The pieces are in place for LSU to enjoy its best season in years. But can the Tigers keep it together during the late-season stretch that has derailed other promising seasons -- most recently last year?
That's one of the key questions as the Tigers prepare to open the season Sept. 3 against Wisconsin. Here is how things are shaping up at LSU with the opener just over a week away:
Key question heading into Week 1: How will Dave Aranda's new 3-4 defense shape up against Wisconsin? All we have seen from LSU's new defensive coordinator and his revamped scheme thus far came in the Tigers' spring game. Is it ready for prime time against a Badgers team that should be adept at running the ball? The pieces are there for this to be an all-star defense under Aranda, who was highly successful in three seasons at Wisconsin before joining Les Miles' staff in January. However, we need to see these guys operate in game conditions -- and facing Wisconsin at Lambeau Field is no easy assignment.
Position battle to watch: At the end of spring practice, it seemed that Maea Teuhema and Toby Weathersby were in line to take over for Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander as the Tigers' starting offensive tackles. Teuhema spent the first portion of preseason practice with his injured foot in a walking boot, though, and K.J. Malone has not relinquished the starting job even after Teuhema's return to the practice field. Miles indicated earlier this week that Malone and Weathersby could start against Wisconsin, but didn't offer any guarantees. Teuhema will be tough to keep off the field after starting 11 games at guard last season as a true freshman.
Instant-impact freshman: Early enrollee Michael Divinity has reportedly been working as a starting outside linebacker opposite Arden Key in LSU's base defense lately. Perhaps other freshmen will play bigger roles than Divinity -- ESPN's No. 51 overall prospect in the 2016 class -- as the season develops. But he seems to be the safest choice as an instant-impact performer for now.
Breakout performer: Speaking of Key, the sophomore pass-rusher has some ambitious goals after recording five sacks last year as a true freshman. Key said last week he wants to record 20 sacks this fall and return at least two interceptions for touchdowns. Even if he falls short of those numbers, Key seems sure to raise his sack total in his new role as an outside linebacker under Aranda.
Make-or-break stretch: The most daunting portion of the schedule is once again the second half of LSU's SEC slate. The Tigers dropped three straight November games last season -- against Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas -- after climbing to No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Miles' team is 2-7 against those SEC West rivals over the last three seasons. The Tigers will once again face them in consecutive games, first hosting Ole Miss on Oct. 22, then hosting Alabama on Nov. 5 and finally visiting Arkansas on Nov. 12. If LSU is to earn the playoff spot that many Tigers fans expect, it will have to navigate that late portion of the schedule more effectively than it has in the past few years.
Best case: With a top-five national preseason ranking, the potential exists for LSU to make some noise in the playoff race. The Tigers have a wealth of experience and talent returning -- including Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette, linebacker Kendell Beckwith, cornerback Tre'Davious White and safety Jamal Adams -- and enter this season as the most likely challenger to Alabama's SEC West throne. If Miles' team handles its business late in the season and snaps its five-game losing streak against the Crimson Tide, it would not be difficult to envision an 11-1 season and a spot in the SEC championship game in December.
Worst case: We've seen LSU fold late in the fall each year since 2011. The Tigers were unbeaten entering November a year ago and nearly cost Miles his job with their flat finish. If the defense gets off to a rocky start or if quarterback Brandon Harris fails to raise his level of play, it would not be a shock to see LSU finish about like it did last season: as an SEC also-ran.