LSU Football: Can the Tigers Return to the National Championship Game in 2020?

The team will look different but Ed Orgeron's Tigers should remain a legitimate contender next season

Every college football national championship is historic, but some hold deeper meaning for the landscape of the game. What the LSU Tigers (15-0) did during the 2019 season on their way to hoisting the trophy may never be matched in totality, and all want to know if they can capture lightning in a bottle a second consecutive season.

 

The Tigers started the 2019 campaign off in familiar territory, picked second in the SEC West by the media behind rival Alabama. But LSU had more going for them than what initially met the media's eye with seven starters back on offense and eight on defense from a 10-3 (5-3 SEC) squad the year prior. One of the biggest new editions to the team would be passing game coordinator/receivers coach Joe Brady. All would be needed for the gauntlet of a schedule that would include playing four top-10 teams during the regular season.

 

As fate would have it, LSU rolled to a 12-0 (8-0 SEC) regular season behind an offense led by senior quarterback Joe Burrow that paced the nation with 568.4 yards per game. The Ohio native blistered the competition, leading the country in passing yards (5,671) and completion percentage (76.3), and setting an NCAA single-season record for touchdowns tossed (60). Beyond being named a first-team All-American, Burrow loaded the trophy case with postseason honors including the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, the Maxwell Award, the AP National Player of the Year, and the Heisman Trophy.

 

The passing game produced two of the top receivers in the FBS ranks in Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. Chase, the Biletnikoff Award winner given to the top wide receiver, led the nation in receiving yards (1,780) and touchdowns (20) with Jefferson close behind in yards (1,540) and touchdowns (18) while tying for the most receptions nationally (111). The extra games helped running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire climb the SEC ladder in rushing yards to finish second overall with 1,414 yards and a conference-leading 16 rushing touchdowns.

 

LSU's defense, a pillar of the team's success over the past 19 years, was better than advertised but below its high statistical standards. The unit finished 31st nationally, allowing 343 yards per game, but did so going against a record seven top-10 teams, including five of the nation's top 15 offenses.

 

Offense

 

Key Returnees

RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire

WR Ja'Marr Chase

WR Terrace Marshall Jr.

OC Lloyd Cushenberry III

 

Key Departures

QB Joe Burrow

OL Damien Lewis

 

Possible Key Departures

WR Justin Jefferson

OL Saahdiq Charles

 

Defense

 

Key Returnees

DL Tyler Shelvin

DE K'Lavon Chaisson

LB Jacob Phillips

LB Patrick Queen

CB Derek Stingley Jr.

 

Key Departures

DL Rashard Lawrence

LB Michael Divinity Jr.

CB Kristian Fulton

 

Possible Key Departures

SS Grant Delpit

FS JaCoby Stevens

 

Three Offseason Storylines to Watch

 

1. Keeping the draft-eligible juniors

One of the amazing storylines within LSU's success this season was the dispersion of talent among the various classifications. The offense will lose two key seniors in Joe Burrow and lineman Damien Lewis to graduation, and the defense will suffer a similar fate with defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence, linebacker Michael Divinity Jr., and corner Kristian Fulton, but the rest of the starters are all underclassmen. One would have to guess that juniors Justin Jefferson and Grant Delpit are NFL-bound. The same could be true for running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. But if head coach Ed Orgeron can keep all the other key draft-eligible juniors on the roster, this team has a shot at repeating in the SEC West. On the upside, the breakdown could be seven starters back on offense and seven on defense. If the NFL comes calling, LSU will have to reload yet again.

 

2. Finding a replacement for Burrow

Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger is in a tough situation: How do you replace the quarterback that put together arguably the greatest season in college football history? Junior Myles Brennan served as Burrow's backup during the 2019 run and completed 24-of-40 passes for 353 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Pushing Brennan this spring will be Class of 2019 four-star, dual-threat passer Peter Parrish. Two true freshman, four-star Max Johnson, and three-star TJ Finley, will try to work their way into the rotation. If Ensminger does not like what he has on the roster, might LSU go into the transfer portal to find a veteran gunslinger, like Burrow when he left Ohio State, who can guide the offense in 2020? Houston's D'Eriq King could be an appealing name.

 

3. Firming up the defense

LSU's defense will once again be very talented in 2020 and perhaps even better in the box if all the underclassmen return. But if there is a mass exodus and fringe players with fourth-round grades or better decide to leave, coordinator Dave Aranda will have a lot of work ahead. Besides Freshman All-American corner Derek Stingley Jr., the entire secondary could be gone. If linebackers Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen test the draft, all of the linebackers will have to be replaced. If all holds true with the juniors returning, a difference-maker on the edge is needed to pair with K'Lavon Chaisson. He sophomore led the team in tackles for a loss (13.5) and sacks (6.5).

 

The schedule aligns for LSU to make another run in 2020 with key home games against Texas and Alabama with only two tough road games against Florida and Texas A&M. Will all the talent return for a shot at going back-to-back?

 

— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.

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