Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 16 LSU.
Last October, despite heading into the season with quarterback concerns, LSU looked well on its way to challenging for the SEC crown and a spot in the college football playoff. Then November arrived.
The Tigers allowed a combined 99 points in three consecutive losses to conference foes Alabama, (unranked) Arkansas, and Ole Miss, prompting their fall out of the AP Poll and the rise of boosters bitching about firing Les Miles. While athletic director Joe Alleva isn’t particularly known for being a wait-and-see kind of guy, LSU got it right and kept Miles around for the remainder of the season. The Tigers downed Texas Tech 59-27 in their bowl game to end the year on a high note. Miles then spent the offseason securing one of the best recruiting classes, hiring a stud defensive coordinator, and bringing back a top defensive tackle to add to an already-stacked front seven.
Now, with the 2016 season just over a week away, LSU and its 18(!) returning starters are once again in the position to lay claim to its first-ever playoff berth—that is, if they can make through the entire year without shitting the bed.
As mentioned above and in the Wisconsin preview, the Tigers have a new defensive coordinator in Dave Aranda, arguably the best hire of the offseason. Aranda will look to come in and make some adjustments to a defensive unit spilling over with talent but lacking in the ability to execute against top-flight SEC offenses. Since relocating, the 39-year-old has spent the offseason bringing LSU’s defense up to speed on his 3-4 scheme, which, thanks to sustained recruiting efforts, should be a thing of beauty.
Anchoring that line will be nose guard Travonte Valentine—the 6-foot-3, 356-pound player returns to LSU after a brief hiatus that resulted in him making two stops at junior college programs before rejoining the Tigers. He was dismissed from LSU last July after struggling academically and reportedly failing a couple drug tests in his two years on campus. He went on to play six games for Arizona Western College, after which he was dismissed for a disorderly conduct charge that was eventually dropped. Valentine then joined Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and completed a summer course to regain eligibility. Two days ago, LSU announced Valentine was cleared to join the team immediately. While he’s yet to play a down for LSU, Valentine has received what seems to be genuine hype for his ability to disrupt the interior of an offensive line. If he, or LSU, can make sure he remains eligible for the semester, Valentine and ends Davon Godchaux and Lewis Neal can form a great 3-4 line for the Tigers.
At linebacker, Aranda will have have a group seniors coming back to start and a bevy of underclassmen waiting in the ranks. Seniors Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley lead the interior group while classmates Corey Thompson and Tashawn Bower will share time at the field-side outside linebacker position. Sophomore Arden Key will be the young blood amongst the group, as he is set to start opposite of Thompson or Bower.
Senior Tre’Davious White returns as the secondary’s main shutdown corner—White could have attempted to make the jump to the NFL after last season, but instead opted to boost his draft stock and play his senior year. Junior Jamal Adams and senior Ricky Jefferson will return to their starting safety slots, though Dwayne Thomas may challenge Jefferson for the starting role.
The LSU offense will be led by Leonard Fournette, the most complete running back in the nation, and will feature junior Brandon Harris at quarterback. He will have Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, two players who have shown a lot of promise, hauling in passes out wide. If LSU hopes to capture its first conference title since 2011, Harris will have to play a much more consistent game than he did last year. Pictured below is a list, via CFBStats, of his completion percentages over the course of the season, with the season average coming out to 53.6.
That’s... bad. And that chart mercifully excludes his game-by-game touchdown and interception totals. He finished the season with 13 scores and six picks, and had three games in which he failed to throw a touchdown. It would be different if he was a running threat, but 226 total rushing yards and four scores, in college football, isn’t going to frighten many defensive coordinators. To a degree, I understand why and how LSU fans rationalize being excited about having Harris at quarterback—quarterback desperation in Baton Rogue is at an all-time high, and Harris, while quite far from perfect, showed flashes in games against Florida and Western Kentucky. But the Tigers don’t need a player who can only be good a few times a year, especially with the limited depth at wide receiver. They need a quarterback that can take the pressure off the running game and actually force teams to divert their linebackers and safeties away from the box.
As long as Leonard Fournette is still lining up in the LSU backfield, he will be the guy to know.
Fournette is a true physical specimen. While I can and will sing the praises of other running backs like Nick Chubb, Fournette is still the guy most likely to have you sitting at your computer, mouth agape, rewinding through highlight tapes and heading to Google to make sure the defenders he just planted into the dirt still play football. Fournette’s legs can power his 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame through a 40-yard dash as fast as 4.35 seconds—this, paired with incredible strength, is how he rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 scores last season. He’s a Heisman favorite, considered by many, myself included, to be the best back in college football. Watch him now before he has to go run against NFL defenses every week.
This is pretty easy, actually. If Harris can be decent—that means throwing maybe 20 scores and completing more than 53 percent of his passes—the Tigers have the pieces in place to make an actual run at the playoff. If he plays like he did last year, expect similar results. It seems dangerous to put so much weight on one player, but it is the quarterback, after all. And if Harris is the best LSU can do, it better hope he stays healthy.
Les Miles is weird, crazy, and he signs his tweets. Not a dick, though.
Sept. 3: @ Wisconsin
Sept. 10: Jacksonville State
Sept. 17: Mississippi State
Sept. 24: @ Auburn
Oct. 1: Missouri
Oct. 8: Florida
Oct. 15: Southern Miss
Oct. 22: Ole Miss
Nov. 5: Alabama
Nov. 12: @ Arkansas
Nov. 19: South Alabama
Nov. 24: @ Texas A&M