There are plenty of games remaining for Leonard Fournette to be a difference-maker for the rejuvenated Tigers
Hollywood movies cannot script the type of season LSU (4-2, 2-1 SEC) is having because no one would believe the storyline. A preseason national title contender suffers two early losses with an injury to their top player, the starting quarterback gets demoted while seeing their head coach and offensive coordinator get fired, but still has an outside shot at winning a conference championship and making the College Football Playoff? Not in a million years.
Well, LSU could play spoiler to at least two playoff hopefuls over the next five games and cause a lot of controversy along the way potentially giving the selection committee fits in the coming weeks.
Since head coach Les Miles was fired after an 18-13 road loss to Auburn, the Tigers have outscored their next two opponents by an average of 43.5 points while only giving up 8.5 points per game. LSU has responded to interim head coach Ed Orgeron, showing a willingness to keep fighting for the season and beloved former defensive line coach. After beating Missouri and Southern Miss at home, however, the remaining road will get much tougher. With five games left against ranked opponents in Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Texas A&M, the players, coaches, and fan base will see just how much fight these Tigers have left.
Offensive MVP: Offensive Line
The patched-together offensive line deserves the lion’s share of the credit, especially after the various injuries and swapping of positions that has gone on up front since the season began. The line has paved the way for preseason All-American running back Leonard Fournette’s 386 yards in just three games and Derrius Guice’s 564 yards in six games. The line also has only given up nine sacks between two-game starter Brandon Harris and four-game starter Danny Etling.
Defensive MVP: LB Kendell Beckwith
There are a lot of very talented LSU defenders out there with guys like safety Jamal Adams and defensive end Arden Key roaming the field but Beckwith is the heart of the defense. Beckwith is having a sensational senior season, leading the Tigers with 60 tackles and is second on the team behind Key with 5.5 tackles for a loss. Besides making plays, Beckwith also is responsible for getting everyone in position and lined up properly for the nation’s No. 13 defense, a role that should not be understated.
Best Moment of First Half: Tigers’ Performances Against Missouri in First Game of Post-Miles Era
For some, time running out on the game against Auburn leading to Les Miles' dismissal. For others, LSU trouncing Missouri 42-7 the first game with Ed Orgeron as interim head coach. The win showed signs of life for the Tigers, giving the fan base hope that a share of the SEC West title could still be had.
Best Newcomer: QB Danny Etling
Etling was with the team last season, but had to sit out after transferring from Purdue. Since taking over for Brandon Harris as the starter, LSU’s offense has been more productive (455.8 ypg, 30.8 ppg) and balanced (998 rushing yards, 825 passing in four games), which is important moving forward. Michael Divinity also deserves a mention here as the true freshman has not only contributed (13 tackles, TFL in four games) for the nation’s No. 13 defense; he also cracked the rotation on one that returned 10 starters.
Biggest Surprise: Two Losses in Four Games
There are surprises throughout LSU’s season starting with Miles being fired, which has overshadowed much of the Tigers’ play on the field. Even die-hard fans that do not like LSU would not have guessed the Tigers would have dropped their season opener to Wisconsin and then turned around after two wins to lose again to result in a 2-2 start. However, there are still enough games remaining to make good on some of those preseason goals or expectations, depending on who you ask.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Danny Etling’s Passing
Everyone in Louisiana wants to see LSU sling the ball around the yard. Etling is not the type of quarterback that will throw for 300 yards a game, but has enough talent in his wide receiver corps to make him look good. Etling had his best game of the season against Southern Miss, hitting 11 of 18 attempts for 276 yards with three scores. If Etling can stay around the 275-yard mark with a touchdown or two a game without turning the ball over, this LSU team would seemingly be unstoppable paired with a great ground game and tough as nails defense.
2. The Return of Leonard Fournette
Fournette has missed three games this season sitting out the last two with an ankle injury. The Tigers have not needed him with the emergence of backup Derrius Guice, but will certainly need Fournette down the stretch run. Even if he’s not at 100 percent, LSU is capable of beating Ole Miss on Saturday, but will need a healthy Fournette for the Alabama game. One has to imagine that Fournette would like to hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark by the end of the regular season and just use the bowl game to pad his stats. Fournette needs 644 yards to get there, which is average of 128.8 yards per remaining regular season game. Fournette wasn’t the same productive player over the second half of last season, so it will be interesting to see what he does over the next month and a half.
3. The Rise or Fall of the Tigers
LSU has had its fair share of injuries over the first half of the season but should get guys back along the offensive line and, more importantly, Fournette for the five-game run to finish the regular season. With just one conference loss, LSU could not only disrupt Alabama’s annual trip to Atlanta but throw a monkey wrench into the College Football Playoff if the Tigers can defeat the Crimson Tide. The SEC tie-breaker would go to LSU if both the Tigers and Tide end the season with one-loss sending LSU to the SEC Championship Game. Would the selection committee put a two-loss LSU team into the playoff? The Tigers still have something to fight for if this team can stay together as a unit.
LSU has been knocked on its backside twice this season but have rallied under Orgeron. If the Tigers lose again before the season finale against Texas A&M, would the team fall apart with all the upperclassmen looking ahead to the NFL Draft?
Ranking Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 5 Alabama
Solving the Nick Saban riddle is one LSU fans, players, and administrators want to accomplish right away. Going into the season, this should have been the year for the Tigers to knock Alabama off its lofty perch. The Tigers still can do it, as they have so much talent up and down the roster. LSU has to prevent the Crimson Tide from scoring those critical non-offensive touchdowns while playing its best in all three phases of the game.
2. Nov. 24 at Texas A&M
At this point, the Aggies are still SEC West and College Football Playoff contenders but everyone is waiting for them to fold. Texas A&M’s resolve will be put to the test Saturday with a road trip to Tuscaloosa. The Aggies could still be a one-loss team by the time LSU visits Kyle Field to close out the regular season. Texas A&M now has a running game to go with a down, but decent, passing game making this offense a threat to be reckoned with. The defense is coming around with coordinator John Chavis shaping up his side of the ball.
3. Nov. 12 at Arkansas
The Hogs have won the last two games against LSU. Arkansas lines up against the Tigers, once again, after LSU plays a tough physical game against Alabama. The Razorbacks could be bruised as well after hosting Florida the week prior Favoring Arkansas, the Hogs know how to defend LSU’s run game. Favoring LSU, the Hogs are not the ground-and-pound team they were over the past two years but instead are more balanced behind first-year starting quarterback Austin Allen.
4. Nov. 19 Florida
Getting Florida at home instead of in the Swamp as originally scheduled for Oct. 8, is a blessing for Ed Orgeron and the Tigers. Florida is very average on offense, fighting through injuries and subpar play under center. The Gators’ defense, as always, is one of the best in the nation which will be a nice challenge for Danny Etling, Derrius Guice, and hopefully a healthy Leonard Fournette.
5. Oct. 22 Ole Miss
The one thing LSU does well on offense is the one thing Ole Miss is bad at on defense. The Rebels are allowing 212 rushing yards per game, which puts them 104th in the nation, while the Tigers are among the top 25 rushing offenses (228 ypg) in the nation. LSU’s pass defense is getting better and better each week, currently allowing just 208 yards per game. The Tigers are athletic enough in the front seven to keep Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly from doing too much damage with his legs and are good enough to challenge his arm.
— 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.