LSU facing these tough questions ahead of a steep rebuilding effort in 2020 season
Breaking down the major issues facing the Tigers after the dream national championship season in 2019
Take a scan of the national championship odds for 2020 or any of the way-too-early rankings and you can see the impact that Ed Orgeron and last year's title-winning LSU team had on college football. Only after the likes of Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, Florida and Oklahoma do you find LSU on these lists, suggesting that there is confidence in Coach O's program beyond the individuals that helped lead the record-setting campaign of a season ago.
That kind of confidence to just reload is only afforded to a handful of programs across the country, and LSU now appears to be one of those programs. Otherwise, there's no way that a team could lose 14 starters and still be expected to compete at the highest level the following season, especially when you factor in the losses of Broyles Award-winning offensive assistant Joe Brady and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
Orgeron has been very clear since the start of February -- when the nearly month-long celebration of LSU's title wound down with National Signing Day and the focus turned to spring practice -- that the 2020 LSU Tigers are not expected to be the 2019 LSU Tigers. He's realistic about the challenge that's ahead to replace the production -- LSU checks in at No. 127 out of 130 FBS teams in Bill Connelly's returning production rankings -- and has lived enough college football lives to know that seasons like last year can never be expected as the norm in this hyper-competitive sport.
"I think the culture that we've built is fantastic but we need to keep that standard up," Orgeron said at the start of spring practice. "I do believe it would be a fault to keep talking about last year. We've got to turn the page, this is a new team, but we do have a lot of good things we can fall back on from last year. We can fall back on some of those things, but I can't expect this team to be last year's team, it's a new team, but we still have high expectations."
The Tigers were able to get spring practice started, but they were just a few sessions in before the coronavirus pandemic put an end to in-person and on-campus activities. Factor in the lost practices with nearly unprecedented turnover, and it starts to become a more daunting leap of faith to be bullish on LSU keeping pace with the best teams in the country.
So exactly how steep is LSU's rebuild? Very, particularly with no spring practices. Can LSU keep pace with the best teams in the SEC in 2020? I know that seems overly optimistic and you may have some follow-up questions, so we've tried to address the most pressing ones below.
A: The biggest supporter of Brennan, a junior who in his fourth year with the program stands as the only player with experience, is Orgeron. It's one thing to offer quotes of confidence, but actions speak louder and LSU has remained committed to Brennan as QB1 with sophomore Peter Parrish (suspended for the spring) and a pair of true freshmen, four-star Max Johnson and three-star TJ Finley, rounding out the room. There were a handful of quarterbacks in the transfer portal that could have been a plug-and-play option for the Tigers in 2020, but after two years of backing up Burrow, the LSU staff is not only comfortable but excited about Brennan's chances to break out in 2020.
"I expect Myles to explode. I expect him to do all the things that he needs to do to be a great quarterback," Orgeron said. "Whatever it may be, I know that this guy is dedicated to do that. I think we are going to have one heck of a player. I've always believed in Myles, I believe he is a championship quarterback. I believe he is going to be great for us."
One reason to be optimistic of Brennan's chances to be successful in the offense, which is expected to stick to the up-tempo spread attack even after the departure of Brady, is the wealth of talent that LSU returns at the skill positions. Not all of it's proven yet, but the options are there for LSU's offense to be one of the best units in the country without Brennan even needing to be a Heisman Trophy contender like his predecessor.
Q: So who will be LSU's biggest offensive star?
A: Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. Now, clearly there is going to be some significant connection between whatever success Chase enjoys and the benefits to Brennan's bottom line, but one sub-plot of Burrow's record-breaking season was Chase's emergence as one of the game's greats. And by "game" I'm not just referring to college football, because there's plenty of reason to believe that we are watching one of the era's best wide receivers blossom into a superstar before our eyes. Given the amount of hardware LSU brought home in 2019, the fact that Chase was named the Biletnikoff Award winner fell to the cutting-room floor. If you listened to Burrow closely, though, you noticed that the compliments for his teammates were not just some campy praise deflection to promote a narrative of selflessness. Sometimes Burrow would even look astonished as he noted that Chase and the other LSU receivers -- including the returning Terrace Marshall, who had 13 touchdown receptions in 12 games last year -- "catch everything."
If Chase's highlight reel, stats and awards combined with Burrow's hype don't do enough for you, the superstar potential for Chase was again a topic at this year's NFL Draft combine. The Advocate reported that "at least three different" defensive backs in Indianapolis mentioned Chase when asked to name the best wide receiver they faced in college, including players from Mississippi State, Clemson and Alabama.
"He's real good," Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs said. "He's a stud. Quick, fast, has good hands, runs good routes, he's a baller. I respect that man."
Q: Can any one player replace the production of Clyde Edwards-Helaire?
A: No. The way that Edwards-Helaire emerged as an all-purpose threat was the icing on the cake that LSU's offense needed to make the leap from elite to damn-near unstoppable. He was the key to beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa, for one, and there is a long list of drives that might have come to a halt before reaching the end zone if Edwards-Helaire didn't find ways to turn a check down into a first down after the catch. His awareness on the field was impeccable, and LSU relied on him almost exclusively at the running back position. But count me as one that not only has confidence, but is extremely excited to see what happens at the position in 2020 because I think the depth of the room could be a real strength.
The excitement started at the Peach Bowl in December as we wondered how much of a factor Edwards-Helaire would be in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma as he dealt with a nagging hamstring injury. He did end up playing, but only briefly; something about that 49-14 halftime score made resting Edwards-Helaire an easier decision. He was replaced in the starting lineup not by No. 2 on the depth chart Tyrion Davis-Price and not by former five-star prospect John Emery, but by Chris Curry, who had been running fourth behind the other three running backs for most of the year. Curry had an excellent performance, logging 16 carries for 90 yards while Davis-Price and Emery combined for just seven carries in the 63-28 win against the Sooners.
With Curry, Davis-Price and Emery, you've got three different playing styles that can be used to both stress defenses and keep the players fresh in games. Edwards-Helaire was a special talent who hit his top gear at the perfect time for LSU, but watching this three-headed running back attack find their legs in 2020 could prove just as exhilarating.
Q: How can LSU be successful with all the turnover on the offensive line?
A: The success of Brennan, Chase and the running backs will all be dependent on getting strong play from an offensive line that returns just one starter and only two players total with significant experience: right tackle Austin Deculus and offensive guard Ed Ingram. This is one major area where LSU fans have every right to be concerned, especially with no spring practice. Now LSU is dealing with a lack of reps that can fuel the competition, which would then hopefully produce a starting five that coaches feel strong about heading into the summer. No matter what happens with the adjusted schedule for college football, LSU will be pressing to find its five to step in for the Joe Moore Award winners from a year ago.
Former defensive lineman Dare Rosenthaal is a name to keep an eye on, not just for his athleticism and status as a potential starting tackle opposite Deculus, but because he left school for personal reasons prior to spring practice. Orgeron said at the time that Rosenthaal is expected to return to school in the fall. As long as that happens, a big question mark for the starting lineup should be answered.
Things appear much more fluid on the interior of the line, where LSU loses a pair of seniors in Adrian Magee and Damian Lewis as well as center Lloyd Cushenberry, the anchor up front for an up-tempo offense. Chasen Hines, Charles Turner, Anthony Bradford and Cam Wire could end up emerging as important pieces on the unit, but without a spring practice, it's going to be a sprint for the players and the coaches to get that group ready.
Q: What kind of changes can we expect going from Bo Pelini?
A: It's important to remember that LSU's defense underwent a few transformations last season. Aranda built the defense around a three-down scheme, with gap-stuffing defensive lineman setting up the freak athletes at the second and third levels to make plays, but injuries, the suspension of linebacker Michael Divinity and other adjustments left visible holes that teams began to exploit. Aranda made some changes to his coaching, the team got healthier and the defense hit the reset button for the final stretch of the season. LSU held Texas A&M and Georgia to a combined 17 points in its final two games before the playoff, dominated Jalen Hurts and Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl and then brought the heat against Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the national championship game, contributing to one of the worst performances of his college career.
So when Bo Pelini comes in to change a 3-4 base to a 4-3, those who follow LSU closely will note that it won't be all that different from when linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson would become an edge rusher essentially as a stand-up defensive end. LSU has done a great job of recruiting talent at linebacker, and the Pelini era will begin with a few of those players packing on weight to make the necessary transitions.
With returning starting nose tackle Tyler Shelvin and Siaki Ika, a rotation player a year ago, Pelini has a solid foundation on the interior of his new defensive line with Glen Logan likely returning as a starter at defensive end. The other defensive end position is going to be where we see some former linebackers and hungry young talent competing for playing time, and while no spring practice hurts that process, there's not a lot of concern regarding the quality of Pelini's options.
One of Pelini's big concerns for rebuilding the defense has to be the linebacker position, which loses Chaisson, Jacob Phillips, Patrick Queen and Michael Divinity. But his time at the FCS level as Youngstown State's head coach gave him a unique advantage for one of the best players in the transfer portal, and that concern was addressed with the commitment of three-time FCS All-American Jabril Cox from North Dakota State.
No analyst is going to identify the secondary as a position of concern for DBU, especially with Derek Stinlgey Jr. headlining that group after proving to be one of the best players in the country as a freshman in 2019. JaCoby Stevens and Kary Vincent Jr. both opted not to leave early for the NFL Draft and bring a huge boost to the back end of the defense in terms of talent, but how Pelini decides to construct that back end around the new four-down front remains a question that will be unanswered until the players return to campus.
Q: What are realistic expectations for the Tigers in 2020?
A: There should not be a game on LSU's schedule where the Tigers enter looking outmatched. Expecting the Tigers to go 3-0 against the trio of Florida, Alabama and Auburn is probably a stretch, but there's far too much to like about LSU in 2020 to consider all three of those games as losses heading into the season. The highlights have been incredible and the record books have been re-written, but the lasting impact of LSU's 2019 season is a reversal of the narrative that the Tigers had fallen to a position of less-than in the SEC. This program has beaten Auburn three times in a row, Georgia and Florida twice and snapped an eight-game losing streak to Alabama since Orgeron was named the full-time head coach after the 2016 season. Even in a year with a steep rebuild on a compressed offseason schedule, LSU should expect to be in the mix for possible return trips to the SEC Championship Game and College Football Playoff in 2020.
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