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Chasing Alabama: LSU Tigers

Improved play by quarterback Brandon Harris could be LSU's biggest key in catching Alabama in the SEC. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

For the previous two seasons -- and honestly, for the majority of several seasons before that -- the rest of the SEC was chasing Alabama.

Everyone will open the 2016 season as the Crimson Tide’s pursuers, again, although only a few teams are legitimate threats to catch up to Nick Saban’s juggernaut. Over the next several days, we’ll take a look at the Tide’s fellow SEC contenders and their cases for overtaking Alabama in the upcoming season.

We now continue with SEC West heavyweight LSU, which returns one of the most experienced rosters in the nation:

How they can beat Alabama: Les Miles had plenty of experience beating Saban and Alabama at one point, but it has been a while. The Tigers have not defeated Alabama since the 2011 regular season, having dropped five in a row since then. There have been some close calls -- namely a last-minute loss in 2012 and an overtime defeat in 2014 -- but the outcome has remained the same. It will happen again, though, and it will likely happen much like Miles’ previous wins over the Tide occurred: by matching Alabama physically and making a couple of big plays. LSU is one of the few teams in the country that has a similar number of future NFL players on its roster, and that will especially be the case with a 2016 team that includes Leonard Fournette, Tre’Davious White, Jamal Adams, Kendell Beckwith, Ethan Pocic and Malachi Dupre. This Tigers are positioned to win big, but if they can’t beat Bama this year, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Miles can get LSU back to being the equal rival to Alabama that it once was.

What’s standing in their way: LSU hung with Alabama for a while last season before the Tide’s superior roster depth helped them pull away and hand the Tigers a humbling 30-16 defeat. Alabama’s tough front seven also overwhelmed an LSU offensive line that had been formidable up to that point. That was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the loss, as Fournette never found any running room and an LSU line that prides itself on physicality took a whipping. The Tigers rarely deal with such an issue, but their offense was unable to keep pace with Alabama when the running game was not working. That brings us to perhaps the biggest obstacle standing between LSU and its championship aspirations: a dysfunctional passing game. Brandon Harris had his moments in his first season as a starting quarterback, but he faded down the stretch. For instance, he was 6-for-19 for 128 yards, one touchdown and one interception against Alabama. Assuming he retains the starting job, the junior quarterback needs to be a more consistent performer if LSU is to claim a division or conference title.

X factor: Dave Aranda’s presence on Miles’ coaching staff could add an interesting element to this series. The former Wisconsin defensive coordinator’s move to Baton Rouge ranks among the nation’s most high-profile hires this offseason. Widely viewed as a defensive innovator, he will bring a multiple defense with 3-4 influences to LSU and could help solve some of the issues the Tigers experienced in one season under Kevin Steele. The bigger questions with LSU concern the offensive side of the ball, but if Aranda can get LSU back to playing 2011-era defense, its chances of overtaking Alabama will still improve considerably.