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LSU makes a title run every 4 years, but 2 big questions must be answered this time

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If Les Miles can field another excellent defense despite change and get someone to distribute the ball to all this talent, 2015 could be another year of the Bayou Bengal.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Les Miles, presidential candidate

The presidential election cycle comes with benchmarks and road signs, from the beginning of the intra-party debates to the Iowa primaries to Super Tuesday to the conventions. A news entity can dust off its coverage plan from four years ago, make a few changes, and hit the ground running.

An underrated part: after the debates and before the Iowa caucuses, LSU puts a dominant team on the field. It happened in 2003, when Nick Saban's Tigers beat a top-10 Georgia twice, survived a surging Ole Miss in Oxford, and tortured Oklahoma's Jason White in the BCS title game.

It happened in 2007, when a mostly dominant Les Miles squad survived squalor, beat six ranked teams, and won Miles' first title.

It happened in 2011, when one of the nation's best recent teams beat No. 3 Oregon on a neutral field, survived No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and crushed No. 3 Arkansas and No. 12 Georgia by a combined 83-27 to reach the BCS Championship. Alabama squad found revenge in the rematch, but for 13 games, LSU was a killing machine.

Best teams since 2005 (according to F/+):

  1. 2008 Florida (13-1)
  2. 2005 Texas (13-0)
  3. 2012 Alabama (13-1)
  4. 2005 USC (12-1)
  5. 2008 Oklahoma (12-2)
  6. 2014 Ohio State (14-1)
  7. 2011 LSU (13-1)
  8. 2009 Alabama (14-0)
  9. 2008 Texas (12-1)
  10. 2014 Alabama (12-2)

In between these three incredible seasons, LSU has been fine. The Tigers have won at least eight games for 15 straight seasons. They have seven top-10  AP poll finishes. They have ranked in the F/+ top 11 seven times, ranking second in 2007 and first in 2011.

If you believe in cycles, it's time for another great LSU moment. Debates started this week, and the Iowa Caucus will begin a few weeks after the College Football Playoff.

This sounds nice, but will reality interfere? In both ratings and results, 2014 was LSU's worst season since 2008. The Tigers went 8-5, watching a 7-2 start fizzle. Worse, that slide included a demoralizing shutout to Arkansas and a tight bowl loss to (*gasp*) Notre Dame. An excellent defense wasn't enough to overcome offensive droughts; they even (*GASP*) ranked outside of the top 10 in special teams efficiency for the first time since 2007.

LSU enters with quarterback questions, offensive line questions, and, for the first time in six years, a new defensive coordinator. For a team that finished 22nd in last year's F/+ rankings, that's a lot to overcome. Add to this the fact that LSU still plays in the country's toughest division, and the odds of this presidential cycle continuing are small.

(And here's where I remind you LSU's head coach is still Les Miles. Never tell Les Miles the odds.)

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 22
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug vs. Wisconsin 25 28-24 W 84% 23.7 60%
6-Sep Sam Houston State N/A 56-0 W 98% 50.6 100%
13-Sep UL-Monroe 97 31-0 W 99% 59.7 100%
20-Sep Mississippi State 13 29-34 L 47% -1.8 3%
27-Sep New Mexico State 124 63-7 W 99% 53.2 100%
4-Oct at Auburn 7 7-41 L 17% -22.5 0%
11-Oct at Florida 32 30-27 W 75% 16.1 48%
18-Oct Kentucky 68 41-3 W 98% 47.6 100%
25-Oct Ole Miss 5 10-7 W 89% 28.6 80%
8-Nov Alabama 2 13-20 L 75% 15.5 20%
15-Nov at Arkansas 9 0-17 L 14% -24.9 0%
27-Nov at Texas A&M 42 23-17 W 85% 23.8 78%
30-Dec vs. Notre Dame 34 28-31 L 66% 9.6 38%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 32.9 38 16.4 9
Points Per Game 27.6 76 17.5 5

2. All or nothing

LSU's offense averaged 5.6 yards per play, a respectable total given the schedule, sixth-hardest in the country. The Tigers ranked 37th in Off. S&P+, which wasn't good enough but better than the narrative would suggest.

The problem was consistency. The Tigers were under 4.7 yards per play four times and above 6.2 five times. They averaged 2.3 against Arkansas and 8.4 against Notre Dame, 3.2 against Alabama and 6.4 against Kentucky.

Beyond the Ole Miss game (5.7), there wasn't a baseline-average performance. Even considering the best per-play performance came in a loss (Notre Dame), the difference between winning LSU and losing LSU was stark:

  • Average Offensive Performance (wins): 4.8 yards per play, 15.4 points per game
  • Average Offensive Performance (losses): 6.1 yards per play, 35.3 points per game

Everybody's offense is better in wins than losses, but that's a gulf.

If you're trying to talk yourself into LSU, here's a good time to remember how young this offense was: the Tigers bounced between a sophomore and freshman quarterback, had a freshman No. 1 running back, a sophomore No. 1 receiver, freshmen in the No. 2-4 receiver slots, and two sophomore starters on the line. Just about any offense that young is going to be volatile. It's something experience can smooth out.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.80 94 IsoPPP+ 106.1 53
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 41.8% 62 Succ. Rt. + 108.0 39
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 27.6 21 Def. FP+ 106.0 13
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.5 57 Redzone S&P+ 120.7 15
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.2 ACTUAL 17 -4.2
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 80 47 41 53
RUSHING 25 29 23 37
PASSING 116 63 106 43
Standard Downs 52 56 53
Passing Downs 48 30 59
Q1 Rk 29 1st Down Rk 40
Q2 Rk 35 2nd Down Rk 20
Q3 Rk 52 3rd Down Rk 48
Q4 Rk 15

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Anthony Jennings 6'2, 216 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9135 111 227 1611 11 7 48.9% 22 8.8% 5.8
Brandon Harris 6'3, 188 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9645 25 45 452 6 2 55.6% 3 6.3% 9.0
Brandon Bergeron 6'2, 200 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8000
Justin McMillan 6'1, 177 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8267

3. Even a big-play passing game needs more efficiency than this

The offense was young, but inconsistency at one specific position told the tale. Anthony Jennings, first seen leading a 2013 comeback over Arkansas while filling in for injured Zach Mettenberger, was LSU's starter, fending off well-touted freshman Brandon Hraris and ... occasionally affirming the coaches' faith.

In wins, Jennings was a good kind of old-school mobile QB. He contributed enough on the ground to distract defenses from Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee, and a loaded set of running backs. And with the defense flat-footed, he burned them deep. He completed 51 percent of his passes in wins, but averaged 16 yards per completion.

In losses, Jennings was all the worst aspects of a mobile QB. He took too many sacks, and he completed just 46 percent while averaging just 12.3 yards per.

It made perfect sense that coordinator Cam Cameron would lean even more heavily than normal on the run. Fournette, Magee, Kenny Hilliard, and Darrel Williams combined to average 35 carries per game and a decent 5.2 yards per carry. On first and second down, with defenses assuming run, Jennings completed 51 percent at 16.6 yards per. But on third-and-long, he was just 20-for-45 for 255 yards. He was either throwing fruitlessly into deep coverage, or he was struggling to find receivers.

Harris was an exponential Jennings. When he was good, he was better; when he was bad, he was far worse. Against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, he completed 17 of 23 passes for 318 yards, five touchdowns, and one pick. Incredible! And against Auburn and Kentucky, he was 3-for-15 for 58 yards and a pick. Horrible.

Despite better averages, coaches didn't trust Harris enough to give him Jennings' job. Fans watching Jennings struggle assumed Harris was better, but part of that is the "backup QB is the most popular player on the team" fan sentiment. If Harris was better, he would have played more.

Harris might be better in 2015. A QB often makes his greatest leap between his first and second seasons, so Harris could jump up the learning curve. Plus, Jennings was suspended for part of the summer following an arrest, allowing Harris to work more with returning receivers.

Harris was a more touted recruit and showed elite athleticism and potential as a passer. If he takes a second-year leap, that changes LSU's season.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Leonard Fournette RB 6'1, 230 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9996 187 1034 10 5.5 5.2 40.1% 2 1
Terrence Magee RB
112 571 3 5.1 4.6 39.3% 1 1
Kenny Hilliard RB
90 447 6 5.0 3.1 44.4% 1 1
Anthony Jennings QB 6'2, 216 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9135 86 456 0 5.3 5.0 44.2% 8 3
Darrel Williams RB 6'0, 230 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9027 64 302 3 4.7 3.2 39.1% 1 0
Brandon Harris QB 6'3, 188 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9645 23 178 3 7.7 7.4 56.5% 4 1
Travin Dural WR 6'2, 192 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8885 10 111 0 11.1 6.2 90.0% 0 0
Melvin Jones FB
4 12 0 3.0 0.8 50.0% 0 0
Tony Upchurch FB 6'1, 230 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8917
Derrius Guice RB 5'11, 216 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9777
Nick Brossette RB 6'0, 214 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9203
David Ducre FB 6'0, 239 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9155







4. Then again, why pass?

When you're as talented as Fournette was coming out of high school, we're all just waiting.

From this perspective, much of Fournette's freshman campaign felt disappointing. He rushed for 122 yards and two scores against NMSU, then followed with 42 yards against Auburn. He averaged a solid 5.2 yards per carry against an awesome Florida defense, then 3.8 per carry over the next four games. We kept waiting for permanent awesomeness, and through much of the season, it didn't arrive.

But then he rushed 30 times for 289 yards and three scores against Texas A&M and Notre Dame. He also returned a kick for a touchdown. He ran through A&M and past the Irish. He showed the full tool box, and he did it twice in a row.

The big late games put him over 1,000 rushing yards for the season, and he showed potential as a pass-catcher as well. One assumes he'll be given everything he can handle in 2015, and it appears he can handle a lot.

He's got backups, too. Darrel Williams was decent for a freshman, and another five-star signee, Derrius Guice, joins the party. Why would you ever need Jennings or Harris to throw?

The line is undergoing a little bit of turnover. Of the seven who finished with starting experience, four are gone. Granted,  Vadal Alexander, Jerald Hawkins, and Ethan Pocic have combined to start 73 games over the past three seasons, and LSU doesn't struggle to sign four- and five-star guys up front.

With solid line play, the run game will be awesome. I wouldn't expect run-pass rates to change much.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Travin Dural WR-X 6'2, 192 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8885 82 37 758 45.1% 31.3% 58.5% 9.2 275 9.2 105.1
Malachi Dupre WR-X 6'3, 187 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9915 35 14 318 40.0% 13.4% 54.3% 9.1 129 9.2 44.1
Trey Quinn WR-X 6'0, 194 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9627 34 17 193 50.0% 13.0% 47.1% 5.7 -24 5.8 26.8
John Diarse WR-Z 6'0, 210 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9186 27 15 275 55.6% 10.3% 51.9% 10.2 88 10.4 38.2
Terrence Magee RB
22 17 171 77.3% 8.4% 22.7% 7.8 -28 5.8 23.7
Travis Dickson TE
10 7 60 70.0% 3.8% 20.0% 6.0 -23 6.2 8.3
Connor Neighbors FB
10 4 27 40.0% 3.8% 100.0% 2.7 -27 N/A 3.7
Leonard Fournette RB 6'1, 230 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9996 9 7 127 77.8% 3.4% 55.6% 14.1 45 14.3 17.6
Darrel Williams RB 6'0, 230 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9027 9 6 63 66.7% 3.4% 44.4% 7.0 -9 6.5 8.7
Melvin Jones FB
7 5 22 71.4% 2.7% 71.4% 3.1 -37 3.4 3.0
DeSean Smith TE 6'5, 242 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9420 6 4 66 66.7% 2.3% 50.0% 11.0 18 10.4 9.2
Dillon Gordon TE 6'4, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8770 3 0 0 0.0% 1.1% 100.0% 0.0 -4 N/A 0.0
Colin Jeter TE 6'6, 236 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) NR 2 0 0 0.0% 0.8% 50.0% 0.0 -3 0.0 0.0
D.J. Chark WR-Z 6'2, 184 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8728 1 0 0 0.0% 0.4% 0.0% 0.0 -1 N/A 0.0
Kevin Spears WR-Z 6'3, 195 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8758
Jacory Washington TE 6'5, 221 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9225
Tyron Johnson WR 6'2, 192 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9873
Derrick Dillon WR 5'11, 174 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9252
Jazz Ferguson WR 6'5, 214 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8983

5. Oh right, that's why

Despite all the inconsistency at quarterback, the potential in the passing game was obvious. With all acknowledged struggles, then-sophomore Travin Dural and freshmen Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, and John Diarse combined to average 8.7 yards per target. Dural averaged over 9 per target as the far-and-away No. 1 target. These are excellent averages.

Of course, they were derived almost entirely from big plays. The foursome averaged a combined 18.6 yards per catch with a 47 percent catch rate. That's a lot of jump balls and minimal reliability.

All four return, which is exciting, and they could be joined by another five-star, Tyron Johnson. With Fournette pounding away and up to five receivers capable of beating coverage deep, LSU seems to have spectacular run-and-play-action potential. But someone has to get open on third-and-7, and the quarterback has to be able to hit him.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 116.2 3.36 2.73 43.1% 74.0% 15.8% 77.3 5.6% 11.3%
Rank 15 14 108 26 20 22 110 83 116
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
La'el Collins LT 38 2014 1st All-SEC
Vadal Alexander RT 6'6, 320 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9311 34
Jerald Hawkins LT 6'6, 309 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8897 26
Elliott Porter C
22
Ethan Pocic C 6'7, 301 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9728 13
Evan Washington RG
3
Fehoko Fanaika LG
3
Jonah Austin RT 6'4, 336 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8700 0
Josh Boutte RG 6'5, 340 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9316 0
Jevonte Domond OT 6'6, 310 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8967 0
Andy Dodd C 6'4, 336 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8886 0
K.J. Malone LT 6'4, 289 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8657 0
Garrett Brumfield RG 6'4, 309 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9517
William Clapp C 6'5, 295 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9054
Maea Teuhema OG 6'4, 323 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9827
Toby Weathersby OT 6'5, 303 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9497
George Brown Jr. OT 6'6, 283 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8722
Chidi Valentine-Okeke OT 6'6, 315 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9507

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.84 64 IsoPPP+ 130.7 7
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 35.6% 12 Succ. Rt. + 133.5 4
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.7 75 Off. FP+ 103.0 30
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.9 28 Redzone S&P+ 122.3 13
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.5 ACTUAL 20.0 -3.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 9 6 4 7
RUSHING 47 18 13 37
PASSING 3 5 4 6
Standard Downs 4 3 7
Passing Downs 23 24 26
Q1 Rk 25 1st Down Rk 4
Q2 Rk 8 2nd Down Rk 2
Q3 Rk 3 3rd Down Rk 11
Q4 Rk 7

6. Hello, new guy

Miles has replaced defensive coordinators before. The Tigers experienced a setback in 2008, following the loss of Bo Pelini and quite a bit of defensive personnel. That year's co-coordinators, Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory, only lasted a year before Peveto ended up at Northwestern State and Mallory went to New Mexico. (Peveto returned to LSU's staff in 2014.)

Miles can survive the loss of John Chavis, in other words. In 10 years, with three different coordinator arrangements, LSU has ranked outside of the Def. S&P+ top 10 twice. Between Miles' physical style and ace recruiting, this D has a high floor.

Still, it was surprising when Miles replaced Chavis with Kevin Steele. Part of that is our fault. We only remember specific instances or seasons from a coach's tenure, and we ignore the day-to-day detail coaches deal with. But the last time most of us saw Steele was when his 2011 Clemson defense was getting emasculated by West Virginia for 70 points and 600 yards in the Orange Bowl.

Between that, Steele's time as Baylor's head coach, and his shaky performance as coordinator in Nick Saban's first season at Alabama, we can put together an awful résumé.

But Steele also produced a No. 6 Def. S&P+ ranking with Clemson in 2010. He has coached for Johnny Majors, Tom Osborne, Dom Capers, Bobby Bowden, and Saban. Saban liked him enough to rehire him after the Clemson experience. In five seasons as a coordinator, he has produced just one awesome defense, but his name carries weight in the coaching profession. That's ... something, right?

Steele's got a high bar to clear. Despite youth and iffy depth up front -- the top tackles were a freshman (Davon Godchaux) and a sophomore (Christian LaCouture), and Chavis basically played just four linemen all season -- the Tigers ranked ninth in Def. S&P+. They gave up too many big run plays, generated almost no pass pressure, and still held 10 of 13 opponents under 5.4 yards per play.

Because of personnel limitations, last year might have been Chavis' best coaching performance. Now he's at Texas A&M, and you could say Steele's on the hot seat before he's even coached a game.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 116.1 2.55 2.94 34.5% 64.7% 23.6% 74 2.0% 5.0%
Rank 17 20 35 23 47 15 103 120 111
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Danielle Hunter DE
13 51.5 7.9% 13.0 1.5 0 6 1 1
Jermauria Rasco DE
13 47.5 7.3% 7.5 4.0 0 1 1 1
Davon Godchaux DT 6'4, 298 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9328 13 28.5 4.4% 1.5 0.0 0 0 1 0
Christian LaCouture DT 6'5, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9004 13 23.5 3.6% 4.0 2.5 0 2 0 0
Tashawn Bower DE 6'5, 237 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9187 13 9.5 1.5% 2.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Sione Teuhema DE 6'4, 232 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8848 9 5.0 0.8% 2.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Quentin Thomas DT 6'4, 303 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8615 11 5.0 0.8% 0.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Deondre Clark DE 6'3, 244 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9324 12 4.5 0.7% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Maquedius Bain DT
10 3.5 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Frank Herron DT 6'4, 278 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9588 4 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Greg Gilmore DT 6'5, 305 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9579 6 2.5 0.4% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Lewis Neal DE 6'1, 255 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8672 13 2.0 0.3% 1.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Justin Maclin DE
4 1.5 0.2% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Mickey Johnson DT 6'1, 310 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9265 2 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
M.J. Patterson DE 6'3, 231 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8700
Arden Key DE 6'6, 230 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9589
Isaiah Washington DE 6'4, 225 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8711








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Kwon Alexander WLB
12 65.0 9.9% 7.5 1.5 0 1 2 0
Kendell Beckwith MLB 6'2, 245 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9664 13 56.5 8.6% 7.5 2.0 1 3 0 0
D.J. Welter MLB
13 20.5 3.1% 2.0 1.0 0 1 1 0
Lamar Louis SLB 6'0, 229 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9021 12 19.5 3.0% 2.5 0.0 0 3 1 0
Deion Jones WLB 6'1, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8868 13 18.0 2.7% 3.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Duke Riley SLB 6'1, 218 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8657 13 13.0 2.0% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Devin Voorhies MLB 6'2, 208 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9156 8 4.5 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Ronnie Feist WLB 6'1, 224 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9079 4 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Donnie Alexander SLB 6'1, 201 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8703








7. A healthy backbone

Some defenses can succeed without a pass rush. If your secondary is elite, as LSU's frequently is, you can use your linebackers conservatively, stepping them into passing lanes or bolting them to the QB as soon as scrambles. This was the Chavis formula last year, and it worked pretty well.

Still, LSU had no pass rush. Even without using linebackers and spending time with three down linemen, you'd like to think you can generate more than this. LSU had 19 sacks last year, four from Jermauria Rasco and 15 from everybody else.

Steele had an aggressive streak at Clemson. His excellent 2010 defense featured 32 sacks (15 from Da'Quan Bowers) and 60 passes defensed, so he will want to bring at least a little bit of pressure, even if his secondary is great.

It's not clear that he's got great pass-rushing personnel. Leading returning ends Tashawn Bower and Sione Teuhema combined for 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks among their 14.5 overall tackles, but their infrequent use makes them mysteries. And while incoming freshmen Arden Key and Isaiah Washington were well-regarded recruits, they're freshmen.

What we do know is that the backbone is beyond sturdy. Godchaux and LaCouture held up last year, and their backups came to Baton Rouge well-regarded. At middle linebacker, Kendell Beckwith was solid for a sophomore, mixing 7.5 tackles for loss with four passes defensed. And at safety, LSU is loaded.

Just about any coordinator in the country could produce a top-30 defense out of this personnel, specifically the guys up the middle.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jamal Adams S 6'0, 206 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9847 13 52.0 7.9% 5 1 0 5 0 0
Ronald Martin S
13 49.0 7.5% 0 0 2 9 2 0
Jalen Mills (injury) S 6'0, 194 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8532 13 44.0 6.7% 3 0 1 5 0 1
Jalen Collins CB
13 33.0 5.0% 3 0 1 9 0 0
Corey Thompson (2013) S 6'2, 218 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9078 10 28.5 4.2% 0.5 0 0 3 0 0
Tre'Davious White CB 5'11, 191 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9732 13 28.0 4.3% 3 1 2 6 0 0
Rickey Jefferson S 6'0, 204 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9149 13 18.0 2.7% 1.5 0 2 2 0 0
Dwayne Thomas CB 6'0, 182 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9167 5 16.0 2.4% 2.5 1.5 1 1 0 0
Rashard Robinson DB
8 12.5 1.9% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Russell Gage CB 6'0, 180 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8517 2 1.5 0.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ed Paris CB 6'1, 208 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9786 13 1.5 0.2% 0 0 0 0 0 0
John Battle S 6'1, 186 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8801
Kevin Toliver II CB 6'2, 192 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9948
Donte Jackson DB 5'11, 168 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9731
Xavier Lewis CB 6'0, 186 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9217








8. A top-5 pass defense with no pass rush whatsoever

In 2013, LSU's secondary was banged up, with only three of eight primary DBs playing in all 13 games. Chavis was forced to juggle four safeties, but LSU still ranked a solid 20th in Passing S&P+.

One year's injury issues are another year's depth. Even while losing Corey Thompson to injury and playing freshman Jamal Adams heavily, the pass defense was nearly untouchable. The Tigers allowed quarterbacks to complete more than 59 percent of their passes just four times in 13 games and held seven opponents to 53 percent or lower. If passer rating is your thing, the Tigers held 10 of 13 under 115.

Despite the loss of Ronald Martin and Jalen Collins, Steele inherits some of the best talent in the country. Adams and Jalen Mills are capable of making and preventing big plays [Update: Mills could miss at least two games due to injury]. They had eight tackles for loss and 11 passes defensed between them. LSU ranked sixth in IsoPPP+ (big play prevention). Plus, Thompson and Rickey Jefferson are back.

Cornerback is a little bit thinner, with only Tre'Davious White and Dwayne Thomas having scored major playing time, but a) White and Thomas are strong, and b) reinforcements are on the way. Between sophomore Ed Paris and freshmen Kevin Toliver II (one of the nation's best recruits this class), Donte Jackson, and Xavier Lewis, the odds are great that the No. 3 cornerback will be good.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Jamie Keehn 6'4, 220 Sr. 71 44.9 3 25 27 73.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Trent Domingue 6'1, 170 Jr. 51 62.2 28 2 54.9%
Cameron Gamble 5'11, 190 So. 17 61.4 7 1 41.2%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Colby Delahoussaye 5'10, 176 Jr. 34-36 8-11 72.7% 3-4 75.0%
Trent Domingue 6'1, 170 Jr. 6-6 2-3 66.7% 0-1 0.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Leonard Fournette KR 6'1, 230 So. 24 26.0 1
Darrel Williams KR 6'0, 230 So. 1 21.0 0
Tre'Davious White PR 5'11, 191 Jr. 25 10.9 1
Trey Quinn PR 6'0, 194 So. 1 7.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 13
Field Goal Efficiency 86
Punt Return Efficiency 30
Kick Return Efficiency 13
Punt Efficiency 68
Kickoff Efficiency 15
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 114

9. An incredible run of great special teams

What an embarrassment. LSU's special teams efficiency ranking fell all the way to 13th, the worst performance since 2007. Fire everyone, Les. Burn it to the ground.

Joking aside, there were some issues. Punter Jamie Keehn has a booming leg, but he outkicked coverage at times. Allowing 9.1 yards per return (and one touchdown) takes some of the shine off of a 45-yard punting average. Plus, while showing off a big leg, Colby Delahoussaye struggled enough on shorter kicks to briefly cede his job to kickoffs guy Trent Dominigue.

Still ... kickoffs were good. Fournette was efficient in kick returns, then took one all the way in the bowl. Tre'Davious White was the generic LSU punt returner we've come to fear. Between Delahoussaye and Domingue, it is likely that a steady place-kicker will emerge, and if your biggest issue is that your punter's leg is sometimes too strong, you've probably got a good special teams unit. Miles always does.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
5-Sep McNeese State NR
12-Sep at Mississippi State 21
19-Sep Auburn 5
26-Sep at Syracuse 73
3-Oct Eastern Michigan 128
10-Oct at South Carolina 31
17-Oct Florida 29
24-Oct Western Kentucky 61
7-Nov at Alabama 1
14-Nov Arkansas 12
21-Nov at Ole Miss 6
28-Nov Texas A&M 22
Five-Year F/+ Rk 43.8% (4)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 7 / 5
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 2.4
2014 TO Luck/Game +0.2
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (9, 6)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 7.3 (0.7)

10. Spoiler or contender?

There are some key "Yeah, but ..." interjections that keep me from going all the way in with LSU.

The offense features Fournette and one of the most explosive receiving corps in the country. The defense has an absurdly strong backbone, good corners, and plenty of options on the edges.

But ...

  • Until we see steady quarterback play, we don't know that it will happen, even if Harris and Jennings have shown loads of potential.
  • Until we see that the new defensive coordinator is going to meet the standard, we don't know that it will happen, even with one of the nation's best secondaries.

There is a lot to like about LSU, and thanks to experience, recent play, and recruiting, the numbers see it. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 projects LSU eighth in the country and gives the Tigers a 31 percent chance of going 10-2 or better despite a brutal division. Those are decent odds, and it reminds us that last year's only less-than-elite play was the exception, not the rule.

We're 15 months from a presidential election, which means the party debates are hitting fourth gear. It's time for LSU to peak again. Will it happen this time?