2011 Season Preview: Existence And The LSU Tigers

Facing off against LSU means getting sucked into a world of chaos, confusion and aggression. Les Miles knows this world better than you do, but can he lead his Bayou Bengals to another blessed season with a brutal schedule and some of the same weaknesses as last year?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

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"Don't talk much 'cause the pain is crazy/Times are hard, things are hazy/Lord, I'm so tired"
- "Bayou Song
," P.J. Morse

Soccer writing is, at different times, incredible and unbearable. Everything -- every pass, every flick, every flop -- is described as life itself, as existence, purity, good, evil and morality. When it works, and when it is at least semi-appropriate, this writing is beautiful and everything I want to produce one day when I grow up. But sometimes a pass is just a pass.

Writing beautifully about our football is a bit more difficult, perhaps because of the muscle and mass involved. At their essential core, football and soccer are the same sport: chess in which the pieces have a mind of their own. But in football, sometimes you make a play simply by (legally) bowling over an opponent, or by outrunning them (and not having to still beat a goalkeeper). There is occasionally no difference-making strategy, no innate question of life and mortality ... just one guy who is a lot stronger or faster than another. But to the extent that meaningful, existential thought can be applied to this beautifully flawed obsession called college football, Les Miles will probably be involved. To watch a Les Miles team operating on that wonderful, double-green, yard-markers-every-five-yards field at Tiger Stadium is to witness existence in all its beauty, humor, strength and ridiculous vulnerability.

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Now, when I was just a little boy/Standin' to my daddy's knee/My papa said, "Son, don't let the man get you/Do what he done to me."
- "Born on the Bayou
," Credence Clearwater Revival

There are no mundane sensations on the Bayou, it seems. There is no fear, only terror. No casual delight, only pure, joyous bliss. No tipsy, only drunk. It is exactly like being an LSU fan.

If you take your cues from music, you quickly conclude that living in the Bayou makes you either want to drink, die, kill somebody, or write a song about drinking, dying or killing somebody. Those are your four options. The heat and humidity that have suffocated much of the Central time zone this summer are de rigueur in southern Louisiana. You cannot breathe, you cannot think, and only something in liquid or leather form can distract you from inevitable defeat at nature's hands.

Did Les Miles truly exist before he came to Baton Rouge? Did he chew grass in Stillwater? Was he reveling in chaos as Bo Schembechler's offensive line coach? Or did he not truly become Les Miles until he and Baton Rouge found each other?

In an era of coachspeak and clinical, precise offenses, Les Miles has figured out how to strip games down to a visceral, chaotic core; you may not want to go there, but you're going there, and you better know how to handle yourself in this bizarre world of odd time management, spectacular fake field goals and general ridiculousness. Because he does. His record in close games proves that. In the last six years, no team has played in, or won, more close games than Miles' Bayou Bengals. College football is a land full of wonder, mystery and danger. Some say to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter. Especially in Louisiana.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk**: 13
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep vs North Carolina 30-24 W 27.2 - 25.8 W
11-Sep at Vanderbilt 27-3 W 26.7 - 14.0 W
18-Sep Mississippi State 29-7 W 36.7 - 22.9 W
25-Sep West Virginia 20-14 W 27.4 - 13.6 W
2-Oct Tennessee 16-14 W 29.5 - 20.6 W
9-Oct at Florida 33-29 W 40.0 - 27.7 W
16-Oct McNeese State
32-10 W 19.8 - 17.6 W
23-Oct at Auburn 17-24 L 21.1 - 28.0 L
6-Nov Alabama 24-21 W 36.8 - 18.3 W
13-Nov UL-Monroe 51-0 W 30.5 - (-3.4) W
20-Nov Ole Miss 43-36 W 40.5 - 29.9 W
27-Nov at Arkansas 23-31 L 23.1 - 24.2 L
7-Jan vs Texas A&M 41-24 W 39.3 - 31.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 29.7 45 18.2 11
Adj. Points Per Game 30.7 37 20.8 17

"The wheel I turn ain't all that moans/Crossing this levee road alone/The gravel I bust and the dust I breathe/Won't shake her haunting words to me"
- "Back to Bayou Teche
," Sonny Landreth

The 2010 season was Les Miles' masterpiece, not from the standpoint of wins and losses (though an 11-2 record in the SEC West is outstanding) but of flair, chaos, and a general embrace of the absurd. His team completely botched some elementary time management procedures against Tennessee -- and just a few days after Spencer Hall had all but announced that their time was coming -- but they won anyway because Tennessee couldn't think while spiraling down the rabbit hole and made even worse mistakes. They executed the most hilariously precise fake field goal of all-time to beat Florida. They rode a fourth-down reverse to victory over Alabama. Sure, they wilted in the fourth quarter against Auburn and Arkansas, but in the end, winning 11 games in the nation's toughest division, with an offense that was solid at best and mediocre at worse, is a spectacular accomplishment.

"Down in New Orleans, in Lucky's den/He wouldn't deal y'all for a fifth of gin/One dude wanted a bottle of wine/Hit that dude, yes he did, up for a dollar and a dime"
- "Fire on the Bayou
," The Meters

There were no true trends in LSU's season -- each game was a piece of art and flair all to itself. The worse the defense played, the better the offense performed, and vice versa. On paper, this was simply a solid season. In television sets, it was 13-course meal of anxiety, joy and terror. With trips to Mississippi State, Tennessee, West Virginia, Alabama and Ole Miss, along with a neutral-site battle against Oregon in Dallas and home games versus Arkansas, Auburn and Florida, there is no reason to assume 2011 will be any more kind to nervous souls.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 33 28 35
RUSHING 14 16 17 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 59 74 57 21
Standard Downs 10 13 9 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 74 77 69 62
Redzone 29 3 57
Q1 Rk 69 1st Down Rk 13
Q2 Rk 24 2nd Down Rk 35
Q3 Rk 27 3rd Down Rk 29
Q4 Rk 2

I finally found your hand/But there's only time for you to walk me out/We'll pray to God and brush our tracks/The wolves have sniffed us out"
- "Baton Rouge
," Dr. Manhattan

I mentioned yesterday that while I hate heaping blame on coordinators (because while they often deserve some blame, they don't typically deserve nearly as much as they get), it was probably time for Texas' Greg Davis to go. You could also make the case that it was a pretty good time for Gary Crowton, LSU's offensive coordinator from 2007-10, to find a new job too. After putting an elite unit on the field in 2007 (fourth in Off. F/+), things just weren't the same; despite blue-chipper after blue-chipper piling into the lineup, the Tigers ranked just 30th, 42nd and 24th over the past three years -- not bad, but not great for a supposedly elite power.

Crowton took his oft-overthought system to Maryland and was replaced by former Tulsa and Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe; Kragthorpe then ceded play-calling duties and the "coordinator" title to offensive line coach Greg Studwara upon revealing a particularly cruel Parkinson's diagnosis. (Good luck to you, Coach. From family history, I know that Parkinson's is a manageable but rather mean disease, and I think it's a sick joke how little funding research on both Parkinson's and its evil cousin Alzheimer's receives. But I guess that's a different post for a different day.)

So now Les Miles turns to Studrawa, who last held the coordinator title at Bowling Green under Urban Meyer disciple Gregg Brandon. His line was a solid one last year, particularly in run-blocking, and nine of ten on the two-deep return. Two-year starting guard Josh Dworaczyk is working his way back into the lineup after some offseason injury trouble, and if he is able to go, that gives LSU eight players with starting experience and a healthy 78 career starts. Now they just need a good running back for whom to block. The decent Stevan Ridley (1,147 yards, 4.6 per carry, +0.7 Adj. POE, 15 TD) is gone, and three sophomores will look to win the starting job: Michael Ford, Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue. The three combined for 520 rushing yards (+3.8 Adj. POE) and 132 receiving yards and are all more potentially explosive than Ridley. But Ridley's efficiency was a nice weapon, and youngsters haven't always learned how to be efficient yet.

Other tidbits:

  • The running game was strong last year (and should be again this season), but when LSU fell into passing downs, the drive was over. Despite three years in and out of the lineup (and a strange history of great bowl games), quarterback Jordan Jefferson (1,411 yards, 6.8 per pass, 57% completion rate, 7 TD, 10 INT) has a lot to prove heading into his senior season. His running ability (567 yards, +5.7 Adj. POE) is an asset, but he has just been terribly inconsistent through the years. If he cannot get the job done, then four-star junior college transfer (and former Georgia quarterback) Zach Mettenberger awaits.
  • Going by the numbers, LSU's receiving corps is, and has been, solid. But considering the star ratings of some of its members, solid sure feels below average. Former five-star receiver Terrence Toliver is gone, and two former five-stars -- Rueben Randle (544 yards, 16.5 per catch, 67% catch rate, 3 TD) and Russell Shepard (254 receiving yards, 7.7 per catch; 226 rushing yards, 7.1 per carry) -- vie to take his No. 1 spot. And hey, guess what: another five-star freshman (Jarvis Landry) enters the fray this fall! If Jefferson can shed whatever is standing in the way of his development, the diversity here is fantastic. Randle began to look like a prototypical No. 1 last year, and with his run-catch-pass ability, Shepard is a creative offensive coordinator's dream. Throw in tight end Deangelo Peterson (198 yards, 12.4 per catch, 52% catch rate) and receiver Kadron Boone (52 yards, 13.0 per catch, 67% catch rate), and ... well, Jefferson has little excuse for continuing to struggle on passing downs.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 18 34 10
RUSHING 37 56 30 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 9 21 6 58
Standard Downs 17 29 14 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 12 26 8 21
Redzone 55 68 50
Q1 Rk 5 1st Down Rk 29
Q2 Rk 18 2nd Down Rk 2
Q3 Rk 18 3rd Down Rk 31
Q4 Rk 55

Boy, I love those old time tunes/They can tickle your senses like a Cajun moon/Creole food sure tastes fine/When you wash it on down with that homemade wine"
- "Bayou Jubilee
," Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

When a line is much better at rushing the passer than defending the run, and when opponents run a significant amount of time on passing downs, you know one thing: the defense is fast and wants to attack. And that's fine. But you have to stay smart and avoid overpursuit, and you have to be able to stand up to run-blocking. If you can't do that, then aggression often backfires. For chunks of 2010, that was LSU's story. John Chavis still fielded a Top 20 unit overall, but they were vulnerable against good running games, especially late, and it somewhat directly led to LSU's two losses. You can't heap too much blame on the D when the offense struggled so much on passing downs, but there were still holes here.

Life doesn't necessarily get easier up front with the departures of two tackles, second-team All-American Drake Nevis (43.0 tackles, 13.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 3 FF) and Lazarius Levingston (14.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks). But the line was quite young overall last year -- three freshmen or redshirt freshmen amid the top eight players -- and therefore still has a chance to improve; just as likely, however, is a scenario where the strengths get stronger and the weaknesses get weaker. The tackle position has a load of potential but is all sorts of young. Sophomore Michael Brockers (16.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) likely assumes a spot in the starting lineup, but the battle to become his primary battery mate is still up for grabs. Josh Downs (6.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) could step into the starting lineup, but so could an incoming freshman like five-star Anthony Johnson (6-foot-4, 300) or four-star Mickey Johnson (6-foot-1, 310), or a four-star redshirt freshman like Ego Ferguson (6'3, 285). There is a load of potential here, but is anybody ready to be as good as Nevis? And if not, does the run defense get even worse?

Whatever questions exist in the middle, plenty of answers exist on the edge. Five returning ends combined for 89.5 tackles and 19.5 TFL/sacks, and considering two were redshirt freshmen -- Barkevious Mingo (26.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 6 PBU) and Sam Montgomery (12.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks in just five games) -- this is an exciting group. Mingo is basically just a pass rush specialist, and Montgomery is attempting to return to form after tearing ligaments in his knee last season, but these two, Kendrick Adams, Lavar Edwards, Chancey Aghayere and perhaps incoming freshman Jermauria Rasco should give Chavis plenty of options.

Other tidbits:

  • A lot of people seem to be concerned about a secondary that must replace Patrick Peterson (35.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 6 PBU) and Jai Eugene (18.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks), but I'm much more worried about the linebackers and tackles. The secondary should be fine with three interesting returning cornerbacks -- Tyrann Mathieu (45.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 5 FF as a freshman), Morris Claiborne (28.0 tackles, 5 INT, 6 PBU) and Ron Brooks (25.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU) -- and solid safety options in Brandon Taylor (33.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 5 PBU in nine games) and sophomores Eric Reid and Craig Loston (combined: 40.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 3 PBU). The depth here is potentially incredible, as is Mathieu. (I mean, come on, almost 10 tackles for loss as a 5-foot-9, 175-pound freshman? Seriously?) This unit can both attack and cover, and I'm not worried about it at all.
  • I'm concerned about linebacker depth, however. Only four players got significant playing time here, and the best, Kelvin Sheppard (81.0 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FF) is gone. Ryan Baker (62.0 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks) is potentially outstanding, but this is quite easily the thinnest unit in my eyes. And if the linebackers and defensive tackles are still thin, one does have to wonder how much the run defense will improve. Hell, the pass defense might get even better than it was last year, but that won't necessarily matter with a porous run D.

LSU's 2010 Season Set to Music

I believe I've already covered this one.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 10
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 4
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +8 / +11.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (8, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -5.3

"I'm gonna learn to walk that walk/I'm gonna learn to talk that talk/I'm gonna learn to dance in Baton Rouge"
- "Baton Rouge
," Guy Clark

What truly makes Les Miles a perfect fit for the Bayou (or at least, the version you find in music and on Treme) is the way he reminds you there are no easy answers, no black-and-white, only shades of gray. No coach is simply smart or dumb. No team is perfect or atrocious (except New Mexico, anyway). And this sport over which we choose to obsess has so much going for it, and so much going against it. With Miles and LSU, we get the best and worst of the game. We get turn into children, gazing in wonder at the ridiculous things that can happen in a college football game ... and we also get connections to Willie Lyles.

In 2011, we should in some ways get a magnified version of last year's LSU team. A good running game could get better. A good pass defense could, despite the loss of Peterson, get better too. Meanwhile, a questionable run defense might be just as iffy, and ... well, who the hell knows about the passing game?

The schedule, of course, is the largest impediment, even larger than the late-game oddities. Despite ranking them fifth in our F.O. projections, we still have them going a likely 9-3. They have the second-best chance of finishing 7-1 or better in the West (11%, far behind Alabama's 68%), but getting past a ridiculous road slate is likely almost impossible, even for a team that doesn't revel in chaos.

 

 

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

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* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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