How Far Away Is LSU From Hoisting A National Championship Trophy?

Something interesting happened last night, namely that Alabama failed to win the Football Bowl Subdivision national title.

The Tide, which had won four of the last seven national championships heading into last night’s tilt with Clemson, was not supposed to lose this last one. But Bama did lose, thanks to a 400-yard passing performance by Clemson’s quarterback DeSean Watson and an offense which repeatedly misfired in the second half after running back Bo Scarbrough cramped up in the third quarter.

Watson victimized Alabama’s secondary repeatedly in coming back from a 17-7 halftime deficit, and it was fairly clear that Bama badly missed Eddie Jackson, its superstar free safety who was lost for the season with a broken ankle in October. To replace Jackson, Tide head coach Nick Saban moved cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick to strong safety and shifted strong safety Rodney Harrison to free safety. Anthony Averett started at Fitzpatrick’s old cornerback position against Clemson, and he was abused – repeatedly – by the Tigers’ physical wide receiver Mike Williams in the second half of the game.

It was an entertaining, surprising game. From the perspective of an LSU fan who finds conference loyalty a completely overrated concept, it was an enjoyable result.

But as has been the case ever since that night five years and one day ago when Alabama embarrassed a Les Miles LSU team which had strung together perhaps the most impressive regular season run in the history of college football, as an LSU fan watching a national title game the Bayou Bengals aren’t involved in there is the recurring question – what’s it going to take for that to be us?

And with Clemson’s victory, that’s a question which is even more relevant. Because Clemson winning that championship cracks open the possibility, laid dormant throughout the 2016 season, that the unprecedented run of Alabama dominance over the past seven seasons can be broken. The great Bama defense which has buried so many opponents over the past two years is going to take a colossal hit by graduation; they’re going to get cleaned out along the front seven like virtually nobody else in college football, with Johnathan Allen, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and Rueben Foster all likely to be first-round picks in April, and Dalvin Tomlinson also moving on to the NFL. They’ll surely have good players to replace those losses, but even Alabama can’t guarantee they can maintain the quality they’re losing. Also in question is whether Steve Sarkisian, whose debut as Bama’s offensive coordinator included 12 straight failures to convert on third downs last night, will be able to match what Lane Kiffin did in managing that offense. When Scarbrough went out, Alabama became fairly toothless offensively other than a big scramble by Jalen Hurts for a touchdown and a long pass to a wide open O.J. Howard for another.

Are we just replacing one big dog on the porch with another, though? Clemson has been in the national championship game in each of the past two seasons, losing a close game to Alabama a year ago before winning last night. Shouldn’t they be thought of as the next dominant team in college football?

Certainly the job Dabo Swinney has done with his program deserves credit, and certainly Watson ought to be recognized as one of the great college quarterbacks in the history of the sport. That said, while Clemson is surely going to compete for a title again next year they’re going to do so without Watson and several other star players. Williams is likely gone to the NFL, as is tailback William Gallman, linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and tight end Jordan Leggett, all of whom were big factors in last night’s victory. They’ve got lots of talent coming back, of course, and with the nation’s top high school quarterback Hunter Johnson a Clemson commitment they should be very much in the mix again. But Clemson has some obstacles in their path in the post-Watson era which begins today, most notably that in their division they have a Florida State team which looks to be very good this fall and Louisville, who will bring back Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

And it’s worth noting that while Clemson rose to the occasion for several huge victories this past year – over Auburn, over Florida State, over Louisville, over Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game and over Alabama in the national title contest last night – they didn’t consistently play dominant football. It’s perhaps accurate to say Clemson played great football when they needed to, and otherwise didn’t particularly do so. An example of that was Clemson’s 43-42 loss to Pittsburgh, in which that team’s offensive coordinator Matt Canada was able to shred Clemson’s defense with a lot less talent than one would think necessary to pull off such a win.

Canada is now LSU’s offensive coordinator. And LSU’s defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was the architect of the best defensive effort made in 2016 against Alabama, as an infographic popped out by LSU’s sports information department indicated…

canada-and-aranda

To get into the national championship game, it’s always been true in the modern era that LSU will have to go through Alabama.

Defensively, LSU is where they need to be to accomplish that mission, and should remain there this fall. Sure, LSU will lose a slew of very talented players. Jamal Adams and Tre’Davious White are likely first-round draft picks, while Kendall Beckwith, Lewis Neal, Davon Godchaux, Duke Riley, Tayshawn Bower, Dwayne Thomas and Ricky Jefferson are quite likely to stick on NFL rosters in the fall even if they aren’t drafted.

But in virtually every case where Aranda has to replace a departing player he has multiple talented, highly-rated athletes competing for jobs. In the case of Beckwith and Jefferson, both of whom were lost during the season to injuries, LSU has already replaced them with players who should emerge as stars this fall. Devin White is one of the best young linebackers in the college game, and his combination of size and speed gives him an even greater upside than Beckwith. And John Battle seemed to get a little better each week after replacing Jefferson at free safety; he absolutely shone in the Citrus Bowl as the Tiger defense held Jackson and Louisville’s offense without a touchdown.

And despite the loss of Neal and Godchaux on the defensive line, there is reason to believe LSU might get better up front. That’s thanks in no small amount to Christian Lacouture, who was set to start before suffering a season-ending knee injury in fall camp, coming back. And with Lacouture back on board along with returning starter Greg Gilmore and talented part-timer Frank Herron, LSU is going to be able to put three fifth-year seniors across the defensive front for the first time in memory. And that might not even make for the best defensive line they can put on the field, because Rashard Lawrence and Ed Alexander are fairly likely to become stars as sophomores.

Aranda also has Arden Key back, and he’s going to be the premier pass rusher in all of college football. There will be a major battle to replace Bower, with at least three young potential stars (Ike Washington, Sci Martin and Andre Anthony) competing with a fifth-year senior in Corey Thompson coming back from injury in 2016. Replacing Riley is an issue, but the most likely candidate will be Donnie Alexander, who has followed a similar career path to Riley’s so far in his career but has actually accomplished more than Riley had to this point. He’ll probably have to hold off Michael Divinity, who word has it will be moving to the Rover position from the outside linebacker spot at which he started a couple of games as a freshman; Divinity is a talent in his own right.

Replacing Adams, White and Thomas in the secondary is a tall order, but if there is anybody in the country who has recruited better in the secondary over the last three years than LSU we’d like to see it. The battles at cornerback and strong safety, which will spin off a nickel back to replace Thomas, will be each at least five-way contests between former big-time recruits, many of which have already gotten valuable experience. Kevin Tolliver, for example, has been a starter – though his sophomore season was ruined by a nagging shoulder injury and some time in the doghouse. Ed Paris, who might be moving to strong safety to compete for Adams’ job, has played fairly extensively as a cornerback the past two years. Kristian Fulton and Saivion Smith both saw some time at cornerback last year and will factor heavily in the mix at corner, as will Greedy Williams, who redshirted last year, and incoming star Kary Vincent. At strong safety it’s an armageddon of sorts in the spring – there is Paris, sophomore Xavier Lewis, redshirt freshmen Eric Monroe and Cameron Lewis and superstar true freshmen Jacoby Stevens and Grant Delpit, both of whom enroll early. With so many people fighting for jobs carrying so much by way of credentials, you will find star players.

Where LSU is going to have to make major strides is on offense. The six-game losing streak against Alabama has come courtesy of inept, atrocious offense much more than any failings by the defense. In the first of those losses, the 21-0 national-championship disaster in the Superdome five years ago, LSU’s defense kept the team in the game but ultimately an offense that couldn’t move the ball past midfield doomed the effort. And after that LSU’s performance on offense against Alabama has been a succession of failures – 17 points in 2012, 17 again in 2013, 13 in 2014, 16 in 2015 and zero this past year. But the failures against Alabama have been, for the most part, merely a reflection of bad offense against every good defense LSU has played over the past five years.

That’s why Canada is now here, and that’s why he’s charged with modernizing and updating the offense to be something a lot more balanced than the simple smash-mouth attack LSU has relied on, not to mention introducing a bit of misdirection and deception into one of the least imaginative offenses in all of football. If he’s successful in doing that it will make the offensive line, long the source of consternation surrounding bad performances against good defenses, look a lot better. He’s certainly got a pair of potential superstars at the skill positions to build around; D.J. Chark’s announcement he’d be back for his senior season gives LSU one of the most underutilized talents in all of college football to play a role as the slot/motion receiver Canada used Quadree Henderson to such great effect in at Pittsburgh last season. And speaking of underutilized, Derrius Guice – who will be a Heisman candidate at tailback for LSU, didn’t carry the ball one time against Alabama as a freshman in 2015 and had only two carries for eight yards against them this past year. Guice is much better suited to run against Alabama’s defense given his elusive style than Leonard Fournette was, and yet he was ignored in both of those games – a major strategic error which won’t be made this fall.

Which brings us to the final question, that being quarterback. It’s not fair to ask Danny Etling to be DeSean Watson, but can Etling do enough to put sufficient points on the board? That we just don’t know. Certainly Etling can play better than he did against the Tide, and with a year of experience under his belt he should be expected to. That’s if he is in fact the quarterback, as the position is wide open in the spring and summer. Finding a quarterback who can do more than just “manage the game,” as Etling mostly did last season outside of the Alabama game, is crucial for LSU – bad or average quarterbacks simply don’t beat the Tide. If Etling is going to be behind center he’s going to have to emerge as a star. He showed flashes against Texas A&M that he can do a bit more than people give him credit for, but to make that a consistent condition is going to require both development of his accuracy and a far more quarterback-friendly offense than the one he’s played in so far. If Canada is the offensive coordinator he’s touted to be, that’s a realistic expectation.

Is it realistic to put LSU in the national championship mix this fall? That’s debatable. It’s true that Alabama largely owns this team over the past half-decade, but after Clemson’s victory there is at least a reasonable basis for belief that streak can be broken.

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