Sizing up the loss of the Honey Badger

The topic that dominated my inbox Friday morning regarded the news that LSU had booted star player Tyrann Mathieu. It certainly is huge college football news, more significant than when the Tigers lost starting QB Jordan Jefferson on the eve of last season for his off-field issues for some time. Mathieu, after all, was such a standout last season for the Tigers he made it to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. That almost never happens with defensive players, especially young ones, but the Honey Badger was that good. He was special.

Feldman's New Top 10
1. USC
2. Alabama
3. LSU
4. Oregon
5. Oklahoma
6. Florida State
7. West Virginia
8. Georgia
9. Michigan State
10. TCU

You can say that Mathieu wasn’t a true lockdown corner, like his former teammate Mo Claiborne was. Alabama fans would love to show you some video from the BCS title game about Tide receivers catching passes on the 5-9 DB. But while Mathieu was listed as a cornerback, he was so much more than that for LSU. As I wrote last fall, when West Virginia prepared for LSU, they IDed the 183-pounder in their scouting report as a SAM linebacker. And Mathieu proved to be an impact guy in that game, forcing an early fumble and picking off a pass and nearly returning it for a TD. That’s the kind of stuff he had an amazing knack for making--those huge, momentum-swinging plays. In two seasons at LSU, he smashed the school record for forced fumbles with 11 (the old record was seven.) He needed only four more to set the NCAA record.

He was also a spectacular returnman too. Simply put, the guy was a difference-maker. The Tigers, though, are one of those rare teams that can lose a player of this caliber and not be devastated. Safety Eric Reid is an All-American to lead the secondary while 6-3 corner Tharold Simon looks like another high NFL draft pick in the pipeline. The DB who figures to get the added work now that the Honey Badger is gone is 6-2 redshirt freshman Jalen Collins, who Tiger teammates told me late last season was the best athlete on the team.

But Mathieu is going to be missed. No doubt. He just had such a penchant for being the guy who flips the switch for LSU. He did it in the Oregon game. Did it in the West Virginia game. Did it in the Kentucky game. In the Arkansas game game too.

With him, I thought LSU was the favorite in the SEC. I had the Tigers right behind USC in my preseason Top 25. Without him, I still see the Tigers as a top-five team but I’m moving Alabama in front of LSU now. The margin between those two programs was already pretty thin and his loss isn’t just going to be felt on the defense, where teams had to account for where No. 7 was at all times before the snap, but also on special teams.

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