The 2016 season was supposed to be one to remember for the LSU Tigers with 18 starters returning after finishing 9-3 a season ago. LSU was not only a preseason national title contender but thought of as perhaps the only team that could take down perennial college football juggernaut Alabama. Once the dust settled on the field, the Tigers ended the year 7-4 ranked No. 19 in the AP poll, a far cry from their preseason No. 5 ranking.
A 2-2 start with losses against Wisconsin (16-14) and Auburn (18-13) signaled the end of an era in Baton Rouge. After the road loss to the SEC West’s other Tigers, Les Miles was dismissed and replaced by interim head coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron rallied the team to a 5-2 finish, holding No. 1 Alabama to 10 points before falling while beating Missouri, then-No. 23 Ole Miss, Arkansas, and No. 22 Texas A&M. The stunner was a 16-10 home loss to No. 21 Florida, a game initially scheduled to be played on Oct. 8 in The Swamp but was postponed and relocated due to Hurricane Matthew.
Through the good and the bad, LSU remained LSU with a top-20 rushing attack and a top-15 defense, and at times looked the part of a team no one wanted to face. Orgeron proved his worth and had the interim label removed despite rumors circulating of the Tigers’ interest in former Houston head coach Tom Herman, who was eventually hired by Texas.
Offensive MVP: Derrius Guice, RB
Before the season began, Leonard Fournette was a shoo-in to make it to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. After a nagging ankle injury limited Fournette, Guice emerged as LSU’s best player. The sophomore led the team and finished second in the SEC with 1,249 rushing and was tied for the conference lead with 14 touchdowns on the ground. Meanwhile, Fournette ran for 843 yards and eight touchdowns in seven games.
Defensive MVP: Kendell Beckwith, LB
Beckwith is an absolute beast. The senior linebacker followed up his 84-tackle 2015 campaign with a team-high 91 stops. He also was among the leaders in tackles for a loss (six), as the Tigers finished 13th in the FBS in total defense (323 ypg).
Best Freshman: Devin White, LB
With a senior-laden team complemented by a talented junior class, playing time for freshmen was hard to come by this season. But that didn’t prevent White from making an impact. White played in all 11 games (LSU lost one when it had to reschedule the Florida game), finishing with 25 tackles, two tackles for a loss, a forced fumble, and he also blocked a kick.
Best Newcomer: Danny Etling, QB
Etling, a Purdue transfer, may not have set the world on fire in the pocket but he helped jump start a passing offense that failed to materialize under Miles and 2015 starter Brandon Harris. Etling replaced Harris two games in and finished the season with 1,906 passing yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Etling almost was responsible for pulling off a comeback against Auburn, but his potential game-winning touchdown pass was overturned on replay when it was determined the game clock had expired before the ball was snapped.
Best Play of the Season: Derrius Guice’s 96-yard TD run vs. Arkansas
One week after a disappointing 10-0 loss to Alabama, LSU needed to bounce back on the road against the Razorbacks. Guice turned in the second-best single-game performance in school history, rushing for 252 yards on 21 carries (12.0 ypc) in the convincing 38-10 victory. The big blow was his 96-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter, which set a new school record for longest play from scrimmage.
Best Performance: Derrius Guice vs. Texas A&M
Guice topped his outstanding game against Arkansas with a school-record 285 rushing yards against the Aggies in the regular season finale. Guice was a workhorse, toting the ball a school-record 37 times, while scoring four touchdowns (45 yards, 45, 6, 1) in the big 54-39 victory in College Station.
Best Game: 42-7 win against Missouri
Beating Missouri in 2016 was not a difficult task for most teams, but LSU needed this win, badly. Coming off a heartbreaking 18-13 loss to Auburn and with a new head coach on the sidelines, the players, coaches, and fans needed reason to believe everything would be okay. The result was a 42-7 home win against Missouri. The Tigers rushed for a season-high 418 yards with another season-high six rushing touchdowns in the rout.
Defining Moment: 16-14 loss to Wisconsin
It came right out of the gates. The loss to the Badgers at Lambeau Field put the Tigers on the defensive from the get-go as the weight of preseason expectations came crashing down at once. The loss also set the events in motion that eventually led to Les Miles’ dismissal. But the silver lining in all of this is the positive momentum that Ed Orgeron has produced, as he helped re-energize the fan base and clearly won the complete support and loyalty of his players even before he was named the permanent head coach.
Biggest Surprise: 38-10 win over Arkansas
In each of the past two season, following tough losses to Alabama, LSU went on to fall to the Razorbacks as well. While this season’s loss to the Crimson Tide put an end to the Tigers’ SEC title aspirations, they didn’t let the disappointment carry over. Instead, LSU invaded Fayetteville and promptly ran over and through Arkansas on the way to one of its most impressive victories of the season.
Biggest Disappointment: 16-10 loss to Florida
But the one step forward the Tigers took on the road against Arkansas was followed up by three steps backward at home in losing to the Gators. Even though LSU was the beneficiary of the game being rescheduled and relocated, it was Florida who made the necessary plays on offense and came up with the big goal-line stop at the end to steal a win in Death Valley. Not only did the victory clinch the SEC East for the Gators, the stunning loss temporarily put the skids on all the optimism surrounding the Tigers since Ed Orgeron took over as interim head coach.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Kendall Beckwith, LB
Once again, there are a lot of talented LSU players who will hear their names called next spring in the 2017 NFL Draft. And Beckwith will most likely be one of the first. He is as talented as any other linebacker in the nation. LSU recruits as well as any other team, so someone will fill his position, but Beckwith was the heart and soul of the Tigers in 2016.
Player to Watch in 2017: Derrius Guice, RB
Leonard Fournette’s collegiate career is most likely coming to an end. LSU will not lack for talent next year with underclassmen like defensive end Arden Key and offensive linemen Will Clapp and Maea Teuhema in line to become the next standouts. But Guice has already shown what he’s capable of and next year he will be the undisputed No. 1 in the back field. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound sophomore finished 77 yards behind Arkansas’ Rawleigh Williams for the most rushing yards in the SEC and Guice played in one less game. With LSU likely to be among the top 25 teams entering next season, it’s entirely possible that he could also replace Fournette as the Tigers’ next Heisman Trophy candidate.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Quarterback Play
Les Miles built LSU into one of the top programs in the nation off recruiting. Year after year the Tigers excel on defense, special teams, and with their rushing attack. Until LSU brings in an offensive coordinator that can add a consistent passing game while developing a quarterback, this part of LSU’s game will always be in question. Danny Etling returns in 2016, but is he the guy that can take LSU to the College Football Playoff?
— 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 has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.