LSU has stormed out of the gates in 2015 racing to a 6-0 record (4-0 in SEC), or what should have been a 7-0 record had Mother Nature not canceled the opener against McNeese State. As is, the Tigers are ranked No. 5 in the nation by the AP voters coming off their biggest win of the season, a 35-28 victory over former No. 8 Florida in Death Valley.
The Tigers have a tough five-game stretch to end the season but a dominating offensive line highlighted by the best player in college football, sophomore running back Leonard Fournette, should help the Tigers not only contend for a SEC West title but also places them in the conversation for the the College Football Playoff.
LSU may have the nation’s No. 4 rushing offense, averaging 326 yards per game, but the extremely young defense deserves a lot of credit. Entering the season, three seniors were expected to start but one key contributor, free safety Jalen Mills, has been out of action due to injury. Senior linebacker Lamar Louis has started two games but has taken a backup role, leaving just senior linebacker Deion Jones as the lone upperclassmen leader of the nation’s No. 15-ranked defense. A tip of the hat to first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is well deserved keeping up the team identity previously set with former coordinator John Chavis.
LSU Offensive MVP: RB Leonard Fournette
Credibility with readers can be lost or gained early in this column with the obvious pick being Fournette. The sophomore leads FBS with 1,202 rushing yards in just six games played. Perhaps the more deserving offensive MVP(s) is the offensive line or more directly Ethan Pocic and Vadal Alexander. Pocic and Alexander have already being named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week two times each in the first half of this season.
Defensive MVP: LB Deion Jones
Another tough award to hand out with junior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith and junior defensive end Lewis Neal being worthy of consideration, but the top guy has to be Jones. Jones and Beckwith are tied for the team lead in tackles with 41 but the former has more tackles for a loss (5.0 to 3.0) to go along with his 1.5 sacks. He's also tied for the team lead in interceptions with two.
Best Moment of First Half: Bulldogs' Loss of Yards Late is Tigers' Gain
The best moment of the first half might not be a Fournette highlight-reel touchdown run or another play by a Tiger, but instead a missed opportunity by Mississippi State. With 16 seconds left to play in the fourth quarter in LSU’s Week 2 showdown in Starkville, the Bulldogs picked up a five-yard penalty moving them from the Tigers' 28 to the 33, leaving kicker Devon Bell a really tough, 52-yard field goal attempt to win the game. As luck would have it, Bell missed and the Tigers have been rolling ever since.
Best Newcomer: DE Arden Key
Several true freshmen have made an immediate impact for the Tigers but Key might be the most important of them all. the defensive end has played in all six games, starting three, and has come up with 18 tackles, 2.0 tackles for a loss, and 1.5 sacks. He also has five quarterback hurries, a pass breakup, and a pass defended. Key’s play down after down in the trenches wins out over defensive back Kevin Toliver II and running back Derrius Guice’s worthy play.
Biggest Surprise: QB Brandon Harris
His play under center will not win him any awards but the sophomore signal-caller has been steady on the field, accepting the role of game manager with Fournette and Guice in the backfield. Harris is only completing 59 percent of his passes for 816 yards with six touchdowns, but he's yet to throw an interception in 110 attempts. When playing field position football, as LSU does, keeping the ball out of the opposition’s hands is key and Harris is protecting the ball well in passing situations. He has also started to develop more confidence in the pocket with back-to-back 200-yard passing games against South Carolina (228) and Florida (202).
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. The Tigers are a junior-, sophomore-, and freshman-laden team, how will the youngsters hold up in the second half of the season?
The thought goes for both sides of the ball. Even though Fournette has played in one less game than his closest competitor for the FBS rushing title, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, he has as many carries as Freeman has in seven games. The ground game should help keep the defense fresh but a Heisman Trophy Award-winning season aside, more touches need to be given to Guice and Darrel Williams in the second half in hopes of keeping Fournette strong for the entire season.
2. The rise of Brandon Harris as a legitimate SEC quarterback
Chances are offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will not force Harris to drop back to pass 35 times in a game any time this season, but Harris will have to help move the chains against teams like Alabama. Harris’ completion percentage has started to rise, hopefully he can keep it up in the second half. Harris emerging as more of a passing threat will take some heat off the guys in the trenches and keep the running backs from taking a pounding with a difficult end of the season schedule remaining.
3. The Tigers' run defense
LSU is now tied with Temple as the eighth-best defense in the nation against the run, allowing just 92.2 yards rushing per game. The Tigers are coming off a season-best performance, holding Florida to just 55 net rushing yards. The key to winning out, especially against Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, is stopping the run. If the opposition has no choice but to pass the ball Steele can pin his unit’s ears back on pass defense, slanting the odds heavily in LSU’s favor.
Ranking Toughest Remaining Games Left on the Schedule
1. Nov. 7 at Alabama
The Crimson Tide have the top-ranked defense in the SEC, allowing 272 yards per game. Bama will be the biggest challenge for LSU this season unless a trip to the College Football Playoff is earned.
Any surprise that Alabama is the toughest team left to play for LSU? Why this game is not the last game of the season for both squads is befuddling, perhaps to give the defeated three more weeks to get back in favor with AP voters for a better bowl game?
2. Nov. 28 vs. Texas A&M
The Aggies got their clocks cleaned at home by perhaps the best defense in the nation. Alabama took three picks back to the house, limiting the Aggies’ explosiveness on offense in a 41-23 win. A&M has not shown the ability to run the ball, which makes the offense far too dependent on the pass against a solid defense like LSU’s.
3. Nov. 21 at Ole Miss
The Rebels’ season may have stopped in Week 3 when they beat then-No. 2 Alabama 43-37 on the road. Ole Miss is now beat up with key injuries and has a difficult schedule of its own still left to navigate.
4. Nov. 14 vs. Arkansas
The Razorbacks are a tough matchup presenting a similar style of play as the Tigers. If Arkansas is allowed to run the ball this could be a long game. If LSU can force Brandon Allen to win the game with his arm, advantage Tigers.
5. Oct. 24 vs. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers have a fairly balanced offense but it all starts with quarterback Brandon Doughty in the pocket. Doughty is the nation’s second-leading passer with 2,709 yards.
— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com<. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.