Actually, the season started last Saturday, something you’ll agree with if you saw Montana come from behind to beat North Dakota State in a classic contest possibly serving as a sneak preview of the FCS national championship game.
But tonight it gets going in earnest. This afternoon North Carolina plays at South Carolina on ESPN, and after that game there’s TCU at Minnesota on the same channel. Fox Sports One has Utah hosting Michigan. And the SEC Network has Vanderbilt hosting Western Kentucky. There are, all told, 19 games taking place tonight, involving three teams in the top 25 (TCU, plus #16 Georgia Tech, who hosts Alcorn State and #22 Arizona, who’ll host Texas-San Antonio).
(Not to mention the Saints are playing the Packers in the final preseason game tonight, but after watching them suck eggs on Sunday I don’t see much reason to care about that).
So it’s on.
Close to home, what’s interesting is the sudden bloom of “expert” predictions putting LSU in the national playoffs at the end of the year. Lee Corso actually had the Tigers winning it all, while Kirk Herbstreit, Todd McShay and Mike Golic are all calling Les Miles’ club a playoff participant as the SEC champion.
Which is interesting, given the pronounced slide LSU has seen since Jan. 9, 2012 when Alabama destroyed the “inevitable” 2011 national championship season. Pieces have been missing, amid massive attrition to the NFL Draft each year, ever since, and Miles has seen his program go from top-tier national title contender to also-ran not even in the top 25 last year.
But if you’ll go back and watch LSU’s games last year, you’ll hear over and over from the commentators that if that team had remotely competent quarterback play they’d be dangerous. You’ll hear it in the Ole Miss and Alabama games especially.
The word out of fall camp is Brandon Harris’ improvement, pronounced as it’s supposedly been, gives Miles the prospect of having perhaps even better than average quarterback play. If that were to actually materialize, it would break the cycle of the last two years – first the 2013 team, which with Zack Mettenberger at quarterback distributing the ball to Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry when not handing off to Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee had one of the more potent offenses imaginable but couldn’t stop anybody, and then last year’s team which at one point played solid defense but was putrid in the passing game – in which only half of the equation was present.
Harris doesn’t have to be great as a sophomore, though by 2016 or 2017 one would hope he’d become a star. This year he just has to be competent and distribute the football. In Leonard Fournette, Derrius Guice and Darrell Williams LSU has a stable of running backs as good or better than anybody in the country, and a monstrous line paving the way for them. And it’s entirely possible the receiving corps, which was a problem just like the quarterbacks were last year owing to their nearly complete inexperience, will blossom into a major strength. The talent among the receivers last year was obvious even while their inconsistent play drove fans, coaches and quarterbacks nuts. Now, the top five receivers – Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre, John Diarse, Trey Quinn and D.J. Chark – are all veterans, and on top of that quintet they’ve added a pair of additional pieces in Tyron Johnson and 6-foot-5 Jazz Ferguson to make for one of the deepest groups of receivers in the nation. Add Donte Jackson and his 4.24 40-yard dash to be a specialty player on offense when he’s not plying his trade in the secondary and you’ve got a Murderer’s Row of skill guys.
Plus they appear to have the best pair of receiving tight ends with DeSean Smith and Colin Jeter that LSU has had since David LaFleur and Nicky Savoie in the mid 1990’s.
If this offense produces, LSU really is a playoff team. That defense should be salty. Nobody has a better secondary in college football, and while there isn’t a lot of depth at linebacker you won’t find a better middle linebacker than Kendall Beckwith around the country and the speed on the outside from Lamar Louis, Debo Jones and Duke Riley is largely unmatched.
And with Ed Orgeron coaching the defensive line you can expect to see Davon Godchaux emerge as an honors candidate at defensive tackle. Plus, the play at defensive end should be much improved even though last year’s ends were solid players who inexplicably produced only 5.5 sacks between them.
The pass rush is a key issue this year. LSU’s defense only produced 19 sacks all season and seven of them came in a rent-a-win game against Sam Houston State. All indications from fall camp are that the Tigers will rush the passer far, far better this season. Considering that LSU led the SEC in pass defense even without a discernible pass rush, if it’s fixed you can expect the defense to become weaponized.
It’s all very interesting. LSU football is worth getting excited about again.
A final point to pass along: a few days back I had a conversation with one of the program’s big donors, who expressed irritation with what he thought was an unfair characterization of Miles as a Neanderthal offensive coach and his supposed insistence on running the football to a fault. The donor pointed out that Miles’ first three years at LSU, 2005, 2006 and 2007, saw a fairly wide-open offense that actually produced a quarterback taken with the first pick in the 2007 NFL Draft in Jamarcus Russell. Even in 2008, he said, LSU threw the ball all over the place and maybe more than they should have.
But in 2009, that changed. Why? He said nobody is taking note of the fact that was the year John Chavis took over as the defensive coordinator. The donor said people don’t realize that one of Chavis’ demands of Miles was that he run a ball-control, slowdown offense that would keep the defense off the field, and Miles agreed.
Statistically, that does bear out – LSU certainly has run the ball more from 2009 to 2014 (if you take out 2013) than from 2005-2008, and has run less offensive snaps per game.
The donor said now that Chavis is gone, and his bend-but-don’t-break philosophy has been replaced with a lot more aggressive stance from Kevin Steele and Orgeron, the governor will be off the offensive engine and you’ll see a lot more up-tempo, unpredictable offense. He said that doesn’t mean throwing the ball 50 times per game, because when you have Leonard Fournette you ride him as far as he’ll take you and beating opponents into submission with that offensive line is just common sense, but the look of the offense and the pace of play will be much updated this year.
So on Saturday when LSU plays McNeese State in what would otherwise be a relatively pedestrian rent-a-win game, the test of that theory will be what’s most interesting to see.
But in the meantime, there’s a smorgasbord of college football to see. And life is better.