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. 24 LSU.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: LSU is in desperate need of a quarterback.
This has been a constant theme for the Tigers since, well, I really can’t recall when it all started. Probably when Zach Mettenberger left in 2013, though you could also make an argument for the 2007 Matt Flynn season. And yes, to answer your rude thoughts, reflecting fondly on Mettenberger and Flynn is depressing. The Deadspin 25 has been up and running for going on four years now and not once in that timespan has LSU figured its shit out under center. They can still definitely have a decent 2018 season; I’m just pointing out that Baton Rouge is cursed and I don’t believe this is the year the hex is lifted.
Their 9-4 record from 2017 is what shook out from a truly strange season—LSU lost to Troy and got blown out by Mississippi State, but the Tigers also posted back-to-back wins over Auburn and Florida and forced Notre Dame to score in the final two minutes in a four-point bowl loss. The Tigers were just a weird team, a program on the cusp but still very clearly not yet ready to reenter the octagon with the heavy hitters every single week. The defense was wonderful for the most part. Offensively, they had the explosive running back and experienced receivers, and quarterback/plump-butt lover Danny Etling was a fine game manager—you can do a lot worse than 16 touchdowns and two picks.
The issue was there was never any real threat of an offensive explosion in the games that mattered. *Cue fanboys telling me how they dropped 45 on a shitty Texas A&M defense.* The Tigers surpassed the 25-point mark eight times last season—seven of those games came against unranked teams with scoring defenses outside of the top 40 in the nation. Auburn was the only exception. That’s because just about any defense that’s really worth a damn and is going to compete in the SEC understands the beginner-level concept that if you have one great running back and zero great receivers or great quarterbacks, the defense has cut its job in half.
Head coach Ed Orgeron, now entering his second full year, recognized these same issues last offseason—in December 2016, he hired Matt Canada away from Pittsburgh to stimulate the LSU offense. But the two hard-nosed footbaw men couldn’t seem to overcome their differences, and come this past January, 13 months after he arrived, Canada was off to Maryland to fix the Terrapins’ attack. Oregeron decided to stay in-house with the newest OC, tapping former tight ends coach Steve Ensminger to lead the LSU attack. And ya know what? I like the guy! Via The Times Picayune:
“We’re a very young offense,” he said. “I know nobody wants to hear that, and I could give a damn about it. We don’t know who our quarterback is. We don’t know who our running back is. It’s running back by committee right now. Our receiver group, which I think is outstanding, I really do ... and that’s the depth of our offense right now. I think we’re gonna be really good up front.”
Hell yeah. Why don’t more coaches talk like this when it’s an honest representation of the situation? I’m not talking about some bullshit Nick Saban quote about resetting the clock every year and having to earn it; just a coach telling a reporter straight up that they’re still figuring shit out.
The reason Ensminger is downplaying his squad’s potential is because the Tigers really have no clue how good they’re going to be this year, or if they’re going to be good at all, because they have no clue who’s going to be starting come Week 4.
Let’s start with the most important position. In actuality, the Tigers have three quarterbacks on their roster that could get the nod come opening day—sophomore Myles Brennan was supposed to be the guy going into the offseason, but then he got his ass outplayed by junior southpaw Justin McMillan in the spring game. The position battle was further muddled when Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow joined the mix a month after spring ball had wrapped up, suddenly jumping to the top of the list along with McMillan.
But let’s be kind—let’s assume LSU manages to find one guy that’s at least maintains replacement level production as a game-manager type like Etling. They will then be handing the ball off to either Nick Brossette or Clyde Edwards-Helaire, because, again, the Tigers really aren’t quite sure who’s actually going to hold up against the onslaught brought by SEC front-sevens. LSU returns zero (0!) running backs that scored a touchdown last year, as if Derrius Guice and Leonard Fournette weren’t tough enough to follow.
The receiving corps was similarly gutted at the top, losing DJ Chark and Russell Gage following the 2017 season. The unit will receive a boost from Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles, but past him, expect inexperience and young talent to fill the few remaining slots out wide—look for stud freshman Terrace Marshall to start testing the deep part of the field.
The offense is not as hopeless of a picture as I’m painting—all these players are former four- and five-star recruits who were supposed to end up at a major program. But to achieve what LSU’s athletic department and fan base dream of, to return to the mountaintop, the Tigers are going to need these very good pieces to coalesce rapidly if they want to hit double digits in the win column.
The good news is that the folks we haven’t talked about are the ones that will save the day when the offense is sputtering—LSU’s defense should, again, be extremely reliable.
The Tigers weren’t quite at 2014 or 2016 levels last season, but you’re not going to hear many coach complain about a group that kept opponents to 18.9 points per game. They forced 1.4 turnovers per game and, thanks to a beast of an interior, managed to snuff out all but two rushing attacks that dared aim at their gut. This was good news for, Dave Aranda, a member of the class of people who actually get paid in this sport, as he was handed a $2.5 million annual contract to keep cranking out stifling schemes as the defensive coordinator.
Aranda’s defensive line will be anchored by nose tackle Ed Alexander, your typical 300-plus pound A-gap plug, and end Rashard Lawrence, who even as a sophomore last year was being commended by Orgeron as one of his top defensive on-field leaders.
But as entertaining as watching the Tigers’ front line will be, the 3-4 scheme Aranda likes means that the linebackers will be having most of the fun. Arden Key and Donnie Alexander are gone from last year’s group, but in all honesty, LSU is going to be just fine. Devin White, the team’s leading tackler from a year ago with 133 takedowns, will return alongside K’Lavon Chaisson, a sophomore with a 6-foot-4 frame that makes him look like the future NFL player he is. You can expect both of them to end up on some end-of-year lists and to seriously concern any nimble-footed slot receivers thinking about tip-toeing into the middle of the field.
The secondary should also be a lot of fun this season, mainly because Greedy Williams is back after a phenomenal redshirt freshman season; it also helps that they have solid depth at both safety spots, with John Battle returning to lay down the wood once more after racking up 61 stops last year.
Andraez “Greedy” Williams will be the most entertaining player in an LSU uniform this season.
Williams contributes not only has the ideal high-end level of play needed by the Tigers, but also the ideal nickname—his official bio lists his first name as “Greedy” and claims his “Grandmother nicknamed him Greedy when he was young.” Yes, you will have to listen to another year of broadcasters making the same damn pun every time he does something, but that’s only because he does so much.
Last year, in his first year of college ball, Williams snagged six interceptions, notched 10 defended passes, and did it all with the annoying swagger that only a wiry cornerback can possess. Williams is already a premier lockdown corner, and in this current version of college ball, those tend to come in handy. The Shreveport, La., native finished third-team All-America and second-team All-SEC last season; barring injury, Williams is going to take the next step as a sophomore and continue to haunt the nightmares of SEC gunslingers.
No, LSU is not Playoff material, not this season. Every starter in a major offensive position minus Giles will be basically on a three-week tryout to test whether they’re ready for a full season’s load, and while the defense should be ready from Week 1, you still need a quarterback. Maybe they’ll find the fix at quarterback early on; maybe the “running back by committee” approach works out; maybe Giles breaks out for a 1,400-yard season—a whole bunch has to go right with these question marks. I’m not saying this particular group can’t do it, I’m just saying it’ll be more likely next year.
Hell yeah, love to develop my Cubs.
Sept 2: Miami (Neutral game in Arlington, Texas)
Sept 8:Southeastern Louisiana
Sept 15: @Auburn
Sept. 22: Louisiana Tech
Sept. 29: Ole Miss
Oct. 6: @ Florida
Oct. 13: Georgia
Oct. 20: Mississippi State
Nov. 3: Alabama
Nov. 10: @ Arkansas
Nov. 17: Rice
Nov. 24: @ Texas A&M