Defending national champs will be tested by modified SEC-only schedule
After an amazing 15-0 (8-0 SEC) 2019 season ended with a new trophy for the Tigers' display case, the roster took heavy losses via the NFL draft, highlighted by nine early entrants. With uncertainty swirling around the country due to the coronavirus, the SEC has opted for a 10-game conference-only schedule that takes away counted-upon wins and adds a higher degree of difficulty to the path ahead.
Experience-wise, LSU was looking at a 2020 roster light on starting talent. The offense planned for three returners, with a complete shakeup along the offensive line. On defense, a solid group of five starters was penciled in but two have already opted out of the season, cornerback/free safety Kary Vincent Jr. and defensive end Neil Farrell Jr.
The coaching staff has endured changes as well. Gone is passing game coordinator Joe Brady (now offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers), with Scott Linehan serving as his replacement. On the other side of the ball, LSU has gone from a base 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment, with former coordinator Dave Aranda now the head coach at Baylor. The change in scheme comes with the return of former defensive coordinator Bo Pelini (2005-07).
The scheduling changes remove non-conference affairs against UTSA, Rice, Nicholls, and a highly anticipated rematch in Death Valley against the Texas Longhorns. LSU was already set to play Florida and South Carolina out of the SEC East so the Tigers caught a reprieve of sorts with their modified slate by adding rebuilding teams in Vanderbilt and Missouri. Another significant change in the schedule works wonderfully for LSU: the Tigers lost an end-of-season two-game road trip to Auburn and Texas A&M, swapping for a two-game stint against the Razorbacks and Aggies. But one area where LSU may gain also is an area of pain. The Tigers now must play Auburn and Alabama in back-to-back games, but the SEC granted the usual bye week for LSU to prepare for the Crimson Tide.
So how will the defending champs fare this season? Athlon Sports asked a few editors and one of its college football contributors to share their win/loss projection for LSU in 2020.
LSU Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2020
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
LSU’s quest to repeat as college football’s national champion is going to hinge largely on the play of new quarterback Myles Brennan. Coordinator Steve Ensminger and coach Ed Orgeron seem to have a lot of confidence in Brennan, and the same system that helped Joe Burrow put up monster statistics last fall remains in place. Additionally, receiver Ja’Marr Chase is the best in college football and provides a go-to target for the new quarterback. Bo Pelini was hired to take over the defensive signal-calling after Dave Aranda left for Baylor. The Tigers will shift to a 4-3, but even with some turnover in the trenches, the overall concern level for this group is small. LSU’s schedule features a couple of tough road trips – Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn. However, the showdown against Alabama in Baton Rouge could decide the winner of the SEC West.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
LSU is the defending national champion but an "in name only" distinction should be applied given all of the changes. You just can't replace a record-breaking Heisman Trophy winner, 13 other NFL draft picks, and a couple of key assistant coaches and not take a step or two backward. That's not to say the Tigers won't be a team to be reckoned with, but heavy is the head that wears the crown, especially when you are in the SEC. Road trips to Gainesville, Auburn, and College Station are tough enough but every team on LSU's schedule is looking forward to getting their shot and I just don't see Ed Orgeron's reshuffled and largely inexperienced roster making it through without a couple of losses.
Ryan Wright (@RyanWrightRNG)
Every season the path to Atlanta for LSU goes through Alabama in the West and Florida out of the East, and both challenges loom large again in 2020. With the returning experience along the offensive line and amount of talent the Crimson Tide have in the backfield, if coordinator Steve Sarkisian can adapt from airing it out to ground-and-pound, the old-style Alabama teams are very hard to beat. Defeating the Gators in the Swamp is never easy, and it appears that head coach Dan Mullen has his offense headed in the right direction in Year 3 with a solid defense backing their play. The final piece to another SEC West banner is getting past a veteran Texas A&M team in College Station. Last time LSU was on the Aggies home turf, it turned into an epic seven-overtime affair won by A&M (74-72). With the heavy losses on the Tigers’ roster, an eight-win season in-conference would be another amazing coaching job by Ed Orgeron.
(Top photo by Chris Parent/LSU Athletics)