's in. It's in the playbook,” Orgeron told a skeptical reporter. “So it's not a threat, I promise you that. We're going to run it.”

Burrow has a strong cast around him, with Clyde Edwards-Helaire leading the way at running back alongside acclaimed freshmen John Emery and Tyron Davis-Price. The group of receivers is deep and talented. Seven of the team’s top nine pass-catchers from a year ago return, led by Justin Jefferson and his 54 catches for 875 yards.

Joe Burrow threw for 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first season as LSU's starting quarterback. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Joe Burrow threw for 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first season as LSU's starting quarterback. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

One of the best defenses in the country

LSU has the chance to have one of the best defenses in the country, and Orgeron identified three key areas for improvement at SEC Media Days: defending the run, getting pressure on the quarterback without blitzing and defending the deep ball.

Above all else, Orgeron is especially bullish about the potential of his secondary.

All-American safety Grant Delpit, a junior who Orgeron believes is the best defensive player in the country, highlights that group. Delpit put up 74 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and five interceptions last fall. Kristian Fulton is coming off an ankle injury, but should be one of the top corners in the SEC this season. Opposite Fulton at corner will likely be Derek Stingley, the No. 1 recruit in the 2019 class. Stingley will likely slide into the role vacated by Greedy Williams, who left for the NFL after back-to-back All-SEC seasons. JaCoby Stevens and Todd Harris are battling it out for the other starting safety spot, but both will have significant roles no matter who starts.

“I think this is the best group of defensive backs I've ever coached. That's 35 years of coaching. I'm talking about a collective group,” Orgeron said.

The group of linebackers is star-studded as well, despite the loss of All-American Devin White. K’Lavon Chaisson is returning to health after a knee injury and should be the team’s top pass rusher. Michael Divinity, who played on the edge after Chaisson’s injury, has moved inside and will hold down a starting spot. Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen are duking it out for the last starting spot, but both will play a ton.

Two of the team’s top defensive linemen, Rashard Lawrence and Breiden Fehoko, are back at end while sophomore Tyler Shelvin and freshman Siaki Ika clog the middle at nose tackle. Shelvin and Ika both top 340 pounds and should help the Tigers stuff the run.

Needless to say, the defense has no shortage of talent.

Biggest game: at Alabama (Nov. 9)

LSU’s trip to Austin to play Texas in Week 2 will be a big test, but the season always revolves around the SEC. And starting Oct. 12, the Tigers have a brutal four-game conference stretch against Florida, Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama. If they get through the first three unscathed, the Tigers have a bye week before traveling to Tuscaloosa to face the mighty Crimson Tide. Alabama has won eight straight in the series. In the last three losses, LSU has put up a combined 10 points and been shut out twice.

LSU has lost eight straight games to Alabama. Alabama won 29-0 in 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
LSU has lost eight straight games to Alabama. Alabama won 29-0 in 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Impact player

LB K’Lavon Chaisson

When LSU opened up the 2018 season against Miami, it didn’t take long to figure out that the Tigers were going to be really strong on defense. LSU defenders were flying to the football and one player who stood out was outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson. Chaisson logged five tackles, one tackle for loss and a sack before tearing his ACL in the fourth quarter. There is an abundance of talent on the defense, but Chaisson, who returned to practice a few days ago, is the guy Orgeron has identified as his team’s “best pass rusher.”

Biggest question mark

If there’s a potential weakness on this team, it’s the offensive line, a position group that has been banged up throughout preseason practice. Lloyd Cushenberry and Damien Lewis are All-SEC performers at center and guard, but there has been plenty of shuffling around elsewhere. Lewis has been in and out of practice while Chasen Hines, another potential starter at guard, has also missed time. Five-star freshman Kardell Thomas will reportedly undergo surgery as well. Saahdiq Charles should start at a tackle spot, but struggled in pass protection last fall. For this new offense to work the way Orgeron envisions, the line needs to come together.

Breakout player

WR Ja’Marr Chase

Chase wasn’t the most heralded receiver recruit in LSU’s 2018 class, but he ended up being the most productive. Chase, ranked No. 67 overall by Rivals.com, caught 23 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns. He got better as the season progressed, too. In the Fiesta Bowl victory over UCF, Chase led the way with six catches for 93 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown early in the second half.

Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

S Grant Delpit

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: This is as talented a defense as you’ll find in the country and perhaps the most loaded secondary out there. In the middle of it all is Delpit, a tremendous talent who right now stands as one of our 10 best prospects regardless of position heading into the college football season.

We’re talking about a prototypically sized, versatile defender with almost everything you’re looking for in a modern safety. Perhaps Delpit isn’t the enforcer that Jamal Adams was a few years ago. But we love Delpit’s value in coverage, able to play deep halves, cover the slot and be a box defender as a pseudo-linebacker. I’m not certain there was a back-seven college defender last season who made more highlight-reel plays, and Delpit led LSU in sacks and interceptions last season. He’ll be a terrific chess player for an NFL defense one day and, we believe, a future Pro Bowl player.

If there’s a knock on Delpit’s game, it’s that he can clean up his tackling and his block-shedding ability. Showing gains in those areas this season could make him even more special.

LSU safety Grant Delpit emerged as one of the best players in the country in 2018. (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
LSU safety Grant Delpit emerged as one of the best players in the country in 2018. (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Fantasy sleeper

WR Terrace Marshall Jr.

After putting up 12 receptions for 192 yards as a true freshman, Terrace Marshall Jr. looks in line for a more significant role on the Tigers in 2019. While Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase should be the top two targets for Burrow, Marshall could be the big-play threat LSU lacked last fall. A five-star recruit in the 2018 class, Marshall dealt with the lingering effects of a serious high school injury last year. But based on reports out of Baton Rouge, he is now fully healthy.

Over/under projection

Over 9

If you believe in the offense, taking the over is easy, right? There are so many evenly matched games in the SEC, but LSU gets Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M at home this year. I expect the Tigers to win at Texas in Week 2. That leaves you room for two losses to hit the over. I’ll take that bet.

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