Justin Jefferson has played a big part in the Tigers' potent passing attack
Many hard-luck college football programs have been too quick to pull the trigger on the notion of "we're back," but it is now safe for LSU fans to utter those words. Not since the 2011 season have the Tigers been in a position at midseason to make a valid run at a national championship as they are in 2019. Thanks to a 42-28 win over then-No. 7 Florida in Death Valley to close out Week 6, the LSU Tigers enter the halfway point of their regular season schedule 6-0 (2-0 SEC) with a clear but challenging path to immortality.
Hot starts that fade out in a hurry are nothing new in Baton Rouge. Even a year ago, despite a Week 6 loss to Florida in The Swamp (27-19), the Tigers were still mathematically in the running for a possible berth in the SEC Championship Game, if they could get over the colossal hump that is Alabama. But LSU dropped its eighth consecutive game to its rival, effectively ending the notion of a College Football Playoff berth. However, something different is happening in 2019, and it all starts on the offensive side of the ball.
Second-year starting quarterback Joe Burrow has gone from game manager status to Heisman Trophy contender, ranking second in the nation in yards (2,157) and touchdowns (25), while leading the country among qualified contenders in completion percentage (80) and QBR (218.1). The Tigers' offense ranks second in the nation in total yards (561), and it is supported by an improving ground game averaging 166 yards per game led by Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
With a quick-strike offense, the defense has had to adjust this year while playing through injury adversity. Regardless of the change on offense from a ground and pound to an up-tempo set, the defense is showing improvement game after game and remains one of the best in the country, ranking 25th out of 130 FBS teams in total defense (316 ypg). The rush defense has been strong, holding the opposition to an average of 92 yards per game.
LSU enters the middle of the season ranked No. 2 in the nation but is far away from being able to coast with ranked teams in No. 11 Auburn and No. 1 Alabama still left to play.
Offensive co-MVPs: QB Joe Burrow, WR Justin Jefferson, WR Ja'Marr Chase
The QB is the clear-cut MVP, but the offense would not be the same without his top targets. Jefferson leads the SEC in yards (670), is third in receptions (40), and tied for second in touchdowns (8) with Chase. Chase has been prolific with the ball in his hands, turning 30 receptions into 578 yards.
Defensive MVP: LB Jacob Phillips
Beating out safety Grant Delpit for midseason Defensive MVP honors is Phillips. One thing the Tigers have needed on defense after dealing with so many injuries has been consistency; Phillips has been that man. Filling the void left by All-American Devin White in the middle has not been easy, but Phillips is making it happen, commanding the squad in tackles (44) and solo stops (23).
Best Moment of First Half: Game-Breaking TD Pass vs. Texas
The notion of making a run to the College Football Playoff would not be bantered about if not for a 61-yard touchdown pass from Joe Burrow to Justin Jefferson with 2:27 left against then-No. 9 Texas in Austin in Week 2. That pushed the score to 45-31 and put the game out of reach for the Longhorns in a 45-38 win.
Best Newcomer: CB Derek Stingley Jr.
Stingley may be a true freshman, but he has not played like one this season. He has shown his five-star recruiting status out of high school was worthy, coming up with 18 total stops, 16 solo, and a team-leading nine pass breakups. His value to the team has shown in back-to-back games against Utah State and Florida with two of his team-high three picks in the end zone stopping the opposition's scoring efforts.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. More help from the ground attack
Seeing Joe Burrow perform at a near flawless level against the Gators (21-of-24 with three touchdowns) was a sight to see, but even more titillating for the fan base was watching the ground game crush a very good Florida run defense for 221 yards with three touchdowns. Clyde Edwards-Helaire picked up 134 of those yards with two scores off just 13 totes. After getting a season-high 181 yards against Vanderbilt in Week 4, the rushing attack is showing signs of life again, going over 200 yards in back-to-back games. To win against Auburn and Alabama, the run game has to show up.
2. Burrow down the stretch
No one expected Burrow to perform at such an elite level during his senior campaign; now the question is can he keep up the pace? The offense is coordinator Steve Ensminger's, but the difference in the passing game difference has been new assistant Joe Brady. The former New Orleans Saints coach has turned the passing game from 229 yards a year ago (67th nationally) to a championship-caliber unit. Florida was the first top-20 ranked defense they have faced this season and came out with a win. Statistically, Auburn (No. 37) and Alabama (36) are not quite at the Gators’ level.
3. Tigers vs. Tua
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask has been in the Gators' system since signing as part of the 2016 recruiting class, but he didn't even start at Manvel (Texas) High School, playing behind Houston's D'Eriq King. With limited overall game experience, Trask still threw for 310 yards with three touchdowns against LSU. The passing game the Tigers will face in Tuscaloosa is far more dangerous. Tua Tagovailoa had a subpar game for him last season in Baton Rouge, throwing for 295 yards with two scores and a pick, but the ground game picked up the slack going for 281 yards. The Tide's rushing offense is generating just 171 yards per game this season, but Tagovailoa is third in the country with 335.2 passing yards per contest. Can LSU rise to the occasion against the Heisman Trophy contender?
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 9 at Alabama
Even beyond having beaten LSU eight consecutive times, the Crimson Tide have enough offense to beat anyone in the nation, scoring 51 points per game. The same can be said for their defense, limiting foes to 17 points per game on average. But Alabama has faced one quality opponent this season, taking down No. 24 Texas A&M 47-28 in College Station. This will be a challenge for both teams. LSU will have the battle-tested edge, but home-field advantage goes to the Tide.
2. Oct. 26 vs. Auburn
Auburn was two defensive plays away against Florida in The Swamp from being in the national title talk like LSU. As is, the other Tigers fell 24-13. Auburn has a very nasty defense and a tough run game. If true freshman Bo Nix gets into any sort of groove, this home game becomes a slugfest that could go down to the end.
3. Nov. 30 vs. Texas A&M
The Aggies have a top-25-caliber team but are not at the level to compete against the upper-crust this season. A&M lacks a running game to complement the passing attack, which makes the offense one-dimensional. This allows defenses to focus on quarterback Kellen Mond and drop eight into coverage. Coming off a road game against Georgia, the Aggies might be gassed when they arrive in Death Valley.
4. Oct. 19 at Mississippi State
The transition from Dan Mullen to second-year head coach Joe Moorhead is still in process. The Bulldogs enter this one on a two-game slide with an offense losing its footing after a 20-10 road loss to Tennessee.
5. Nov. 16 at Ole Miss
The Rebels have an offense that can go with just about any team in the country, but they have yet to face a top-notch defense like LSU yet. Ole Miss will get tested against Auburn at Jordan-Hare (Nov. 2) before hosting the Tigers in Oxford.
6. Nov. 23 vs. Arkansas
The Hogs have not won an SEC game since the 2017 season and may still be 0-for before facing LSU with Auburn, Alabama, and Mississippi State on the schedule. If the Tigers have vanquished Alabama, no way are they losing at home to Arkansas before facing Texas A&M.
— 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.