LSU’s season fell short of the expectations Les Miles has established as the Tigers’ coach, with his team failing to achieve 10 wins for the first time since 2009.
But it wasn’t all bad. Miles’ young team made progress in several areas that could serve LSU well in 2015 and beyond.
Let’s review three pluses and three minuses that marked 2014 for LSU, which finished the regular season at 8-4 following last Thursday’s win over Texas A&M:
Defensive line growth: For years, LSU has been one of the nation’s most effective programs at turning out NFL-caliber defensive linemen, but the Tigers looked anything but impressive early in the season. Opposing offenses were running right up the middle and around the edge for huge gains, and the Tigers frequently looked inept up front. Defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter typically played well, but the interior line was a work in progress. However, once freshman Davon Godchaux settled in alongside Christian LaCouture at defensive tackle, the Tigers’ luck began to change. By the end of the season, the interior line was no longer a liability. That bodes well for next season, when the Tigers should have experience and depth in the middle.
Freshman stars emerge: Excitement surrounded LSU’s true freshman class, and we’re only starting to see what the group can do. We got a good taste of tailback Leonard Fournette’s capabilities, as the top overall prospect was the driving force in at least two Tigers wins (over Florida and A&M). And it’s clear that safety Jamal Adams is a future star in a secondary that ranked among the nation’s best. We also got glimpses of star potential from Godchaux, receiver Malachi Dupre, quarterback Brandon Harris and running back Darrel Williams. This season was only the tip of the iceberg, however. The 2014 class is off to a good start, but this group has yet to approach the enormous impact that it eventually will make.
Offensive line comes through: We can’t completely ignore LSU’s 123-yard showing in a shutout loss to Arkansas, but that unbelievably poor effort only reinforced how much progress the starting offensive line had made to that point -- before injuries to left guard Vadal Alexander and center Elliott Porter forced the Tigers to play shorthanded against the Razorbacks. Up to that point, the offensive line had made enormous progress over the course of the season. The veteran group struggled early, but eventually became the most dependable bunch on the offense. The Tigers’ 388 rushing yards against A&M (with Alexander back in the lineup) served as a suitable rebound from the disappointing night against Arkansas.
Quarterback development: Perhaps the most disappointing element of the season was that the Tigers failed to improve more at quarterback. The position was one of the team’s biggest question marks entering the season, and Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings both struggled. Sophomore Jennings started all but one game, but he was ineffective throughout the season. The problem was that Harris -- who was horrible in his lone start, a blowout loss to Auburn -- failed to take the job away from the underperforming Jennings. Miles acknowledged that Harris is the more explosive talent, but the coach said Harris is also more likely to make mistakes. This will be another huge offseason for the position, as Jennings and Harris were simply not good enough in 2014.
Impotent pass rush: While the defensive line’s overall play improved dramatically over the course of the season, the Tigers remained unsuccessful at rushing the quarterback throughout. LSU finished the regular season with 19 sacks, led by Rasco’s four. Just a couple of years ago, the Tigers regularly posted seasons of 30-plus sacks. Today, they rank 13th in the SEC at taking down opposing quarterbacks, leading only South Carolina (12) in sacks. The lack of sacks made the Tigers’ performance against the pass -- they are fifth nationally in passing yards allowed (162.3 ypg) and second in pass efficiency defense (98.7) -- even more impressive.
Spotty passing game: Inconsistent quarterback play and the resulting run-heavy philosophy probably affected the development of LSU’s young receiving corps, but Dupre and fellow freshman Trey Quinn disappeared for large stretches of the season. And all of the preseason talk about including the tight ends more in the passing game was apparently just talk, since the position accounted for eight receptions in the regular season. Sophomore Travin Dural (37 catches for 758 yards, 7 TDs) came into his own and redshirt freshman John Diarse had a couple of nice games, but the position still has a lot to prove in 2015. LSU’s offense wasn’t nearly balanced enough this fall, and it wasn’t only because Jennings was an ineffective passer. The wideouts need to become more consistent route runners and pass catchers next year, as well.