Jeremy Hill entered an incredibly crowded backfield that already had four proven (or at least semi-proven) options, and over the last half of the season, he was the No. 1 guy. In three weeks against South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Alabama, he rushed 64 times for 358 yards and four touchdowns. He scored three times against Ole Miss and gained 124 yards in the bowl game versus Clemson. He overtook a completely underwhelming Spencer Ware on the totem pole, and he and the other four backs gave LSU a reason to lean even more heavily on the run in 2012 than it did in 2011.
But LSU didn't. Instead, LSU ran and passed an almost completely normal amount; the Tigers were five percent above the national average running on standard downs but passed more than average on passing downs. They put a lot of trust in quarterback Zach Mettenberger and the aforementioned raw receiving corps, and it didn't necessarily pay off. LSU was slightly below average with the forward pass, showing big-play ability on passing downs but little efficiency. As good as the passing game looked during LSU's second-half comeback against Alabama, that wasn't the norm. [...]
With Hill and Kenny Hilliard leading the way (assuming Hill's suspension ends at some point), the run game should be quite explosive; the ground game's efficiency will depend on how quickly a reasonably new line can gel following the departure of two three-year starters. Last year's line was fantastic at preventing negative plays and keeping LSU on schedule.
The primary reason why people seem a bit lower on LSU this season is because the defensive line was decimated by departures. The top three ends are gone, as are two of the top three tackles. But damned if I just cannot get too worried about them.
For one thing, the LSU pass rush was only good last year, not great. Opponents didn't fear the pass rush an overt amount; whereas opponents ran a ton on passing downs against South Carolina and Georgia to avoid Jadeveon Clowney and Jarvis Jones, they really didn't stray from the pass in fear of Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery (though perhaps they should have at times). That may have had to do with the fact that LSU wasn't blitzing a lot (linebackers had just five sacks) and was using linebackers to support the young secondary.
Regardless, now the secondary is seasoned and exciting, and defensive coordinator John Chavis can probably get away with a bit more aggressiveness in the blitz if he wants to. Safety Micah Eugene did a decent Honey Badger impersonation at times in 2012, and between him and a deep corps of linebackers, I think the pass rush will end up alright even if the defensive end position regresses. And between Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, I can't worry much about the tackle position (though depth could be a concern).
With him at quarterback, TCU's passing game could be both efficient and explosive; leading receiver Josh Boyce is gone, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that Brandon Carter (last year's No. 2) and LaDarius Brown (No. 5) are ready to thrive as go-tos. Throw in Cam White and interesting transfers like Florida's Ja'Juan Story, and you've got a potentially great aerial attack.
Stay in the game, Casey. […]
You know what makes life even more difficult when you've got a freshman quarterback and a freshman running back? A line that struggles to create opportunities for them. A year after losing three starters, including all-Mountain West guard Kyle Dooley, to graduation, TCU's line struggled quite a bit. One has to assume that the line's life was made more difficult by the freshmen, too, but regardless, TCU's line stats stunk. The Horned Frogs were decent in short-yardage situations (Power Success Rate) but often allowed defenders into the backfield and created a mediocre-at-best number of opportunities for Catalon and company. They also allowed a ton of sacks, but I'll write that off to some degree as part of Boykin's learning process -- the sack rates were nice and small when Pachall was behind center.
Damn, can Gary Patterson and coordinator Dick Bumpas coach a defense. A year after TCU struggled more than expected, then lost players unexpectedly, TCU fielded a defense that improved from 75th to 22nd in Passing S&P+, from 76th to 10th on passing downs, from 49th to 25th in Redzone S&P+, and from 41st to 12th in overall Def. F/+. The 4-2-5 scheme Patterson long ago mastered was a perfect fit in the spread-out Big 12, and even with some midseason struggles -- 471 yards to Oklahoma State, 56 points (in overtime) to Texas Tech -- TCU finished strong, allowing just 4.4 yards per play versus Kansas State and Texas, allowing just 24 points to Oklahoma, and giving up just 227 yards to Michigan State.
Those numbers are impressive enough on their face. But look at the players listed below. Two of the top three linemen were freshmen (and the third was a sophomore). Four of the top five linebackers were sophomores. Five of the top seven defensive backs were freshmen or sophomores. Now the Horned Frogs are in an incredible position, returning nine starters and basically all of last year's second string.
This defense has a very good chance of once again reaching the top five in Def. F/+, and while you will always allow yards and points in the Big 12, the defense could put TCU in a position to make a serious run at the conference title, especially with Pachall and James back on offense.
LSU's biggest advantage
Gary Patterson has played very coy, insisting that both quarterbacks Casey Pachall and Trevone Boykin will see snaps on Saturday. And that's fine; Boykin is a more explosive run threat, and making LSU's relatively inexperienced defense prepare for more looks is a very good idea.
But Pachall's the better quarterback. With the return of Pachall, running back Waymon James (injured most of last year), and receivers Brandon Carter, Cam White, LaDarius Brown, etc., give TCU a strong set of options. If LSU has a weakness in its back seven, TCU will find it and exploit it.
Though the Horned Frogs' line is a serious question mark at the moment. TCU ranked 91st in Adj. Line Yards and 115th in Adj. Sack Rate last year, and while those stats almost certainly suffered because of freshmen at quarterback and running back, the line was shaky at best. And after the transfer of Tayo Fabuluje (last year's starting right tackle), the line returns just 28 career starts -- one year from both guard Eric Tausch and tackle Aviante Collins, and that's basically it.
LSU's defensive line was hit pretty hard by attrition (the top three ends are gone, as are two of the top three tackles), so perhaps the Bayou Bengals won't be able to take full advantage of a shaky line just yet, but again, forgive me if I just can't get too worried about LSU up front. New starters Jermauria Rasco (end) and Ego Ferguson (tackle) looked strong in minimal 2012 playing time, and tackle Anthony Johnson is already a star. The Tigers are loaded with former star recruits, and despite the relative inexperience (there are still three juniors in the starting front four), LSU most likely has a serious advantage up front, one that might wreck TCU's offensive plans.
TCU's biggest advantage
Put simply, TCU has one of the best secondaries in the country. I like what LSU receiver Jarvis Landry did late in 2012, and Odell Beckham, Jr., could yet become a star, but the Horned Frogs' back five are deep, experienced, and ridiculously athletic. If LSU cannot consistently run the ball (with or without the maybe-or-maybe-not suspended Jeremy Hill), TCU will eat the passing game alive, even without star pass rusher Devonte Fields (who may or may not still be suspended himself; these coaches have been ridiculously catty and coy in the lead-up to this game).
So can LSU run the ball? I'll let Football Study Hall's Ian Boyd fill you in:
Despite LSU's own great success utilizing 4-2-5 alignments in the SEC, there will undoubtedly be much talk about how talented running back Jeremy Hill, 272-pound wrecking-ball fullback J.C. Copeland, and an LSU line that averages 6'5, 321 pounds across the board will be moving downhill all night against the Frogs.
In answering this assumption, let's start by talking about the fifth defensive back in the nickel defense, strong safety Sam Carter. The strong safety position in the Frog defense is similar to the role played by Mathieu in LSU's schemes, except Carter is 6'1, 215 pounds. He finished 2012 with 63 tackles, three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and four interceptions. Equally skilled in coverage, run defense, and blitzing, Carter is not likely to be a weak spot for the Frog defense.
Next, it's worth mentioning that the TCU defensive line, which despite missing potential All-American weakside end Devonte Fields, is one of the stronger units Patterson has had in Fort Worth. In particular, nose tackle Chucky Hunter will present difficulties for the Tiger run game with his squatty 6'1, 300-pound frame and quickness off the ball. For massively tall linemen like the ones LSU fields, it can be immensely difficult to latch on to and root out shorter and quicker defensive linemen on inside runs.
In the end, this game will probably be decided by how well LSU runs the ball. If the Tigers can grind away successfully on the ground, Zach Mettenberger will almost certainly eventually find play-action success, and LSU will simply score too many points for TCU to keep up on the scoreboard. But if TCU can keep this game in the teens or low-20s and take advantage of the scoring opportunities they generate, this game is a tossup at worst and a Frog lean at best.
I think LSU has a bit more margin for error, even with defensive inexperience, and I'll give the Tigers the nod because of it. But this game has some fascinating matchups, of both the tactical and one-on-one varieties; and like Georgia-Clemson it is a must-watch, or, since those two games are on at the same time, a must-DVR, at least.