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LSU needs just a little more offense to be a 2017 Playoff contender

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Can Ed Orgeron’s team take the step that Les Miles’ team couldn’t?

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl - LSU v Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ed Orgeron is 12-4 all-time as an interim head coach and 10-25 as a full-timer. It is one of the odder résumés ever compiled.

In two separate awkward situations — taking over for the fired Lane Kiffin at USC in 2013 and Les Miles at LSU in 2016 — he took the reins of demoralized, talented-as-hell programs and did pretty good jobs. USC still lost to Notre Dame and UCLA, and LSU still lost to Alabama and Florida, but he got teams that were too far in their own heads to loosen up. He earned a lot of loyalty in the process.

USC didn’t give him the full-time job, electing to go with former Trojan assistant Steve Sarkisian. LSU did.

Honestly, I was surprised. The Florida loss was supposed to be it. The Tigers suffered a crippling, late miscommunication near the goal line and fell, 16-10, despite outgaining the Gators by 153 yards. According to my Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody co-host Steven Godfrey, the scene on the field was one of devastation — everyone, including Orgeron, understood that his odds had diminished dramatically.

A week later, however, following LSU’s flirtation with eventual Texas head coach Tom Herman, Orgeron’s pitch worked. He promised to bring in a “premier” offensive coordinator and to recruit with abandon. It got him the job.

So now, nearly 10 years after his tenure as Ole Miss head man flamed out, Orgeron gets a chance to exorcise the last of the demons. Ten years ago, he was paranoid and angry and treated everyone — his assistants, the fan base, everyone — like the most petulant athlete on the roster. This time around, he’s letting a talented staff do its job.

He still occasionally comes off as paranoid, mind you. He’s sparred some verbal rounds with Texas and Herman in the name of in-state recruiting. (And at the moment, his Louisiana-heavy 2018 recruiting class is merely good, not amazing.) He has closed all of fall practice from the media. He’s seen quite a few players transfer. There are at least a few red flags.

But if he lets his assistant coaches do their jobs — doesn’t make them run sprints in practice, doesn’t emasculate them too much — that might be all it takes. Because lord knows LSU doesn’t have to get too much better to be utterly dominant.

There were two LSUs in 2016, and this was the case whether Miles or Orgeron was leading the way. The LSU facing anything other than elite defense was dominant. The LSU facing an elite defense was feckless.

  • LSU vs. opponents with top-10 defense per Def. S&P+ (0-4): Avg. score: Opp 15, LSU 9 | Avg. percentile performance: 73% (~top 35) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 4.9, LSU 4.9
  • LSU vs. opponents with a mortal defense (8-0): Avg. score: LSU 38, Opp 16 | Avg. percentile performance: 95% (~top five) | Avg. yards per play: LSU 7.5, Opp 4.7

The Tiger defense, led by coordinator Dave Aranda, was lights-out, no matter what. Only one opponent all season (Texas A&M) scored more than 21 points, and LSU ranked third in Def. S&P+ at year’s end.

The offense, however, needed a physical advantage. When it had that, it was untouchable. Running backs Leonard Fournette and Guice ran wild and opened up just enough passing lanes for embattled QB Danny Etling.

The Tigers had no Plan B, though. They had a passer rating of 100.4 in losses and 146.4 in wins. If you were sound enough to control the run, the pass was erased.

That’s where offensive coordinator Matt Canada comes in. Canada led NC State to its two best offensive performances of the last 12 years in 2014 (40th in Off. S&P+) and 2015 (35th), then went to Pitt and fielded a truly elite offense (fourth). And his task for 2017 is to unearth a couple of extra successes per game. And maybe close drives a little better.

In Canada, Aranda, tight ends coach Steve Ensminger (last year’s interim OC), defensive line coach Pete Jenkins, DBs coach Corey Raymond, etc., Orgeron has a talented staff and former star recruits at almost literally every position. He’s got the tools he needs, and now he has a chance to right a decade-old wrong.


2016 in review

2016 LSU statistical profile.

Miles was forced to come to grips with his coaching mortality last November, then survived.

He is beloved and embattled. He heads into 2016 with high expectations and excitement ... and he's basically one bad quarter away from ending up right back atop hot seat lists.

This is all very strange and, yes, very LSU.

My 2016 LSU preview focused on two warring thoughts: that LSU was close to putting all the pieces together for a title run, and that Miles could afford no missteps.

The former was backed up by the fact that the Tigers would finish fourth in S&P+ despite four losses; the latter was backed up by the four losses. Granted, Miles was only around for two of them. He was pushed aside after an 18-13 loss to Auburn with discombobulated late-game execution (like so many other recent losses, any many wins, had).

Orgeron took over, made a few modifications, then fielded mostly the same team.

  • First four games with Miles (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 87% vs. teams without elite defense, 74% vs. teams with elite defense
  • Last eight games with Orgeron (6-2): Avg. percentile performance: 98% vs. teams without elite defense, 73% vs. teams with elite defense

The Tigers still couldn’t solve good defenses but were even more dominant against everyone else. 2017 will be all about figuring out the former. No pressure, Coach Canada.


Offense

LSU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The trait Canada brings is adaptability. His philosophy is “It’s all about players, not plays,” so it makes sense that the success of his offenses has correlated with the talent on the two-deep. (Whose offense doesn’t?)

  • None of his four Indiana offenses (2007-10) topped the Off. S&P+ top 50 (the best was a No. 51 performance in 2007).
  • His 2011 NIU offense, led by QB Chandler Harnish and a deep receiving corps, surged from 40th to 21st.
  • His lone Wisconsin offense (2012) had to deal with replacing QB Russell Wilson with a series of replacement-level guys but fell only from fourth to 25th. (Honestly, this may have been his best job, even if he did have Montee Ball, James White, and Melvin Gordon in the backfield.)
  • His first NC State offense was a dud, but he found a rhythm with quarterback Jacoby Brissett and running back Matt Dayes.
  • His lone Pitt offense, led by running back James Conner, quarterback Nathan Peterman, and explosive utility man Quadree Henderson, dominated.

Canada doesn’t have that much to figure out here. Despite all of the vagaries associated with the passing game — first with quarterback Brandon Harris, then with Etling — they still ranked 22nd in Off. S&P+. Hell, they still ranked 34th in Passing S&P+. For an occasionally bad offense, that’s pretty good.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Louisiana State
D.J. Chark
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There are changes afoot, though, and not just in the play-caller’s chair. The receiving corps must replace five of its top seven targets: two wideouts (Malachi Dupre, Travin Dural), two tight ends (Colin Jeter, DeSean Smith), and Fournette.

Dupre is probably the only significant aerial loss. He averaged 9.3 yards per target with 41 catches; Jeter averaged 9.2 per target but only caught 11 balls all year. And in senior D.J. Chark, it appears the Tigers still have a play-action option. Chark caught 26 of 43 passes for 466 yards and three scores; unlike Dupre or Dural, he was targeted mostly on passing downs, but he still led Tiger wideouts with 10.8 yards per target.

Chark has a load of potential, but every other returning receiver on the roster combined for 10 catches last year. Senior Russell Gage (five catches) and sophomore Derrick Dillon (zero) are evidently separating themselves in the battle for playing time, but one assumes towering sophomore Drake Davis and blue-chip freshman JaCoby Stevens (a safety-turned-WR) will find opportunities.

Etling isn’t going to be an all-conference talent, but if the run game is working, and he’s not constantly asked to throw into the teeth of good defenses on third-and-9, he’ll be fine. (This is assuming, of course, that Canada doesn’t give the job to a youngster like four-star freshman Myles Brennan.)

He does still have Guice, after all.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville
Derrius Guice
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Guice was a smidge less efficient than the banged-up Fournette but was one of the most explosive backs in the country. Of his 183 carries, 37 went for at least 10 yards (14 in the first half, 23 in the second), and 19 went for at least 20. He had 21 carries for 252 yards against Arkansas, then topped Fournette with a 285-yard performance against Texas A&M. He had 29 carries in the first month of the season but still finished with 1,387 yards.

Behind Guice, you’ve got plenty of exciting backups. Darrel Williams is a senior, junior Nick Brossette averaged 9.7 yards per carry last year, and freshman Clyde Edwards-Helaire darn near passed Brossette in the spring.

Barring injury, the only thing that could slow down the LSU run game (besides Alabama) is the LSU offensive line. The Tigers have the requisite former star recruits and return four upperclassmen who have had plenty of rotation time (including all-conference guard Will Clapp, still returning to health from offseason surgery), but attrition drained depth.

After those four upperclassmen are basically sophomore Adrian Magee and a huge load of true and redshirt freshmen. There are four former four-star recruits in that batch, but that’s still a little scary. An injury to one veteran could mean a couple of first-year guys starting.

Defense

LSU defensive radar

On average, teams have seen their Def. S&P+ rankings rise by 34.8 spots when hiring Aranda as coordinator.

  • Hawaii improved from 106th to 78th in 2010
  • Utah State improved from 96th to 12th in 2012
  • Wisconsin rose from 16th to 14th in 2013
  • LSU rebounded from 28th to third last year

Aranda is one of the most exciting, proven DCs at this point; one assumes the 40-year-old will be the subject of head coaching offers in the near future. But for 2017, he should have the pieces to field another balanced unit.

As good as SEC defenses tend to be, last year, most had to make a choice between efficiency and big-play prevention. LSU chose both.

LSU defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Aranda has some turnover to deal with. The Tigers must replace their top two tacklers both on the line and in the linebacking corps, and they must replace four of their top six defensive backs. For a lesser DC with lesser talent, this might be problematic. But both Aranda and the talent get the benefit of the doubt.

Losing linemen Davon Godchaux and Lewis Neal might hurt worse if the TIgers weren’t welcoming back Christian LaCouture. The senior was supposed to become a breakout star in 2016, before an August knee injury; also back are tackles Greg Gilmore, Frank Herron, Ed Alexander, and Rashard Lawrence. All of them are former blue-chippers, and having Gilmore at the nose was a big reason why the Tigers gave up five or more yards on only 33 percent of carries last season (10th in FBS).

Meanwhile, losing Duke Riley and Kendall Beckwith at linebacker might mean more if Arden Key and Devin White weren’t returning. They should provide a base of play-makers for the four-man unit while some combination of veterans (Donnie Alexander, Corey Thompson, Devin Voorhies) and young former star recruits (sophomore Michael Divinity Jr., freshman blue-chippes K'Lavon Chaisson and Jacob Phillips) fills in gaps.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville
Arden Key
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The balance was a little off last year. The pass defense was a risk-reward experiment — second in passing success rate, fourth in Adj. Sack Rate, 82nd in passing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the successful plays) — but the run defense was more reactive than aggressive. The Tigers ranked only 93rd in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and while their efficiency numbers were still good because of speed, more improvement is possible. Yikes.

There are some concerns in the secondary, though, where there might be no choice but to lean on youngsters. Of course, with these youngsters, that probably won’t be much of an issue.

The return of corners Donte Jackson and Kevin Toliver II and safeties John Battle and Ed Paris give the Tigers a veteran presence, but only Jackson and Battle brought much disruptiveness to the table. That leaves the door open for rambunctious youth:

  • Sophomores: corners Xavier Lewis and Kristian Fulton
  • Redshirt freshmen: safeties Eric Monroe and Cameron Lewis, corner Andreaz “Greedy” Williams
  • True freshmen: safeties Grant Delpit and Todd Harris Jr., corner Kary Vincent Jr.

All eight were either four- or five-star recruits. Just about any other defense in the country would trade its secondary for this one. LSU has perhaps produced more stud DBs than any other school in recent years, and this iteration has plenty, even if they’re young.

NCAA Football: Lambeau Field College Classic-Louisiana State vs Wisconsin
Donte Jackson
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

LSU was mostly forgettable in special teams. The Tigers ranked between 45th and 70th in four of five efficiency categories, and the only one in which they were lower (punt returns) is also where they were most explosive.

Losing decent place-kicker Colby Delahoussaye might hurt, but getting punter Josh Growden, kickoffs guy Cameron Gamble, and kick returners Guice and Jackson back will probably establish a pretty high floor. We’ll see about the ceiling.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep vs BYU 46 18.5 86%
9-Sep Chattanooga NR 40.4 99%
16-Sep at Mississippi State 30 12.2 76%
23-Sep Syracuse 60 22.8 91%
30-Sep Troy 79 29.1 95%
7-Oct at Florida 15 3.0 57%
14-Oct Auburn 9 5.8 63%
21-Oct at Ole Miss 26 10.0 72%
4-Nov at Alabama 1 -13.2 22%
11-Nov Arkansas 32 17.2 84%
18-Nov at Tennessee 24 9.6 71%
25-Nov Texas A&M 19 12.4 76%
Projected S&P+ Rk 4
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 14 / 7
Projected wins 8.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 17.3 (5)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 5 / 3
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 6.0
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 50% (59%, 40%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.2 (-1.2)

Florida, Auburn, Alabama. If having a top-10 defense remains a prerequisite for beating LSU, those are the three teams that could nick the Tigers. BYU or Tennessee could come close, with some breaks.

Everybody else: you might be out of luck.

I don’t know what to think of Orgeron’s long-term prospects. A record of interim success tells us nothing about program management. But with a pair of ace coordinators and upside in nearly every category, the Tigers’ upside is as high as ever. They are projected fourth in S&P+ and are the projected underdog in only one game (at Alabama). Hell, they only have two other games in which their win probability is under 71 percent.

With Guice and plenty of known quantities and young studs on defense, the bar is high. Again.

And the Tigers only need to get a little bit better on offense to get a whole lot better in the win column. Again.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.