We should have an idea about LSU’s legitimacy as a playoff contender by mid-September. By the Tigers’ third game, they will have already visited Mississippi State and hosted Auburn – a pair of teams that thrashed LSU’s defense for a combined 1,136 yards last season.
However, there are plenty of reasons for optimism and one glaring question when discussing LSU as a candidate for a New Year’s Six bowl.
For one thing, that young defense that looked so clueless at points early last season developed into the SEC’s top total defense (316.8 yards allowed per game) and ranked fifth nationally in scoring defense (17.5 ppg). For another, the Tigers return six starters and nearly every significant reserve from that defense.
Despite defensive mastermind John Chavis’ departure for Texas A&M, it seems unlikely that LSU’s playoff hopes rest on how a loaded defense adapts to new coordinator Kevin Steele. No, the key to the Tigers rebounding from a disappointing 8-5 mark in 2014 is how much Cam Cameron’s offense improves – particularly the quarterbacks.
The Tigers were awful in the passing game last season, ranking 116th nationally with 162.9 yards per game. Will Anthony Jennings take a massive step forward in his second season as a starter? Will talented sophomore Brandon Harris overtake him between now and the Sept. 5 opener against McNeese State? Those are the leading questions that every LSU fan will ask over the next several months.
If Cameron sorts out the quarterback mess, the Tigers have plenty of pieces in place to be dangerous on offense. Leonard Fournette is back after setting an LSU freshman record with 1,034 rushing yards last season, and he’ll have three starting offensive linemen back to open holes. The Tigers have depth and talent at receiver (led by Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre) and tight end. LSU could be on the verge of a much more productive season on offense.
It all hinges on the quarterbacks, though. If the Tigers can’t score with the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M, they’re going to have difficulty contending in the SEC West, much less claiming a New Year’s Six spot.
What could go wrong: While it would be a surprise if the Tigers struggled on defense, it’s not a certainty that they will be immediately successful under Steele. He seems likely to make some changes to the scheme Chavis had in place during his six years in Baton Rouge, and the last time we saw him as a defensive coordinator, his Clemson defense was the weak link on an ACC championship club.
But that seems to be a less likely problem area than the offense. The ESPN Stats & Information group ranks the Tigers third in its Preseason Football Power Index based upon LSU’s perceived strength and roster stability. That statistical model has more faith in Les Miles’ club than the pundits who released preseason rankings, with most ranking the Tigers somewhere between No. 9 and No. 19. Our Mark Schlabach was in the middle of that range, placing LSU 16th in his Way-Too-Early Top 25.
If Jennings or Harris fail to make huge strides this fall, a ranking in the mid-teens might be as good as the Tigers can do in 2015.