Les Miles is starting to face some pressure in Baton Rouge after slipping over the last few seasons from first to third to fifth in the SEC West standings, from 13-1 to 8-5.
Largely due to his annually underachieving offense, the Mad Hatter is in the uncomfortable position of not having something to sell to his investors. And regardless of the system, it's hard to sell hope without a quarterback.
Last year's primary quarterback was Anthony Jennings, and though he returns, he's coming off a mediocre season. He threw 227 times and delivered only 7.1 yards a pop, completing just 48.9 percent of his passes. His numbers ranked far behind fellow returnees like J.T. Barrett of Ohio State and Dak Prescott of Mississippi State.
That hit rate meant LSU failed to capitalize on play action and lacked the consistency to sustain scoring drives, also evident in Jennings throwing only 11 touchdowns. His seven interceptions made for a poor percentage as well (worse than Texas' Tyrone Swoopes, but better than Ole Miss' Bo Wallace).
The option some LSU fans are banking on is Brandon Harris, who, according to his high school coach, rescued the Bayou Bengals from New Mexico State (despite the final score being 63-7), a king-making deed if there ever was one.
The problem is that Harris also played against some SEC opponents, and the results didn't speak well. He completed only 3 of 14 throws against Auburn in his first start. However, Harris is a fantastic athlete with a strong arm and obvious potential.
Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron face the classic question: Play the experienced but limited quarterback, or roll with the young guy and hope it's worth the lumps?
How LSU is supposed to work
There are systems designed to feature an explosive playmaker at quarterback. Others are designed to feature one at running back.
As LSU fans are well aware, this offense is designed to plug in players at tailback. True freshman Leonard Fournette demonstrated last year with his 1,034-yard season.
The system is not designed to feature a young QB in a play-making role, but works best with a veteran game manager. LSU needs a QB who gets the Tigers into the best play (usually a run) and can punish opponents outside the hash marks when they load the box to stop the running game.
Around the country, athletic quarterbacks like Jennings (292 rushing yards) and Harris (a 6.12 average and three touchdowns) are used in spread schemes that attack the perimeter with the option pass, rather than the run. These systems are simpler but take some of the initiative away from the offense. It's harder to pound opponents with size, the trademark of the Miles era.
LSU bases out of the classic I formation. Miles likes athletic QBs, contrary to popular belief, but will often focus their physical abilities around footwork on play action rollouts, dropping back and occasionally scrambling from the pocket or running option concepts.
These skills take time, which Jennings and Harris didn't have. They'll have more of it before 2015, but will it be enough for one of them to boost LSU futures prices?
The safer choice is still a risk
Jennings has a greater grasp than does Harris, and it's evident on film. In the spring game, he connected deep with ultra-talented sophomore Malachi Dupre early.
Later, Jennings recognized other deep opportunities but overthrew receivers who were running free. While possessing valuable experience, he's still not a safe option.
Jennings didn't have a full command in 2014. He often failed to throw with enough anticipation or velocity to connect on the deeper routes that comprise a chunk of the LSU passing game. Take this play against Ole Miss:
LSU runs play action against Ole Miss' preferred defense, an eight-man box backed by cover 3. After the fake, Jennings is staring down his intended receiver, the slot crossing midfield, rather than staring down the safety as a veteran QB would do.
While still staring down the route, a big no-no against deep zone defenders, Jennings also waits for the receiver to turn toward the sideline before delivering the ball. The open receiver has already turned to look for the ball, and Jennings is still winding up.
Jennings rarely throws with great velocity, and here he doesn't throw with enough anticipation to fit the ball into the window before the deep zone defenders break. His deliberate and soaring toss is picked by cornerback Mike Hilton, who broke off the deep receiver after seeing Jennings wind up.
Because LSU is so good at forcing opponents to load the box, it does a great job of getting receivers open outside the hash marks. Its 2015 tandem of Travin Dural and Dupre is one of LSU's more talented pairs, with potential on par with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
The system does require that the QB have talent in taking advantage of these throws, whether with anticipation or sheer arm strength. Jennings doesn't have the latter and doesn't seem close to mastering the former.
And the big gamble is a mystery
If Jennings is a limited talent, Harris should get the call, right? That's a common thread among LSU fans, but it's not the obvious answer. The freshman was wildly inaccurate. He sometimes appeared as though he didn't know what play the Tigers were running.
Such a mistake-prone player couldn't be a net positive, but Harris sure does flash talent. Jennings is a solid runner, but Harris is capable of dominating defenders when he gets loose.
Harris also possesses a cannon arm that allows him to hit narrow windows or overthrow screen passes by 10 yards, as the case may be.
Harris has the talent to do all that the system requires and more. The problem was that he was inconsistent and couldn't yet direct the offense or ensure star Fournette was maximized. Maximizing Fournette is LSU's top offensive priority, and the Heisman hopeful was sluggish for the first half of 2014, which was also when Harris played the most.
Is one offseason of growth enough?
Make your choice
The dilemma LSU finds itself in begs the question of where the upperclassman are on the roster. Why were the Tigers forced into choosing between unprepared youngsters to guide their bulldozer offense?
Hot seat watch
Their 2011 class, which could have produced a redshirt senior for this season, included three options: JUCO Zach Mettenberger, Jerrard Randall and Stephen Rivers. Mettenberger eventually won the job, while the other two transferred.
In 2012, they signed a single QB, the massive Jeremy Liggins, who had to go the JUCO route before ending up with Ole Miss. In 2013, they signed Jennings and Hayden Rettig, the latter of whom transferred after Cameron came aboard as OC.
All that attrition ruined the process and put the Tigers in their predicament. Miles has no good answers at the position that can make or break a coach's career. Unless one of them makes a considerable leap over the summer, which can't be ruled out, Miles is going to hope his investors can wait another year before the Tigers meet expectations.