The 2015 college football season started out as one for the ages for the LSU Tigers. The Baton Rouge squad opened the season with moderate expectations receiving an AP Top 25 preseason ranking of No. 14 but soared to No. 2 in the nation after posting a 7-0 overall record. It should have been 8-0 but the Tigers' Week 1 contest against McNeese State was called due to weather. LSU had early-season wins over then- No. 25 Mississippi State (21-19), No. 18 Auburn (45-21), Syracuse (34-24) in non-conference action, and No. 8 Florida (35-28) as the Tigers worked their way up the polls.
Despite fans, writers, and opposing coaches knowing LSU was one-dimensional on offense, all were in awe of the Tigers' rushing attack spearheaded by sophomore running back Leonard Fournette. Fournette jumped out as the early-season Heisman Trophy favorite after three consecutive games over at least 228 yards rushing. LSU was playing so well that its 45-24 thumping of South Carolina in Week 6 helped contribute to legendary head coach Steve Spurrier’s early retirement, as he stepped down the day after the loss to the Tigers.
LSU’s highs and renewed expectations contributed greatly to a late-season fall that included three consecutive losses to then- No. 4 Alabama (30-16), Arkansas (31-14), and No. 22 Mississippi (38-17). The commonality of all three opponents handing LSU a loss was strong run defenses. LSU’s inability to throw the ball consistently downfield helped contribute to a fall out of the rankings and uncertainty of where the program was headed next. The rumor mill quickly spread that LSU’s final regular season game against Texas A&M would determine the fate of head coach Les Miles. The Tigers took down the visiting Aggies 19-7 with the Mad Hatter getting a what at the time was thought to be a victorious send off with his players carrying their head coach off the field.
Immediately following the Aggies win, Miles was told he would return next season. Now the focus shifts to the LSU's upcoming Dec. 29 appearance in the Texas Bowl against Texas Tech. The Tigers finished the regular season 8-3, 5-3 in SEC play, and ranked No. 20 in the final College Football Selection Committee Playoff Rankings.
Offensive MVP: Leonard Fournette, RB
Easily one of the top college football players in the nation during the 2015 season. Fournette ended the regular season with 1,741 yards rushing, 18 touchdowns on the ground, and finished third on the team in receptions (18) and receiving yards (209).
Defensive MVP: Deion Jones, LB
Kendell Beckwith got a lot of well-deserved preseason hype but Jones had a standout campaign at linebacker, tallying 92 tackles with 11.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, two interceptions, and six quarterback hurries. Jones left Senior Day at Death Valley in style coming up with 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, and a half-sack earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Best Freshman: Arden Key, DE
The Tigers' roster is full of contributing underclassmen but a handful of true freshmen turned in big performances. Key was arguably the best of this group of impressive first-year players. Key finished fifth on the Tigers in total tackles with 38 while coming up with 6.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks, and nine quarterback hurries.
Key came up big from the onset of the season, getting a critical sack of Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott in Week 2. Key stayed strong throughout the season seemingly not wearing down as much as most true freshmen. Against the Aggies, Key was awarded SEC Freshman of the Week honors after collecting a career-high eight tackles with 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries.
Best Play of the Season: Leonard Fournette's 40-yard Touchdown Run vs. Auburn
Pick any number of Fournette’s touchdown runs in 2015 and a case can be made for it as play of the year. But on Sept. 19, Fournette proved that anywhere on the field is the red zone. His 40-yard touchdown run against Auburn featured him dragging Tigers linebacker Derrick Moncrief in the red zone for about five years before shaking lose and crossing the goal line untouched.
Best Performance by a Player in 2015: Leonard Fournette, RB
There is a reason Fournette was a mid-season Heisman Trophy contender, as he is one of the best in the nation regardless of position. Fournette ended the season fourth in the nation in all-purpose yards despite the cancelation of the season opener against McNeese State game and not playing in the SEC Championship Game. If Fournette had played in two more games before the bowl, his 158 rushing yards per game average would have given him 2,058 yards on the season or 72 yards more than Derrick Henry, Alabama’s Heisman finalist.
Best Game: Beating Then-No. 8 Florida
Everything seemed to click for the Tigers against Florida’s vaulted defense. Brandon Harris completed 68 percent of his passes for 202 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. The offensive line did not allow a sack and Fournette rushed for 180 yards on 31 carries with two scores. Florida scored 28 points but the Tigers’ defense only allowed 326 total yards of offense in the big win.
Defining Moment: Mississippi State's Missed Field Goal
As tough as the season got for the Tigers during their three-game skid, Les Miles can thank Mississippi State kicker Devon Bell for missing a 52-yard field goal as the game clock expired, giving LSU a 21-19 win in Week 2. Had the Bulldogs won, Miles might not still be in Baton Rouge today. The win helped label the Tigers as an early contender for the SEC West Division title and put Leonard Fournette into the Heisman Trophy discussion.
Biggest Surprise: Lewis Neal, DL
Neal had 13 games played under his belt without a start entering the 2015 season. He had 10 total tackles for his career with, two tackles for a loss, and a half-sack. When the season ended, the junior had started all 11 games finishing fourth on the squad in total tackles with 48, second in tackles for a loss with 9.5, and led the team with eight sacks.
Biggest Disappointment: Brandon Harris, QB
Harris had a slightly above average season, but maybe too much was expected of the sophomore? The Tigers have a deep wide receiver corps, one of the best in the nation in terms of athleticism and certainly in untapped talent. Harris threw for 1,904 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. The trouble is that compared to his freshman season, Harris did not develop as much as some had thought, hoped or expected. In limited action last season, Harris completed 56 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and just two picks. His TD-to-INT ratio this season was just a little better than 2:! while he completed just 53 percent of his passes. He also was sacked 17 times, giving up 152 yards in the process.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most Next Season: Jalen Mills, S
Mills has been a playmaker for the Tigers since his freshman days when he started 13 games at cornerback in 2012. He started 13 games in 2013 and another 13 in '14 helping LSU earn the “DBU” title. The Tigers' pass defense slipped some in 2015 in large part due to Mills’ injury issues. Mills was limited to six games played with five starts but made his presence felt in those games coming up with 30 tackles. The 30 tackles was a far cry from the 62 netted in 2014 and 67 added from '13.
Player to Watch in 2016: Kevin Toliver II, CB
Toliver was a 5-star recruit coming out of Trinity Christian High School in Jacksonville, Fla., and lived up to the hype during his true freshman season. Toliver played in all 11 games, receiving seven starts and collecting 30 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one interception, and four passes defended.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Passing Game
Les Miles came close to losing his job this season with one of the biggest complaints being the Tigers' lack of a passing game. If Miles retains offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who is in the last year of his contract, can the Tiger faithful truly expect different results in 2016 when LSU is forced to pass on third-and-long?
— 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.