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Developing talent the key now for LSU

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s 2014 season is halfway home, but in some ways it feels like it’s already over.

The Tigers’ 41-7 loss to Auburn on Saturday night was the worst in Les Miles’ nine-plus seasons at LSU, a program that Miles and his staff have kept among the annual contenders in the SEC and national championship pictures. Not this year, though.

Today the Tigers (4-2, 0-2 SEC) are in an unfamiliar position: unranked and an afterthought in the loaded SEC West. After losing their first two games in conference play -- the first time that has happened since 2001 -- it's natural to wonder what LSU can do to salvage this season.

“Well, win, stupid,” you’re probably saying. Yes, closing the regular season with a six-game winning streak would certainly be a perfect salve for the wounds LSU suffered in its two SEC games thus far: losses to No. 2 Auburn and No. 3 Mississippi State, which combined for 1,136 yards of total offense against John Chavis’ struggling defense.

But let’s be realistic. ESPN’s Football Power Index shows that LSU has the nation’s toughest remaining schedule. It hasn’t lost for the final time this season.

A program can’t lose this much underclassman talent to the NFL and reasonably expect not to feel the effects of those departures. Miles surely hoped talent (and LSU has plenty of that) would trump experience, but this is the wrong season in the West to test that assumption.

Mississippi State and Auburn both destroyed LSU with runs up the middle. Surprise, surprise, the Tigers lost both of last season’s starting defensive tackles, Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, who handled the vast majority of snaps at the position before entering the draft as underclassmen.

This year’s defensive line is young and has been ineffective. The Tigers have signed some coveted defensive line prospects in recent years, but many of those players either aren’t healthy or aren’t ready to perform.

Last year, LSU was the best offense in the nation at converting third downs, but all four of the most important skill players in that standing (quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry) are gone. Three of them had eligibility remaining when they entered the draft.

With the exception of the disappointing offensive line, evaluations of just about any position group at LSU sound like a broken record: Talented, but inexperienced. Not playing to its potential yet. Over and over and over.

LSU’s problem, as a friend said to me last week, is that there is no free agency in college football. The Tigers aren’t the New York Yankees. They can’t break out the checkbook and sign a high-priced free agent who can fill an immediate need or trade prospects for a veteran who can help them contend for championships today.

The only way LSU can salvage this season is by developing the talent that will help the Tigers return to the top of the SEC West heap in the future. It might be painful in the short term, but this team has more than enough talent to compete for a College Football Playoff spot in the next couple of years. It wouldn’t hurt to think about the bigger picture, even if Miles understandably will refuse to write off this season.

Settle on a quarterback between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings and then let that guy endure the growing pains that will help him at crunch time in 2015 and 2016. Give lots of reps to sophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith and freshman safety Jamal Adams, the future leaders of the Tigers’ defense. Get those young defensive tackles on the field. Miles said last week on his radio show that true freshman Trey Lealaimatafao might play Saturday against Florida and that fellow signee Travonte Valentine might become eligible in the near future. Get that back to being the position of strength that it usually is at LSU.

Getting those guys on the field is how LSU can make the second half of this season a productive one. Tigers fans might not like the immediate results, but something tells me that when those players are winning All-SEC honors and the Tigers are winning big again in the next couple of years, they’ll agree that having enduring those temporary (and unavoidable) growing pains made the wins that much more enjoyable.