Chasing Alabama: LSU Tigers

Another season, another SEC championship for Alabama. That’s three in a row for the Crimson Tide, and the rest of the teams in the conference have gradually fallen off in their pursuit of the champs.

Maybe there’s hope, though. Maybe there’s a team up to the challenge, a team that can emerge and dethrone the juggernaut created by Nick Saban. For the second straight year, we’ll take a look at the SEC’s top contenders and their cases for overtaking the Tide in 2017.

Next in our series are the LSU Tigers:

How they can beat Alabama: Only a handful of programs -- not just in the SEC, but nationally -- recruit at a level that is anywhere near the standard Alabama has set. LSU is one of them, which is why there was a time that the Tigers sat neck-and-neck with Alabama in the race for SEC dominance. Athletically, LSU is among the few SEC programs that is not at a severe disadvantage when it faces Alabama. The problem since 2011, when LSU has dropped six straight against Alabama and tumbled backward to also-ran status, has been twofold. One, the conservative offensive strategy the Tigers brought into several recent Alabama losses produced historically poor results. Two, despite its overall recruiting success, LSU has not signed and developed sufficient talent at particular position groups (namely quarterback), widening the gap between the two programs when they have met head-to-head.

What’s standing in their way: LSU fans’ hope is that the coaching change from the Les Miles-Cam Cameron era to Ed Orgeron, offensive coordinator Matt Canada and a reworked offensive staff will be the spark that the Tigers’ offense needed. Miles’ philosophy generally produced winning results in recent years, but not enough to contend for the big prizes that his position demanded. Orgeron knows that modernizing the offense, specifically by moving away from the plodding rushing attack that bogged down in some of LSU’s biggest games, will be the key to his success. That’s where Canada comes in. The only 2016 Broyles Award finalist who coached offense, Canada posted big numbers last season at Pittsburgh and has built a solid reputation for developing quarterbacks and drawing up inventive offensive schemes. LSU lacked in both departments in recent years, and if Canada fails to solve those issues, the Tigers will not gain ground on the Crimson Tide.

X factor: Not to be repetitive, but it all starts with the quarterback position. Only twice in Miles’ nearly 12 seasons at LSU did he have a full-time starter post a Total Quarterback Rating higher than Danny Etling’s 71.8 from last season: JaMarcus Russell in 2006 (82.1) and Zach Mettenberger in 2013 (86.8). And that’s not exactly setting a high bar if you watched Etling last season, when he was generally solid but rarely spectacular. Canada must recruit and develop players who are more than just game managers who turn around and hand the ball to whichever five-star running back might be standing behind him. It bears mentioning here that quarterback recruiting and development are vital if LSU is to become more competitive against Alabama, but protecting that quarterback is another area where the Tigers have fallen short. Watching LSU-Alabama games in the past two years made it painfully obvious that the Tigers were seriously outmanned along the line of scrimmage. Alabama simply dominated LSU’s offensive line and the Tigers’ quarterbacks became rattled as a result. That reaction is only natural when you’re running for your life. So sure, the quarterbacks must play more effectively, but the line and receivers have to hold up their end of the bargain, as well.