If you are longing for college football to return to the look and feel of its pre-pandemic days, the LSU Tigers are the team for you. Name, image and likeness fees will be tacked on as the surcharge for such a nostalgia trip, of course.
The calendar says it’s 2021, but the run up to this season will definitely remind you of 2018.
There are two new coordinators to break in this time. Just like in 2018, though, one of them is being tasked with coming in as a Mr. Fix-It for the multitude of shortcomings on one particular side of the ball from the previous campaign.
In 2017, the disconnect was a mostly philosophical one between coach Ed Orgeron and his offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, who somehow landed on his career feet and is now offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Orgeron quickly found that Canada’s shell game of a motion offense wasn’t to his liking, and as a result Canada was a one-year experiment. He was sent packing after the 2018 Citrus Bowl, with Steve Ensminger pressed into returning to the role of play caller.
This time, it’s the defense that needs the extreme makeover. This time, it’s the players and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini who couldn’t communicate. New DC Daronte Jones was brought in from the Minnesota Vikings to get everyone on the same page defensively as compared to 2020, when often it looked like Pelini and LSU’s players were on different floors of the library.
As with 2018’s offense built around an exciting but unproven transfer quarterback named Joe Burrow, there is plenty of hope for LSU. The defensive store shelves are hardly bare. In fact, the Tigers may possess the nation’s top cornerback duo in junior Derek Stingley (who will be at SEC Media Days on Monday along with Orgeron and senior right tackle Austin Deculus) and sophomore Eli Ricks. The defensive front returns intact and has depth, but the linebacker corps — in what is likely to be a 4-2-5 scheme from the jump — must prove its worth.
While there are questions, they can be answered in reasonable fashion by Jones’ new style and scheme. The bar is so low after the debacle of last season — LSU was last in the entire ever lovin’ FBS in stopping the pass — a defense imported from a 1980s Atari video game could probably make a better show of it.
The Tigers have a new offensive coordinator, too, in Jake Peetz. His task is not to return the Tigers to 2018 but to 2019, the year of LSU’s best-ever offensive firepower under Ensminger (now an LSU offensive analyst) and Peetz’s former boss with the Carolina Panthers, former LSU assistant coach Joe Brady.
One of the questions Orgeron is sure to face Monday in Hoover, Alabama — and one the betting line says he will not have an answer for — is whether fifth-year senior Myles Brennan or second-year sophomore Max Johnson will take LSU’s first offensive snap Sept. 4 at UCLA. It’s not necessarily a question with a wrong answer, just one with lots of room for debate that has stretched on since the end of the 2020 season based on Brennan’s now healed abdominal injury and Johnson’s sprightly turn as the starter against Florida and Ole Miss.
There are other pressing offensive issues to address as well. LSU needs receivers besides Kayshon Boutte to step into significantly more productive roles. Cameron Wire has to be a permanent and not merely a stopgap replacement for the now-Kentucky Wildcat Dare Rosenthal at left tackle. And very much like 2018, when Nick Brossette emerged as a surprising 1,000-yard rusher, picking a dominant running back out of the crowd wouldn’t hurt the Tigers’ cause, either.
No one is expecting a Burrow-like barrage of 60 passing touchdowns, but something resembling the offense the Tigers evolved into at the end of the 2018 season should be an attainable goal. In its last three games that season, including LSU’s Fiesta Bowl victory over UCF and excluding the seven overtime periods against Texas A&M, the Tigers averaged 37.6 points per game in regulation.
If Peetz can get LSU to do that, while Jones shepherds a defense that gives up, say, a mere 21 points per game, the Tigers should comfortably find themselves with nine or 10 wins and in the hunt for a New Year’s Six bowl invitation. Really answer all the questions with winning cards, and LSU could be where it was going into 2019, needing to split the Texas and Alabama games while running the rest of the table to get into the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth. This time, hold serve at home and only lose one on the road to Bama or Ole Miss and LSU could definitely be in the mix.
Chastened by last year’s 5-5 record, I doubt if anyone is anticipating miracles out of the Tigers this time around. Still, sneaky good amounts of hope and cold, sobering questions await LSU in 2021. In equal measure.