Every year college football produces a surprise team that surpasses preseason expectations capturing a share of the national spotlight for all the right reasons. To the midway point of the 2018 season, the LSU Tigers (5-1, 2-1 SEC) have far surpassed any and all expectations, even those of the most of optimistic fans, working their way to one of college football’s best.
After spring practices in Baton Rouge, there were far more questions about the team’s offense than answers that could be provided. LSU was entering its third season with a third different offensive coordinator and appeared to have no quarterback or running back to help move the offense with an inexperienced receiving corps. On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers returned five starters with the bulk of the experience residing in the secondary leaving a big hole in the box to stop the run and get after the quarterback.
The schedule has provided plenty of tests to see if the Tigers are for real starting out the season. They rose to the challenge against No. 8 Miami in the season opener in Arlington, Texas, winning 33-17. After a 31-0 breather win over FCS opponent Southern Louisiana, LSU was faced with another top-10 team, No. 7 Auburn. LSU rolled into Jordan-Hare coming out with a last-second, 22-21 win that resulted in the Tigers entering the top 10 of the polls. Easy victories over Louisiana Tech (38-21) and Ole Miss (45-16) set up a trap game on the road against No. 22 Florida. With No. 5 LSU perhaps looking ahead to No. 2 Georgia, the Gators were able to pin a 27-19 loss on the Tigers in The Swamp.
Through all the ups and downs of the early part of the season, it is time to award some midseason awards with a look ahead to the second half of the schedule.
Offensive MVP: RB Nick Brossette
With All-SEC running back Derrius Guice entering the NFL draft early at the end of the 2017 season, there were big shoes to fill without a clear-cut front-runner on the roster. Guice ran for 1,251 yards with 11 touchdowns during his final season in Baton Rouge, and Brossette is on pace for similar numbers. Through six games, the senior has 118 rushing attempts for 576 yards, averaging 96 per game. Brosette’s eight rushing touchdowns are tied for the lead in the SEC with Kentucky's Benny Snell Jr. and Ole Miss’ Scottie Phillips.
Defensive MVP: LB Devin White
A case can be made for safety Grant Delpit because he does it all – tackles for a loss, tight coverage and leads the team with three interceptions. But White is a beast in the box and has the stats to back up this honor. The junior linebacker has accumulated 53 total tackles, including 6.5 for a loss, a sack, four QB hurries, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He's second in the conference in tackles to Arkansas’ De’Jon Harris (64).
Best Moment of First Half: Cole Tracy's Game-Winning Field Goal to Beat Auburn
There have been plenty of big hits, pile-driving blocks, and displays of elite athleticism by a number of LSU players, but the best moment thus far has been a nail-biting kick. Down 21-19 on the road to then-No. 7 Auburn, LSU has the ball with 5:38 left in the game and proceeded to put together a 14-play, 52-yard drive that ends with the senior knocking through a 42-yard field goal as time expires to give the Bayou Bengals an oh-so-satisfying 22-21 victory.
Best Newcomer: QB Joe Burrow
Burrow may not be the most exciting quarterback in the nation, but he has gotten the job done five out of the first six games. Through the early part of the season, Burrow, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, did all the little things needed to keep drives alive for the Tigers by not taking sacks and avoiding the costly turnover. Burrow’s completion percentage and yards per game will not overwhelm, but with a tough-to-stop ground game and a stingy defense shutting down opposing offenses, Burrow does not need to be prolific for LSU to win.
Biggest Surprise: LSU’s defense
There is no question that Dave Aranda is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country, so there is little surprise to LSU being a defensive juggernaut yet again, but some perspective is needed. The Tigers lost talent across the board from last year's team with guys like Christian LaCouture, Arden Key, Greg Gilmore, Donte Jackson, and Kevin Toliver gone. As a unit, the defense has seen a slight increase in yards allowed per game (from 316 in 2017 to 334 thus far), but that should not overshadow what this defense has done with six new starters on that side of the ball. But as tough as the first six games have been, three of them against ranked teams, the second half could be even more difficult for Aranda's charges.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Joe Burrow’s mental toughness
Miami (No. 2 in total defense), Auburn (No. 16), and Florida (No. 19) are three of the top defensive units in the nation. Great challenges for the Tigers’ offense are still to be had against Georgia (No. 6), Mississippi State (No. 11), and Alabama (No. 23) over the next three games. If LSU’s offense can hold together during the three-game gauntlet of a pair of Bulldogs and the defending national champs starting this Saturday, the last three games of the season will seem like a piece of cake.
The loss to the Gators can be hung like an albatross around Burrow’s neck. The Gators sacked him five times and he also threw his first two interceptions of the season. Gators’ defensive coordinator Todd Grantham gave Georgia the blueprint for its upcoming visit to Baton Rouge. Can Burrow fix his mistakes before facing more daunting defenses?
2. Avoiding injuries
A team cannot control injuries, and few squads have the depth to overcome those to key players, which is the case for LSU. Starting offensive guard Garrett Brumfield remains sidelined and linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson is out for the season. Linebacker Jacob Phillips missed the Florida contest and is considered questionable against Georgia. The Tigers had several players cramping up against Florida, something that needs to be avoided over the next three games.
A key injury to Burrow or running back to Nick Brossette could derail a team capable of a 10-win regular season.
3. Opening up the passing attack
LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger may be protecting his first-year starter in the pocket, but more production is needed from the passing game. Ensminger promised a better aerial attack but not much has changed this season or really over the last decade for that matter. Justin Jefferson has become the go-to guy for Burrow with 21 receptions for 345 yards and two touchdowns, but that averages out to 3.5 catches per game. Stephen Sullivan is second on the team with 13 receptions for 167 yards and a score.
The Tigers’ passing attack ranks 95th in the nation. More chances will need to be taken through the air with games against Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama next on the docket.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 3 vs. Alabama
The Crimson Tide are doing something unusual this season, coming out with an unbalanced offense leaning towards the pass. The hard-nosed ground game is still there, averaging 222 yards per game, but the passing attack is sixth in the country at 345 yards per contest.
If there is a soft spot with Alabama for LSU to exploit, it is on defense. The Tide ended the 2017 season, even after the run through the SEC Championship Game and the College Football Playoff, No. 1 in yards allowed per game. That unit gave up just 260 yards per game compared to 332 thus far this fall. That's still good enough for 25th in the country and the offense has been so overwhelming (56.0 ppg) that this defensive "slippage" may not matter.
2. Oct. 13 vs. Georgia
For No. 2 Georgia to prove that they are the real deal this season, the Bulldogs must get past an angry LSU team in Baton Rouge. Georgia has not been tested yet this season, playing one game against a ranked team, then-No. 24 South Carolina, winning 41-17. The Bulldogs are solid across the board, averaging 240 passing yards with Jake Fromm at the helm, and 245 on the ground behind Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift.
The Bulldogs' defense, statistically, is one of the best in the nation only allowing 113 rushing yards per game, but have yet to face a true ground-and-pound attack. LSU’s defense is limiting teams to 121 yards per game on the ground; so you figure something will give. LSU will not catch Georgia looking ahead with a bye next week followed by their annual meeting with Florida.
3. Nov. 24 at Texas A&M
The Aggies are showing signs of improvement across the board and could be one of those teams, finally, no one wants to face in November. A&M improved to 4-2, 2-1, with a 20-14 home win over No. 13 Kentucky last week, but face a tough three-game road test with matchups against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn before returning to College Station for three in a row.
The final game of the regular season is gut-check time, especially if neither team is vying for an SEC West title.
4. Oct. 20 vs. Mississippi State
Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead is still learning his players’ strengths and weaknesses on offense, leading to some up-and-down performances. Mississippi State has patched together a 4-2 (1-2 SEC) record thus far, including head-scratching losses to then-No. 14 Kentucky (28-7) and No. 23 Florida (13-6), but is coming off of a 23-9 victory over Auburn.
Moorhead may take MSU in a one-dimensional direction because of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was 9-of-17 for 69 yards with a pick against Auburn, but rushed a team-high 28 times for a game-high 195 yards and two touchdowns. This approach could play into LSU’s hands.
5. Nov. 10 at Arkansas
The Razorbacks are 1-5 and winless (0-3) in SEC play this season. They have been mistake-riddled in all three phases of the game, but somehow churned up 405 yards of offense against Alabama despite two lost fumbles and an interception. This could be another trap game for LSU coming after the showdown with Alabama, but it all depends on how much improvement Arkansas shows between now and then.
6. Nov. 17 vs. Rice
The Owls are 1-5 on the season with their lone win coming against FCS opponent Prairie View A&M back in Week 1. Losses to Houston (45-27) and Wake Forest (56-24) should paint a vivid picture of what to expect when Rice comes to Tiger Stadium in mid-November.
— 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.