LSU dismissed Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu on Friday for a violation of team policy.
Mathieu was the highest-profile playmaker for the SEC champions and preseason No. 2 team. During LSU’s run to the national championship game, the sophomore Mathieu forced six fumbles, returned two for touchdowns, intercepted two passes and returned two punts for touchdowns.
Although Mathieu became the face of LSU’s 13-1 team last season, he was not without his troubles. Mathieu was suspended for a violation of team rules, reportedly for a failed drug test, for the Oct. 22 win over Auburn.
Mathieu, whose rise from an unheralded recruit to the player nicknamed the “Honey Badger” was one of the signature stories for the 2011 season, has two years of eligibility remaining.
Without Mathieu, LSU will have to recover in both the secondary and special teams. The LSU defense already lost its top cover corner, Maurice Claiborne, to the first round of the NFL draft.
Safety Eric Reid is now the only returning starter in the secondary, but the Tigers are not hurting for talent in the defensive backfield. Tharold Simon was considered LSU’s top lockdown corner even with Mathieu on the roster. Replacing Mathieu on defense could be Jalen Collins, a 6-1, 184-pound redshirt freshman from Olive Branch Mississippi.
Odell Beckham Jr., forecast to be LSU’s top receiver, steps into Mathieu’s role in the return game.
Mathieu's dismissal could impact the national championship and SEC title race, but maybe not for the reasons you'd think.
Reasons LSU should panic.
Mathieu was LSU’s best defensive playmaker.
Starting with the 2010 bowl win over Texas A&M, Mathieu went on a remarkable seven-game stretch into 2011 in which he forced six fumbles, recovered four fumbles (returning two for touchdowns) and intercepted two passes. This was against teams like Oregon, West Virginia, Florida and Mississippi State. On a team with offensive deficiencies, his ball hawking and game-changing ability was invaluable.
Mathieu was a special teams demon.
His 62-yard punt return for a touchdown with 5:48 left in the first half against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game put LSU on the scoreboard and overshadowed a first half of inept offense. His 92-yard highlight reel touchdown against Arkansas a week earlier also made up for a slow start for the LSU offense, tying the game at 14 late in the first half and opening the floodgates to a 41-17 win. His 15.6 yards per punt return ranked fourth nationally.
LSU has two games to prep its pass defense.
The Tigers won’t face Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson until the last week of the regular season and won’t see Georgia’s Aaron Murray unless it's a rematch in Atlanta. That said, LSU will see an elite quarterback in the second week of the season. Washington’s Keith Price passed for 3,063 yards and 33 touchdowns last season and was second only to Andrew Luck in the Pac-12 last season in pass efficiency.
Reasons LSU shouldn’t panic.
Mathieu wasn’t the most indispensable player on the defense.
According to Athlon’s own estimations, Mathieu was the 19th-ranked player in the SEC, the seventh-ranked player for LSU and the fifth-ranked player on the LSU defense. Mathiue’s playmaking aside, safety Eric Reid and corner Tharold Simon could make cases to be more sound defensive backs. Mathieu was a Heisman finalist largely on his performance in LSU’s biggest games. In a five-game stretch from Oct. 15-Nov. 19, Mathieu was more or less a non-factor. He contributed no turnovers during that span, which included his suspension against Auburn.
Teams gambled with Mathieu ... and won.
Alabama’s A.J. McCarron challenged Mathieu’s side of the field in the BCS championship game with great success. McCarron passed for 234 yards against the Tigers to lead Alabama to a national title in the rematch. If there was a blueprint to beat the LSU defense, McCarron and Alabama may have exposed it.
With Zach Mettenberger, the margin for error might be smaller.
The spotlight was on Mathieu’s game-changing ability last season because LSU needed it so desperately with Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee at quarterback. Zach Mettenberger could stabilize the LSU offense, which already has a standout offensive line and and impressive group of running backs. In short, LSU may not have many games like it did against Georgia, in which Mathieu’s punt return for a touchdown bailed out a first-down free first half.