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2018 LSU might be underrated, but with this ferocious schedule, it might not matter

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Ed Orgeron’s second Tiger squad will face seven projected top-25 teams, including maybe the most narrative-heavy game of Week 1.

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Ed Orgeron
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

[The text of this preview has been updated to reflect recent roster moves.]

LSU fans are, at times, impressively self-loathing. Even when their teams are good, there will be some grumbling about aesthetics or small missteps. And hey, if you’re holding your team to the standards of your own tailgate perfection, you’re going to see some flaws.

This offseason has been ramped up. LSU fans, more than any time that I can remember this century, appear to be gearing up for the worst. I have a theory as to why.

  • Alabama still has Nick Saban.
  • Georgia just became the Georgia we all thought it might.
  • Auburn just had its first SEC West title and top-10 finish since 2013.
  • Texas A&M just hired one of the few active national title coaches.
  • LSU’s SEC East rival, Florida, just hired Mississippi State’s best post-World War II coach (and MSU has a promising replacement).

Most of the league’s best-supported programs appear to have their arrows pointed in the right direction. Ed Orgeron’s LSU, though?

It’s too early to deem the second-year head coach a failure. But it does seem the program has fallen into neutral gear. And to paraphrase Ricky Bobby, if you’re not moving forward, must be moving backward.

This is not necessarily of Orgeron’s making. You inherit what you inherit. His 2017 Tigers were crazy-young in the secondary, banged up on the defensive line, and full of new starters in the receiving corps and on the offensive line. His second team will deploy a defense almost entirely devoid of seniors and an offense with new starters at QB, RB, WR (again), center, and both tackle positions.

There are former star recruits everywhere, and that isn’t going to change, but roster balance isn’t something you can immediately solve.

Of course, since this is Orgeron, there are other narratives in the mix. Since the moment he was hired to replace Les Miles late in 2016, we as analysts and fans have been watching for signs that he’s changed since his failure as Ole Miss coach, when he recruited well got meddled too much and got in too many confrontations. Coaches rarely get a second-chance when they fail so spectacularly.

His first year as LSU’s full-time top man was ... okay. The Tigers finished 19th in S&P+ despite youth, turnover, etc., and won nine games for just the second time in the last four seasons. After a rough early go that featured an upset loss to Troy, they won six of seven to finish the regular season. At worst, this wasn’t particularly different than the end of the Miles era.

He did still meddle, though. He hired coveted offensive coordinator Matt Canada, then asked him to stop some of the things — shifts, mainly — that made the Canada offense the Canada offense. It seemed as if he had buyer’s remorse. But it should have been obvious, and because this is Orgeron, and we’re already watching for signs of change, that was a red flag.

If nothing else, he’s established more of a comfort zone in year two. Canada fled, and Orgeron replaced him with Steve Ensminger, former LSU quarterback, longtime Miles/Orgeron assistant, and the coordinator in 2016 when Orgeron’s interim squad scored 38-plus points five times in a seven-game stretch.

LSU is projected as the fourth-best team in the SEC West per S&P+ and picked fifth by the media. That is far lower than Tiger fans are used to. But if they can establish the run with some new pieces, they’ll still look an awful lot like LSU. And with seven games projected within one possession, a little more offense could go a long way.

Offense

2017 LSU offensive radar

It’s easy to be underwhelmed by the Ensminger hire. He has 15 years of OC experience, 11 at the FBS level, but his last full-time play-calling gig ended in 1998, when he and boss Tommy West were pushed out at Clemson after a 3-8 campaign. He had a couple of stellar offenses at Louisiana Tech (1989, 1990) and one at Georgia (1992), but his last six P5 offenses averaged an Off. S&P+ ranking of 55.2.

But he can work with Orgeron. Canada evidently couldn’t. And back in 2016, when Ensminger took over play-calling four games into the season, the effects were noticeable.

  • LSU offense, first 4 games of 2016: 5.8 yards per play, 21 points per game
  • LSU offense, last 8 games of 2016: 7.1 yards per play, 32 points per game

Ensminger established the physical mentality that Orgeron craves, and while it failed against Alabama and encountered a force field at the goal line against Florida, it was mostly successful.

It also had Derrius Guice and Leonard Fournette, both now in the NFL, and 2017 backup Darrel Williams is doing LSU Running Back things in Kansas City.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Louisiana State
Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe the biggest question is one for which the Tigers typically have a resounding answer: how good is the RB corps? Here’s your cast:

There’s plenty of burliness. Brossette, a former star recruit, has done pretty well with the opportunities he’s gotten; behind Fournette, Guice, and Williams, he hasn’t gotten many.

Four-star fullback David Ducre is back, and both starting guards were returning until recently, when Ed Ingram was suspended “indefinitely.” But left guard Garrett Brumfield was a second-team all-conference performer last year. Any or all of four other former four-star recruits — including sophomore Saahdiq Charles (who started eight games last year, mostly at left tackle) — could fill the lineup.

If this all adds up to an efficient run game — and history is in LSU’s favor — then the Tigers have a chance to at least match last year’s production.

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Tech
Jonathan Giles
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Transfers could lead the passing game. Jonathan Giles caught 69 passes for 1,158 yards and 13 touchdowns at Texas Tech in 2016 before sitting out last season, and there’s a chance that recent Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow could end up starting the season behind center.

If nothing else, Burrow should raise the floor for the QB unit; he showed well in battling Dwayne Haskins at Ohio State this spring, and if sophomore Myles Brennan beats him out, then perhaps that says good things about Brennan. The Tigers aren’t deep in numbers here, though, after redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse and junior Justin McMilan transferred in August.

Giles is the most proven piece in the receiving corps, but the potential is high, as always. Tight end Foster Moreau is solid (and will get pushed by NC State transfer Thaddeus Moss), and while juniors Stephen Sullivan, Derrick Dillon, and Drake Davis — former four-star recruits, all — combined for just 28 catches last year, they went for 478 yards and three scores.

Then there’s the requisite batch of new blue-chippers in five-star freshman Terrace Marshall Jr. and four-stars Ja’Marr Chase and Kenan Jones.

This looks like an LSU offense. But there are fewer proven pieces than normal.

Defense

2017 LSU defensive radar

Dave Aranda is one of the best coordinators in college football, and he’s paid like it. Getting him to stay in Baton Rouge was probably Orgeron’s biggest early recruiting win. Over the last six seasons (one at Utah State, three at Wisconsin, two at LSU) he has produced two top-five defenses, per S&P+, and his worst defense ranked 21st.

That’s how last year’s defense could rank 18th despite youth and injury and still feel a little bit disappointing.

LSU’s defense was good at almost everything — 24th in Rushing S&P+, 19th in Passing S&P+, 17th in Adj. Sack Rate, 14th in havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays) — but wasn’t elite at anything. And the Tigers had the tendency to let teams off the hook, ranking a mere 55th in Passing Downs S&P+.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Notre Dame vs Louisiana State
Devin White (40) and Ed Alexander (95)
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Considering what Aranda has to replace — three of last year’s top four linemen, four of five linebackers, and two of three cornerbacks — I should maybe be more concerned about this defense than I am. But it’s hard to get worked up when you list out who will be in uniform:

  • Defensive line: Juniors Rashard Lawrence (end) and Ed Alexander (tackle) are former star recruits who combined for 31.5 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss despite missing six combined games. You’ve also got blue-chip Texas Tech transfer Breiden Fehoko, sophomores Glen Logan and Neil Farrell, four-star JUCO transfer Travez Moore, mammoth redshirt freshman Tyler Shelvin (listed at 378 pounds this summer, and four incoming four-star freshmen.
  • Linebacker: Junior Devin White is back after leading the team with 14 tackles for loss and finishing second with 18 total havoc plays. Junior Michael Divinity Jr. has been a role player for a couple of years, but the story here is the five four- or five-star sophomores who all got their feet wet last year. Tyler Taylor is suspended indefinitely, but all-world recruits K’Lavon Chaisson and Jacob Phillips combined for 31 tackles, five TFLs, and three breakups, and Ray Thornton and Patrick Queen also saw the field.
  • Secondary: Corner Greedy Williams was tops on the team in havoc plays as a freshman, with 1.5 TFLs and 17 passes defensed (including six interceptions). Another sophomore blue-chipper, Kary Vincent Jr., saw action, and senior Terrence Alexander was a two-year contributor at Stanford. Blue-chip freshman Kelvin Joseph is there, too. At safety, there really aren’t any losses of which to speak. Seniors John Battle (2.5 TFLs, five PDs) and Ed Paris (an early-2017 contributor before a knee injury) and sophomores Grant Delpit (3.5 TFLs, nine PDs), Eric Monroe, and Todd Harris Jr. are back.

Unknown quality? Solve it with four-star quantity. This has all the makings of a top-15 defense.

LSU v Alabama
Greedy Williams
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Special Teams

LSU is the school of Brad Wing and Tyrann Mathieu, but it’s been a few years since the Tigers had solid special teams. They ranked 86th in Special Teams S&P+ thanks to scattershot kicking from Connor Culp and Jack Gonsoulin (combined: just 12-for-19 on FGs under 40 yards) and all-or-nothing punt returns from D.J. Chark, who gained 172 yards in three returns ... and 18 in 15 others.

Chark’s gone, and LSU could use a new kick returner, too, if Edwards-Helaire is playing a bigger role in the offense. But punter Zach Von Rosenberg is good.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep vs. Miami 13 -3.4 42%
8-Sep SE Louisiana NR 38.1 99%
15-Sep at Auburn 5 -11.0 26%
22-Sep Louisiana Tech 70 16.9 84%
29-Sep Ole Miss 25 5.6 63%
6-Oct at Florida 32 3.3 58%
13-Oct Georgia 6 -5.6 37%
20-Oct Mississippi State 14 0.8 52%
3-Nov Alabama 2 -10.5 27%
10-Nov at Arkansas 52 7.8 67%
17-Nov Rice 128 32.7 97%
24-Nov at Texas A&M 24 0.5 51%
Projected S&P+ Rk 16
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 39 / 12
Projected wins 7.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 16.0 (7)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 7 / 6
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 10 / 10.0
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 48% (39%, 57%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 9.0 (0.0)

Starting 16th in S&P+, LSU is a healthy projected favorite in three games and a double-digit underdog in two (Alabama, at Auburn). The other seven games are all projected within one possession. That includes the neutral-field season-opener against Miami and basically the entire middle portion of the season.

This year could easily be as shaky as some LSU fans (and national writers) think. If the run game does slump more than we’re used to, and the QB situation is shakier with the departure of Danny Etling (who was somewhat underrated by the end of his career), then that could put a lot of potential wins out of reach.

If Burrow (or someone else) clears the bar set by Etling, though, and if Brossette (or someone else) takes the lofty mantel of Starting LSU RB, then this could be at least as good as last year. Georgia, Mississippi State, and Alabama all have to visit Baton Rouge (consecutively, no less), and conference road trips to Florida, Arkansas, and Texas A&M are within reach.

The dread is understandable, but Orgeron’s got a comfortable offensive coordinator, a dynamite defensive coordinator, and another year under his belt. His team should have a chance at a big season, at least.

I’ll say this, though: in terms of narrative potential for both teams, there might not be a bigger Week One game than LSU-Miami. The possibility for overreaction is immense.

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