Fresh off LSU's spring game over the weekend, great hope returns to Death Valley turning to the 2021 schedule. After the national championship season in 2019, LSU suffered through attrition on the roster and along the sidelines wiping out key parts of a historical feat. The result was a disjointed approach to everything in an attempt to recapture the magic from the season prior ending in a 5-5 head-scratching showing. But there was magic in the air on Saturday seeing the defense align properly while communicating and a complex offense executed with tempo that will give SEC teams fits this fall.
Throw in the 2021 mixing pot a bevy of starters back with years of high-end recruiting lining the depth chart, this LSU squad might be the most talented team in the nation. The offense has a familiar look but guided by new minds in coordinator Jake Peetz along with passing game coordinator DJ Mangas. The newly installed 4-3 defense remains but now executed by former NFL defensive assistant Daronte Jones. All the pieces are in place, but how does the schedule play out for the Bayou Bengals as they seek a second national championship in three years?
Bye: Week 9
Week 1 – Sept. 4 at UCLA (Pasadena, Calif.)
Do not let UCLA's 3-4 record from last season fool you, this team is far more talented than their record. All four losses were decided by one score. After a 46-7 record at Oregon (2009-12), much has been expected of Chip Kelly in Westwood but he has yet to deliver with three losing campaigns. Not putting further fear into the Tigers' eyes, Kelly's teams at UCLA are notorious for horrible starts, going 0-5 in 2018, 0-3 in '19, and 1-2 a year ago.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. McNeese (Baton Rouge, La.)
LSU fans might be more interested in this one than the landscape of college football. Taking on an FCS program is a nice tune-up game to work out any kinks seen against the Bruins, but the Cowboys are in for a mauling. McNeese finished its spring season 3-4, 2-4 in Southland Conference action. Beyond seeing former Louisiana high school players square off against the Tigers, the Cowboys' head coach is Frank Wilson, the longtime running backs coach and recruiting coordinator for LSU (2010-15).
Week 3 – Sept. 18 vs. Central Michigan (Baton Rouge, La.)
Not the way Jim McElwain wanted to return to the SEC. McElwain rose to national prominence as Alabama's offensive coordinator (2008-11) helping bring national titles to Tuscaloosa. After a successful three-year stint at Colorado State, he became an embattled head coach at Florida despite winning two SEC East titles in his only two full seasons in Gainesville. Now the offensive-minded coach is guiding the Chippewas against MAC competition. His opening salvo was a solid 8-6 run but the shortened 2020 season (3-3) was a slight step back.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 at Mississippi State (Starkville, Miss.)
In Mike Leach's first season with Mississippi State about the only thing that truly went well during his 3-7 run was the opening 44-34 road win against LSU. The shock of seeing the defending national champions fall at home was headline news. Easy to guess that this is one of the games head coach Ed Orgeron has circled on his calendar. Even if LSU is up two scores in the fourth quarter, fans should expect to see some deep shots downfield to remind Leach who the Tigers are.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 vs. Auburn (Baton Rouge, La.)
Back-to-back revenge games for LSU should help the coaches fire up the team as conference play heats up. Last fall, Auburn laid it on the visiting Tigers 48-11. Gus Malzahn is now the head coach at UCF, so new head coach Bryan Harsin will get the brunt end of the wrath in this Tiger Bowl. Harsin has some SEC help on the sidelines as the former Boise State head coach transitions from the Mountain West in Derek Mason (Vanderbilt) and Mike Bobo (South Carolina).
Week 6 – Oct. 9 at Kentucky (Lexington, Ky.)
Kentucky fans have been patient with head coach Mark Stoops as he builds up a program that only had two double-digit winning seasons before his arrival. Entering his ninth season, Stoops is looking to make that turn that was beginning with a 10-3 campaign in 2018 but has leveled off to 13-11 the last two seasons. Although the midway point for the Wildcats, LSU is the fourth conference game of the season having already played Missouri, South Carolina, and Florida.
Week 7 – Oct. 16 vs. Florida (Baton Rouge, La.)
In Dan Mullen's third season in Gainesville he took home an SEC East title behind the record-breaking performance of quarterback Kyle Trask. The end of the 2020 season gave LSU fans hope that the proverbial ship was correcting course and one of those reasons was the 37-34 road win over then-No. 6 Florida. The Gators' offense will look drastically different, making this Mullen's toughest coaching job at Florida. The schedule also is tougher than normal with Alabama visiting the Swamp and the Gators' showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville coming after the trip to Death Valley.
Week 8 – Oct. 23 at Ole Miss (Oxford, Miss.)
With attitude and a high-scoring offense, Lane Kiffin fit right into the SEC mold during his first season with the Rebels. While the record (5-5, 4-5 SEC) may not reflect it, Kiffin's debut received the stamp of approval after taking down No. 11 Indiana 26-20 in the Outback Bowl. With an offseason to go through Kiffin's play calls and tendencies, can he push past the proverbial sophomore slump? Ole Miss could be a little gassed after a three-week run that includes Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 at Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
After a tight 46-41 win in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2019, Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban got a big slice of revenge in Tiger Stadium last season, walking out with a 55-17 dismantling of LSU. Saban would love nothing more than to start marching towards another eight-game winning streak against their rivals, but LSU is loaded. Bama will have a stout defense in 2021 but there are question marks surrounding the offense. Per usual, the winner of this one should be on their way to representing the SEC West in Atlanta.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 vs. Arkansas (Baton Rouge, La.)
In Year 1 with the Razorbacks, head coach Sam Pittman and staff caught the opposition's attention. A couple of blown calls took away two wins from the Hogs, putting a little more shine on a 3-7 record. LSU aside, Arkansas should have one of the more experienced starting lineups in the SEC. Breaking in a new quarterback, much of the Razorbacks' success will hinge on that position. This could be a potential trap game for LSU.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 vs. ULM (Baton Rouge, La.)
Finishing 0-10 in 2020 cost head coach Matt Viator his job. The Warhawks seek to rebuild under new head coach Terry Bowden. Outside of successful stints at Samford (1987-92) and North Alabama (2009-11), Bowden is remembered most by SEC fans for his time at Auburn (1993-98). Bowden spent seven seasons as the head coach with the Zips in Akron before a two-year run on Clemson's staff. His batteries will have to be juiced for this one.
Week 13 – Nov. 27 vs. Texas A&M (Baton Rouge, La.)
The A&M-LSU series is a long one dating back to 1906. What was once a back-and-forth affair became a series of win streaks. After losing five in a row to the Aggies (1991-95), LSU turned the tables by rattling off seven straight (2011-17). This end-of-season affair is finally starting to heat up becoming one of college football's more interesting under-the-radar rivalry games. The Aggies held home field last season winning 20-7. The back half of A&M's schedule lines up in their favor; they will be rested and ready. This could be another thriller if A&M's offense is ready to play in 2021.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of @LSUfootball)