Preseason Top 25: No. 8 LSU faces steep uphill battle in attempt to repeat as CFP champion

What to do for an encore? Considering LSU began last season ranked at No. 6 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, it would be disingenuous to say it "came out of nowhere" to win the national title. But you know what?

LSU came out of nowhere to win the national title in 2019.

This was a team that was seen as a darkhorse to compete in the SEC West and maybe cause a ruckus, but nobody foresaw what would happen. There weren't pundits sitting around saying, "you know what? I think 2019 LSU is going to prove to be the greatest college football team of all time. It's going to go undefeated and run roughshod over almost everybody and then have 14 players go in the NFL Draft, including five first-round picks."

But that's precisely what LSU did. Well, I suppose the greatest team of all time part is up for debate, but there's certainly a strong argument to be made on the team's behalf. So I ask you again; what to do for an encore?

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 1 in CBS Sports 130 | Achievements: National title, SEC title, Heisman Trophy for Joe Burrow

The 2019 season was one in which it seemed as though everything went right. The changes Ed Orgeron made to his coaching staff, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, were all the right changes. Joe Burrow improved as a player and was a perfect fit for the new offense the Tigers rolled out. LSU went 15-0 and won those 15 games by an average of 26.5 points. They played three one-score games all season long, and none of them came at the end of the season.

From the SEC Championship Game on, LSU played Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson. The three of them combined to go 38-5 last season, and three of those five losses were to LSU. The Tigers beat all three by an average score of 47.3-21.0. Only Clemson managed to stay within three scores.

LSU dominated 2019, both on the field and off it. The Tigers won every game and nearly every award. 

Key departures

QB Joe Burrow: Burrow will forever be a legend in Baton Rouge. He threw for 5,671 yards last season and a ridiculous 60 touchdowns. Seriously, 60 touchdowns! Four per game! He became the first LSU player to win the Heisman Trophy since running back Billy Cannon in 1959 and then went on to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.

RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire: We saw a bit of Edwards-Helaire in 2018, but like this LSU offense itself, I'm not sure anybody saw the 2019 season coming for the human bowling ball. Helaire finished with 2,081 all-purpose yards for the Tigers last season and scored 17 touchdowns. He somehow managed to find his way into an offense that might be better than the one he was already in, as the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs took him with the final pick of the first round.

WR Justin Jefferson: Jefferson finished the 2019 season with 111 receptions for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. The 111 receptions were a single-season record at LSU. He wasn't the big-play threat on this offense, but he was the most trusted outlet for Burrow. His performance was good enough for the Vikings to take him with the 22nd pick of the NFL Draft.

TEs Thaddeus Moss and Stephen Sullivan: Moss, the son of Hall of Famer Randy Moss, caught 47 passes for 570 yards and four touchdowns last season. He signed with the Washington Redskins as an undrafted free agent. Stephen Sullivan had 12 catches for 130 yards and was taken by the Seattle Seahawks in the seventh round of the NFL Draft.

Nearly the entire offensive line: Damien Lewis, Lloyd Cushenberry, Saahdiq Charles and Adrian McGee are all gone. The foursome comprised most of the unit that won the Joe Moore Award, which goes to the best offensive line in the country.

Nearly every LB with experience: K'Lavon Chaisson, Patrick Queen and Jacob Phillips are all gone. The trio combined for 258 tackles, 33 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last season. While Chaisson and Queen went in the first round of the draft (to Jacksonville and Baltimore, respectively), Phillips waited until the third. Oh, and while he didn't play much last year, Michael Divinity is gone as well. That's a lot of experience walking out the door.

DBs Kristian Fulton and Grant Delpit: Delpit dealt with injuries for a lot of the 2019 season and, as a result, had a down year for what we expect from him. That didn't stop him from winning the Thorpe Award for the nation's best defensive back. He had 65 tackles, and nine passes defended to go along with two sacks. The Cleveland Browns took him in the second round. Fulton went later in the second round to the Tennessee Titans. The corner had only one interception in 2019, but that was mostly because not many teams were dumb enough to test him often. Still, he broke up 14 other passes when they did try.

Passing game coordinator Joe Brady: The general public had not heard of Joe Brady before he came to LSU last season, but he received a lot of the credit for the turnaround of LSU's offense. He helped open up and modernize the attack, and it led to everything that we've already gone over. It also got everybody's attention, including that of Matt Rhule. When Rhule left Baylor to take over the Carolina Panthers, he brought Brady with him to be his offensive coordinator.

DC Dave Aranda: Aranda has been one of the most respected defensive coordinators in college football for most of the last decade. After four seasons serving in the role -- as well as that of assistant head coach -- at LSU, Aranda is finally getting his shot as a head coach. He's replacing Rhule at Baylor. So, in a way, Rhule cost LSU two coaches.

Who's back?

WR Ja'Marr Chase: I mentioned above that Justin Jefferson set the school record for most receptions in a season. Well, Chase set a new mark for both receiving yards and touchdowns, as he finished with 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns last year. Chase gained an incredible 21.2 yards per reception last season and will be the most dangerous player on the LSU offense in 2020.

WR Terrace Marshall Jr.: The beautiful thing about being in an offense that throws the ball so much is that there are plenty of receptions to go around. Marshall wasn't as heralded as Jefferson and Chase last year, but he still managed to catch 46 passes for 671 yards and 13 touchdowns. Can you imagine catching 13 touchdown passes and finishing third on your own team? Only five players in the country had more than Marshall's 13, and two of them were his teammates!

CB Derek Stingley Jr.: It must be nice to know that after you lose a lockdown corner like Fulton, you still have another one left. Stingley might prove to be the best of them all at LSU, and the Tigers are known as DBU for good reason. The freshman finished last season with six interceptions and an additional 15 passes broken up, though he won't be tested nearly as often now that Fulton is gone.

S JaCoby Stevens: It's the same story at safety for LSU, where it loses a Thorpe Award winner in Delpit and still has a player capable of winning a Thorpe Award remaining on the back end. Stevens finished second on the team with 92 tackles last season. He also had nine tackles for loss, five sacks and three interceptions. He's a rather productive fellow.

NT Tyler Shelvin: Nose tackles are never going to rack up stats, but with all the losses LSU suffered at the linebacker spot, Shelvin will be an essential part of the LSU defense in 2020. His job will be to continue to give LSU's linebackers freedom to roam and hit like he did last year.

Fresh faces

QB Myles Brennan: Brennan has humongous shoes to fill when he replaces Burrow this year. He's a former four-star recruit who has bided his time to get this opportunity. LSU coaches have expressed confidence in him, but that didn't stop them from exploring the transfer market this offseason.

RB Chris Curry: In LSU's first 13 games of the 2019 season, Curry saw only 21 carries for 96 yards. Fellow freshmen backs Tyrion Davis-Price, and John Emery saw more action. But then came the Peach Bowl against Oklahoma. Helaire was dealing with a hamstring injury, and LSU decided to make Curry the feature back. He finished the game with 16 carries for 90 yards. If the game hadn't been a blowout, Curry probably doesn't get 16 carries, but the fact LSU's staff went with Curry in that game gave us a glimpse at their thought process heading into 2020.

LB Jabril Cox: Cox was not at LSU last year. Instead, he was the key player on the defense of North Dakota State. He won three national titles with the Bison and then transferred to another national champion. With so much turnover at the linebacker position, Cox will be asked to take on a significant role in 2020.

CB Elias Ricks: There's no guarantee Ricks will be a starter in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic canceling spring practices will make it difficult for any freshman to have an immediate impact. Still, Ricks is a five-star recruit and was the No. 14 player in the 2020 class.

TE Arik Gilbert: Gilbert was ranked even higher than Ricks, as he was the No. 5 player overall in the 2020 class. With both Moss and Sullivan gone, there's a clear path to playing time for Gilbert in 2020.

DC Bo Pelini: Pelini returns to Baton Rouge, where he spent three seasons as the team's defensive coordinator under Les Miles from 2005 to 2007. He left for the Nebraska job after helping LSU win its previous national title, and had spent the past five seasons at Youngstown State.

Passing game coordinator Scott Linehan: What's the old saying? When at first you do succeed wildly, but then lose the thing you succeeded with, just do the same thing again? Well, that's kind of what LSU is doing. Orgeron yanked Joe Brady from the NFL ranks to be his passing game coordinator, and now that Brady's left, he's dipping back into the NFL well again. Of course, Linehan has a lot more experience than Brady did. He spent the last four years as the Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator and was even an NFL head coach for three seasons with the Rams.

Critical games

Week 2 vs. Texas -- Sept. 12: It was LSU's impressive victory on the road against Texas last September that sent a message to the rest of the country. Not only was the new offense successful, but LSU might be a serious threat for the rest of the year. Now the Tigers get the Longhorns at home, and Texas will be looking to send the same kind of message.

Week 6 at Florida -- Oct. 10: No offense to Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss, but this will be LSU's first test in SEC play. It will also be their first true road game of the season (they will play Rice at the Texans' stadium). It's hard enough to win the SEC West as it is, but losing cross-divisional games makes it a lot harder.

Week 10 vs. Alabama -- Nov. 7: The good news for LSU is that it gets Alabama at home this season and off a bye. The bad news is it's still Alabama, and it's the first game of what will be a challenging month of November.

Week 12 at Auburn -- Nov. 21: The Tigers get South Carolina a week after the Tide, and that will be their final home game of the season. They finish with back-to-back road contests against tough division opponents with Auburn up first.

Week 13 at Texas A&M -- Nov. 28: The season then finishes with Texas A&M in College Station. It's easy to argue that this will be the third-most difficult game of the month, but considering the stretch of games before it, there's an argument that it could prove much more complicated than it looks.

2020 outlook

LSU provides us with something we haven't seen in the College Football Playoff era. While no team has been able to repeat as champion in the current format, all winners have been considered favorites to at least get back to the playoff the following year, if not win it outright.

LSU isn't. The odds show LSU as having the third-best title odds in its conference behind both Alabama and Georgia. The reason for this is that the Tigers are in that precarious position of having to rebuild while maintaining a level of excellence. Now, previous CFP champions like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have all had to replace integral parts of their teams the next year, but none have had to do so on so grand a scale as LSU.

Go ahead and scroll back up and remind yourself of how many vital pieces this team must replace. Now tack on a couple of key members of the coaching staff for good measure. It's a Herculean task that Orgeron is taking on here. He revamped his entire philosophy for the 2019 season, and now he has to start from scratch all over again.

None of this is to say it's impossible to do. The fact of the matter is, even with all the changes, LSU still enters the 2020 season with one of the most talented rosters in the country. That alone will ensure the Tigers remain a threat.

But can they be the first team to repeat as champions in the playoff era? It's highly doubtful, and it might be the most impressive coaching feat we've ever seen if they do so.

The more likely outcome is a slight step backward in 2020 with the team competing for a national title again in 2021.

CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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