All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. headlines a stout secondary for the defending national champions
From the poll era to the BCS and now the College Football Playoff, repeating as national champions is becoming harder to do now that teams have to fight through a four-team playoff for a trophy. Since the inception of the playoff format in 2014, no team has gone back-to-back, but the LSU Tigers have high hopes to repeat in 2020.
On the road to the Tigers' fourth claimed national championship (1958, 2003 coaches, 2007) a star was born in LSU's offense in quarterback Joe Burrow. The senior led the nation's top-rated offense (568.5 ypg, 48.4 ppg) while rewriting the record book and stockpiling hardware along the way. With 14 players selected in this year's NFL draft, the Tigers offense returns just three starters, which puts even more pressure on a talented but largely inexperienced defense that brings back just five starters from last year's unit that ranked 31st in the nation in yards allowed per game. Will the stars align for LSU to do the improbable in 2020?
Three Reasons Why LSU Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. The receiving corps
It is hard to imagine a unit that lost one of the nation's top receivers in Justin Jefferson would be a strength the following season, but LSU is loaded. Overpowering this group is returning Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase. Chase led the FBS ranks in yards (1,780) and touchdowns (20), and he'll be a headache for SEC defenses again in 2020. Another top target returns in Terrace Marshall Jr. (46/671/13). The loss of tight end Thaddeus Moss as an early NFL entrant will hurt, but immediate help is on the way in five-star 2020 Georgia signee Arik Gilbert. This group may not go over 6,000 yards again, but it has the firepower to be very explosive.
2. The secondary
The Tigers' secondary was loaded a year ago and there should be minimal, if any, drop-off this fall. The presence of sophomore cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. effectively shuts down one side of the field for opposing quarterbacks. JaCoby Stevens is a two-way safety against the run and the pass, with the potential to give DBU a second All-American on the roster this year. The free safety position is stocked with Kary Vincent and Todd Harris Jr. There will be a great battle opposite of Stingley between Cordale Flott and incoming five-star Eli Ricks.
3. The running backs
Although largely unproven, LSU may have one of the most talented backfields in the nation on paper. Tyrion Davis-Price was a key backup for departed 1,400-yard rusher Clyde Edwards-Helaire in 2019 with 295 rushing yards and six scores. Sophomore Chris Curry and former five-star John Emery Jr. will also be in the mix for touches. The Tigers used several different combinations in the offensive trenches last season and gave meaningful snaps to those left to reconstruct the championship squad. If the line can get a push, the talented backfield will pick up yards and control the clock.
Three Reasons Why LSU Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. An uncertain offense
All the potential is in place for LSU to have another SEC championship-caliber squad that can make a push for the playoff, but uncertainty raises many questions. No sane person can expect presumed starter Myles Brennan to produce near the level of Burrow, but that is what it took for LSU to capture a title in 2019. How close can Brennan come to replicating the same success to produce an SEC West title? With former passing game coordinator Joe Brady now in the NFL, will replacement Scott Linehan be able to guide this squad close to the same level of success? Battling through injuries, LSU's offensive line got the job done last season, but can this group jell enough to produce a vicious ground attack that can give Brennan time to grow throughout the schedule?
2. The new defense
There is something to be said for players being in the same system year after year and under the same coordinator. That advantage was lost two-fold when defensive coordinator Dave Aranda left Baton Rouge to become the head coach at Baylor. Replacing Aranda is well-regarded coordinator Bo Pelini, a championship-winning DC with the Tigers (2005-07) and former head coach at Nebraska and Youngstown State. Pelini has the resume to get the job done, but he is switching the alignment from a 3-4 to 4-3. LSU may have the talent to make the transition smoothly, but there will be times when defenders are thinking about their assignment in the new scheme instead of reacting. Those small changes can affect the outcomes of important games.
3. The schedule
As schedules line up in the SEC, LSU has a relatively easy run. The Tigers square off against five preseason top-25 squads in Texas, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, and Texas A&M. The spacing between each "tough" game, until the two-game, end-of-season road trip to Jordan-Hare and Kyle Field, will allow the team to regroup from tough games and potentially avoid any letdown losses after big victories. The key games are on the road at Florida, home against Alabama, and in College Station to face the Aggies. Alabama and A&M should be in contention for a title run, which makes the gauntlet foreboding. Should LSU capture a second consecutive West Divisional banner, the Tigers may have to face Florida for a second time when they arrive in Atlanta.
After escaping Austin with a 45-38 victory last season, the Longhorns will be out for blood on the back end of the home-and-home series. Texas is stocked with 16 starters back, which makes this showdown a "must-see" for college football fans. Beyond the hype, the winner has a chance to make a statement and gather much-needed momentum in conference action. If LSU can knock off Texas and steal one away from Dan Mullen in The Swamp, this team will be a contender in 2020. Alabama and A&M are the toughest roadblocks remaining but can be overcome if all the pieces fall together.
If head coach Ed Orgeron can put together a 10-win season after losing nine junior starters as early NFL draft entrants, he should be on the list for Coach of the Year. For the Tigers to make it back to the College Football Playoff, they have to stay healthy this year and catch breaks along the way. Alabama's offensive line and A&M's returning experience will likely make that task too difficult.
— 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 by Chris Parent/LSU Athletics)