Anyone claiming to have a definitive finger on the pulse of the LSU Tigers in 2017 is trying to sell you something you don’t need or is using a futuristic Magic 8-Ball 3000 unavailable to the rest of us on the open market. The Tigers are 4-2, 1-1 in the SEC after picking up their best win of the year on Saturday on the road against Florida. The up-and-down nature of the Tigers in the first half of the season is what fans should expect over the final six remaining regular season games.
LSU has taken the field in 2017 working against high expectations and some obstacles, such as running an offense that appears to be ill suited for the linemen on hand and working with a young defense that has been banged up from Week 1. A promising 2-0 start came to a crashing halt in a 37-7 loss to Mississippi State. That was followed by a clsoer-than-expected win against Syracuse and the low point of the season thus far – a 24-21 home loss to Troy on Homecoming. Credit to the Tigers for pulling out Saturday's 17-16 win in the Swamp over the Gators, but Ed Orgeron's team still has to play Auburn, Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
Offensive MVP: WR DJ Chark
There are a couple of players who merit consideration here. Quarterback Danny Etling for running the new offense and running back Darrel Williams for filling in for an injured Derrius Guice (above, right), but Chark has been the main man in the passing attack. The team leader in receptions (17) and yards (385), the senior also has 60 rushing yards and a touchdown on just nine attempts. It’s worth noting that Chark is already more than halfway to matching Malachi Dupre’s team-leading 593 receiving yards from 2016.
Defensive MVP: LB Devin White
It’s a virtual coin flip between cornerback Andraez Williams and White, but since it’s my money, I’m going with the linebacker. Williams leads the team with three interceptions, but White has been a key cog in the middle of the Tigers’ defense. In his first season as a starter, the sophomore has stepped up with a team-high 62 tackles and 5.5 tackles for a loss. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week following his 13-tackle effort in the win at Florida. He also added a sack and knocked down the pass attempt on the Gators’ final offensive play.
Best Moment of First Half: Game-winning TD vs. Florida
The biggest moment of the first six games came this past Saturday. It may have been a simple two-yard touchdown pass from Danny Etling to Tory Carter, but it could end up being so much more when all is said and done. With 11:05 remaining in the third quarter on third-and-goal, Etling found his fullback in the right corner of the end zone for what wound up being the winning score as the Tigers beat the Gators in Gainesville.
Best Newcomer: DE K’Lavon Chaisson
Several Class of 2017 recruits have taken the field for LSU this season with defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson edging out linebacker Tyler Taylor for top midseason newcomer honors. Taylor has one more tackle (18) than Chaisson, but the latter has 3.5 tackles for a loss and 2.0 sacks compared to 1.5 each for his fellow freshman. Both have started two games thus far and are giving fans a reason to be excited about the future.
Biggest Surprise: Losses to Mississippi State and Troy
Losing to Mississippi State is understandable on a larger scale, but not to LSU fans. Adding to the frustration is the margin of victory (37-7) and the systematic way the Bulldogs went up and down the field on offense. The Troy loss will be bantered about by TV commentators for decades to come anytime the Tigers are a heavy favorite against a Group of 5 team in a game that’s close in the fourth quarter. There’s no disputing the fact that this loss has staying power, as it not only helped put the Trojans from the Sun Belt (and head coach Neal Brown) on the college football map, it also placed Ed Orgeron on the hot seat five games into his first season as LSU’s full-time head coach.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can LSU’s rush defense improve?
One thing Tiger fans are not accustomed to seeing is a middle-of-the-road run-stopping defense. The 2016 squad held teams to 117 rushing yards per game, good for 12th in the nation. This LSU is allowing 137 yards on the ground per game, which currently puts them 52nd in the FBS. In SEC play, Mississippi State ran for 285 yards while Florida went for 194 yards. And don’t forget Troy’s Jordan Chunn gashed the Tigers for 191 rushing yards on 30 carries (6.4 ypc) on their own turf. Unfortunately, it won’t get easier with Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas still to play.
2. Can LSU’s offense improve?
Former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was lit up by fans and media alike for his one-dimensional offense, but things have not improved under Matt Canada. In 2016, the Tigers averaged 423 yards per game. This season they are at 398 through six games. The rushing attack has taken a step back from 233 to 197 yards per game.
After starting out strong with consecutive 100-yard games, running back Derrius Guice has totaled 130 yards in his last three. He’s battled some injuries (missed the Troy game) and LSU really needs to him to be healthy for the second half. While Darrel Williams has been effective (355 yards, 5 TDs), he’s more the punishing runner while Guice is the explosive game-changer.
The offensive line also has been an issue, as the current personnel are more suited to maul defenders at the line of scrimmage rather than block them out in space. As a result, the line has lost some of its aggressive nature from years past. It also remains to be seen how effective Canada’s creative play-calling will fare against SEC defenses with plenty of speed and athleticism.
3. Will the schedule offer a lucky break?
As difficult as the first six games were, LSU’s second half slate offers little reprieve. It starts with a visit from Auburn this Saturday, followed by a trip to Oxford to face Ole Miss before a bye with the showdown in Tuscaloosa against No. 1 Alabama looming. The Tigers will likely be favored in four of their six remaining games, but even the matchups with Arkansas, Tennessee (road) and Texas A&M can be considered toss-ups.
Both the Rebels and Volunteers seem to trending in the wrong direction, while the Razorbacks have taken some lumps and quarterback Austin Allen is now dealing with an injury. And when it comes to the Aggies, until they prove the can win an SEC game in November, no one will take them seriously. It’s just a matter of Ed Oregon and LSU taking advantage of another team’s misfortunes. Then again, no one expected a 30-point loss to Mississippi State or a home loss to Troy, which makes these four “winnable” games anything but a given.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 4 at Alabama
The Crimson Tide are undefeated and No. 1 in the country and getting it done on both sides of the ball. They are seventh in the nation in rushing offense (301.7 ypg) and fifth against the run (73.3 ypg). Two bad signs for LSU.
2. Oct 14 Auburn
Since 2013, the home team has picked up the win in this series, but that may change this year. Auburn is becoming a monster on offense – averaging 453 yards and 36 points per game. LSU’s best offensive outing against a SEC team is 17 points vs. Florida. Auburn’s defense is limiting teams to 288 yards per game. How will the Tigers muster enough offense against the Tigers’ stingy defense?
3. Nov. 25 Texas A&M
The Aggies just went toe-to-toe with Alabama, showing signs of immense potential for the rest of the season. The Aggies held Alabama to 355 yards on offense but committed the cardinal sin of losing the turnover battle (3-1). Texas A&M has tough games against Florida, Mississippi State and Auburn before finishing the regular season against the Tigers in Death Valley. Kevin Sumlin would no doubt love to pick up a conference win (or two) in November.
4. Nov. 11 Arkansas
The Razorbacks’ new-look defense has done its job for the most part, but the offense has struggled, especially the passing attack. Senior quarterback Austin Allen has been under constant pressure and is now injured. If Arkansas’ offensive line can’t do a better job LSU’s defense could add to the Hogs’ woes.
5. Nov. 18 at Tennessee
Sitting at 3-2 coming off an embarrassing 41-0 home loss to Georgia, Volunteers head coach Butch Jones has to be feeling the pressure ahead of a home game with South Carolina on Saturday. Things open up a bit for Tennessee after its annual date with Alabama (in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 21), so LSU could face a different Vols team in Neyland Stadium. The Tigers also could be a different team coming off of back-to-back games against Alabama and Arkansas.
6. Oct. 21 at Ole Miss
Much like the Auburn series, the home team has been the winner over the past five meetings. Unlike the Auburn game, LSU should be able to break that streak. Ole Miss has wins against South Alabama from the Sun Belt and FCS member UT Martin and is currently riding a three-game losing streak. Even if the Rebels beat Vanderbilt on home this Saturday, the Tigers should have little trouble in Oxford against their seemingly overmatched SEC West rival.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of LSUSports.net)