Devin White was recognized as the nation's best linebacker by winning the Butkus Award
There is a feeling in the air in Baton Rouge that has been missing over the last five seasons, and that vibe is LSU is back. The Tigers have posted a 9-3 (5-3 SEC) record with an opportunity for the program’s first 10-win season since 2013. To get there, No. 11 LSU must beat undefeated and seventh-ranked UCF in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day. The path to the finish line has not been easy with five showdowns against top-10 teams, but the Tigers have gutted it out, proving to be among the best in the nation.
Entering the 2018 season, few knew what to expect of LSU with SEC media picking the Tigers to finish fifth in their division. They started off strong, knocking off then-No. 8 Miami (33-17) in Arlington, Texas, with a road win over No. 7 Auburn (22-21), as well as home victories against No. 2 Georgia (36-16) and No. 22 Mississippi State (19-3) along the way. The formula for success in head coach Ed Orgeron’s second full season in Baton Rouge was the usual tough defense but a return to a ground-and-pound-centric, pro-style offense under new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger.
After navigating what could be argued as the toughest schedule in the country (with one more big game remaining), it is time to hand out some awards.
Offensive MVP: Nick Brossette, RB
Brossette will not go down in LSU folklore as having one of the all-time great seasons for the Tigers in 2018, but he was all-too-important for the offense. Carrying a heavy load, he has already produced 922 yards off 211 carries with 14 touchdowns. That scoring output ties him with Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. for second in the SEC, just one behind Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams. The senior tailback split snaps with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, which lowered his overall production, but Brossette still showed up big in key games. He blistered the Hurricanes for 125 yards and two touchdowns and kept LSU in the game against Florida with 95 yards and two scores.
Defensive MVP: Devin White, LB
The junior not only distinguished himself in the SEC but the entire nation as he was named the recipient of this year's Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's best linebacker. A first-team All-American and All-SEC honoree, White has made plays all over the field this season, registering 115 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. In LSU’s biggest win of the season, White was a beast racking up 13 tackles against Georgia.
Best Freshman: Ja’Marr Chase, WR
This was not the season for LSU freshmen to make a lot of noise, meaning a lot of redshirts were handed out allowing time to develop talent, which bodes well for the future. One of the true freshmen to have an impact was receiver Chase. The four-star recruit surpassed five-star signee Terrace Marshall by pulling in 17 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Chase got it going with a reception in Week 1 against Miami and secured touchdown passes against FCS opponent Southeastern Louisiana and Ole Miss. His biggest game was in the regular-season finale against the Aggies where he caught three passes for 31 yards.
Biggest Play of the Season: Kristian Fulton's Interception vs. Georgia
After Georgia was forced to punt five times in the first half and fumbling away its second possession of the game, the Bulldogs came out of the locker room after halftime down 16-0 but fired up. Their opening possession of the third quarter resulted in a 12-play drive capped with a 40-yard field goal. On the second possession, facing 3rd-and-10 from his own four-yard line, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm was picked off across the middle by a diving Fulton. Taking over just outside the red zone, LSU turned the pick into points with a Cole Tracy 24-yard field goal. That pushed the lead to 19-3 and pretty much ended the Bulldogs' hopes of mounting a comeback. That was the only game Georgia lost in the regular season and arguably was the one that kept the Bulldogs out of the College Football Playoff.
Best Performance by a Player: Joe Burrow vs. Texas A&M
In the game of the season for all of college football, LSU’s quarterback played his heart out. In the seven-overtime thriller against the Aggies, Burrow completed 25 of 38 passes with three touchdowns sans a pick and rushed 29 times for 100 yards with three more scores. Over the seven overtimes, Burrow connected with Dee Anderson on a 25-yard score, rushed for a four-yard TD, and ran one in from 10 yards out in the final frame. It all came in a losing effort (74-72), but it was a game and a performance LSU fans will never forget.
Best Game (Team Performance): Season-Opening Win vs. Miami
Coming out of the gate, few expected then-No. 25 LSU to take down No. 8 Miami, but the Tigers did. Their defense stifled the Hurricanes' rushing attack to 83 yards on 34 carries and intercepted quarterback Malik Rosier twice. Nick Brossette had a big game, turning 22 carries into 125 yards and two touchdowns as LSU won in convincing fashion, 33-17.
Biggest Surprise: Cole Tracy, PK
Tracy led the SEC in field goals made (25) and field goal percentage (86) while finishing second overall in scoring this season. A finalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s top kicker, Tracy was named second-team All-American by the Associated Press. Tracy's production was a surprise to all those in Tiger Nation as no one had heard of the graduate transfer from Division II Assumption College (based in Worcester, Massachusetts) before the season began even though he won the Fred Mitchell Award, which is given to the nation's top kicker outside of the FBS level, in 2017.
Biggest Disappointment: Passing Offense
Like a politician wearing out a talking point, for years LSU fans have heard promises of a better passing attack from one season to the next, yet little changes. On paper, the passing attack improved statistically while the rushing attack stumbled drastically, but the improvement in yards per game in the aerial attack was meager going from 204 per game to 215. Joe Burrow finished the regular season seventh in the SEC in passing (208.3 ypg) but totaled just 12 touchdowns through the air while getting sacked 33 times. Maybe next year?
Senior That Will be Missed the Most: John Battle, DB
In the two-player race among top seniors, Battle edges out guard Garrett Brumfield. Both players missed action during the season, with Battle appearing in more game (9 vs. 8) thus far. The safety has been credited with 37 tackles and is second on the team with three interceptions to go along with four pass breakups. It goes without saying that the Tigers will miss placekicker Cole Tracy.
Player to Watch in 2019: Joe Burrow, QB
The LSU roster is dotted with very talented players that could spring forward with amazing seasons in 2019, but much of the success of the Tigers will depend on what Burrow can do in the second year in this offense. The offensive line is set to return four starters and LSU is in position to add two more talented tailbacks to the roster in five-star recruit John Emery Jr. and four-star Tyrion Davis. Burrow also has targets in the passing game in Justin Jefferson, Stephen Sullivan, Dee Anderson, Ja’Marr Chase, and Terrace Marshall. This could be a dynamic offense in 2019 if Burrow can deliver.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: The Defense
There is no questioning the brilliance of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, but what may lay ahead is the problem. Seemingly every year LSU loses four or five players as early NFL draft entrants and should that pattern hold all of those departures could come from the defense. The headliner of his group is Butkus Award-winning linebacker Devin White. Other juniors who might test the NFL waters include linebacker Michael Divinity and defensive linemen Rashard Lawrence and Ed Alexander. If everyone returns, which seems unlikely, this defense could be among the best in the nation. But if there's another mass exodus, Aranda will have his work cut out for him both on the recruiting trail and in spring practice.
— 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.