Jalen Mills and the Tigers have a nasty November slate they must navigate this season
Few college football coaches have achieved the kind of success LSU's Les Miles has on the field. Since arriving in Baton Rouge in 2005 the Tigers have played for (2011) and won (2007) a BCS National Championship with the “Mad Hatter compiling a win-loss record of 103-29 and 56-24 in SEC play.
With all of the success and talent that Miles has trotted out onto the field in Tiger Stadium, he has now built extremely high expectations that few could live up to year after year. The Tigers have been to a bowl game every year under Miles, setting another high-water mark of 6-4 in postseason play. Although the 2014 season was a successful season by most programs’ standards, finishing 8-5 was a low-water mark for Miles, tying his worst record since coming to Baton Rouge (2008).
The 2014 season was tough after returning six starters on offense and six on defense. The 2015 squad has the same feel with seven returning on offense and six on defense, but the one familiar thread between the two seasons is the uncertainty under center.
If the Tigers can get consistent play from whoever gets the nod at quarterback, the 2015 schedule lines up favorably for LSU.
Based on preseason rankings, team matchup history, game location, and returning experience, here is a ranking of LSU’s 12 regular season games from easiest to toughest.
12. Sept. 5 vs. McNeese State
When the media starts their annual uninformed diatribe about the lack of quality non-conference opponents SEC teams play, the Tigers’ season opener is why. The Cowboys finished 6-5 last year coming out of the Southland Conference. McNeese State is the proverbial cupcake warm-up game for LSU, but these Cowboys did give No. 19 Nebraska a scare in the 2014 season opener before falling 31-24.
Opening with McNeese State is a far cry from last year’s opener against No. 14 Wisconsin, but serves as a good tune up before jumping into SEC action against Mississippi State the following week.
11. Oct. 3 vs. Eastern Michigan
Quick, which conference is Eastern Michigan in? If you answered the Mid-American Conference or MAC, you are correct. If you are a LSU fan and did not know, no worries. The Eagles won just two games last year and were chased out of the Swamp by the Gators 65-0 and beat up on by in-state big brother Michigan State 73-14.
10. Sept. 26 at Syracuse
On paper this game is a SEC vs. ACC matchup or Power 5 Conference vs. Power 5 Conference. The reality is Syracuse has struggled to remain a .500 team over the last five seasons. The Orange’s 2014 campaign might have been rock bottom for the program, as they finished 3-9. Things do not look much brighter with only four starters back on offense and three on defense.
Syracuse could enter the LSU game 3-0 if senior quarterback Terrel Hunt is firing on all cylinders. The Orange have a couple of decent tailbacks and a threat in the passing game with wide receiver Steve Ishmael. Syracuse’s defense was actually hard-nosed last year, finishing ranked No. 26 in the nation.
9. Oct. 24 vs. Western Kentucky
Easily one of the more entertaining games LSU will play this season. The Hilltoppers had the nation’s top passer in 2014 in Brandon Doughty, and he is returning after piling up 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns against just 10 picks. Western Kentucky also returns its top rusher, Leon Allen (1,500 yards) along with its top receiver, Jared Dangerfield (69 rec., 825 yds., 11 TD).
Western Kentucky was the nation’s No. 4 total offense at 535 yards per game. LSU had the nation’s No. 9 defense and kept up the “DBU” (defensive back university) motto, only allowing 164 yards per game through the air, good for third in FBS.
This game may fall as the ninth toughest game of the year but easily could be a Top 5 in terms of football enjoyment watching two great squads lineup strength-on-strength.
8. Oct. 10 at South Carolina
A SEC road trip to Williams-Brice Stadium gets a downgrade in “toughness” coming off a 7-6 season in 2014 and no clear proof of improvement coming this season. The Gamecocks have a quarterback battle going on between Connor Mitch and Perry Orth, running back Brandon Wilds is talented but oft injured, and the front seven on defense is highly questionable sans linebacker Skai Moore.
South Carolina is in the middle of a rebuilding or rebranding of its offense and defense, plus the Gamecocks are very young.
7. Oct. 17 vs. Florida
In years past this game would be a “can’t miss” matchup, but times have been tough in Gainesville over the past two seasons. A reboot under first-year head coach Jim McElwain is underway but Florida’s lack of playmakers and depth on the offensive line may make this a one-sided affair.
Florida rolls into Baton Rouge after playing at Kentucky and hosting Tennessee and Ole Miss, and then has the “World’s Largest Cocktail Party” on tap the following week – absolutely brutal.
6. Sept. 12 at Mississippi State
When the Tigers travel to Starkville Miles might be in the middle of a quandary not resolved from fall camp, a proven leader under center. Mississippi State has the potential to be a very solid program despite only returning seven total starters.
The Bulldogs open against Southern Miss so very little of head coach Dan Mullen and returning starting quarterback Dak Prescott’s hand will be shown then. The other looming problem for the Tigers is the potential to look past Mississippi State with a home showdown against Auburn looming the following week.
5. Nov. 21 at Ole Miss
The final five games in these rankings could be argued one way or the other in regards to level of difficulty. Playing in Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium has become far more difficult, just ask Alabama, and winning on the road in the SEC is not an easy task.
The Rebels are a very talented team but also full of a lot of question marks on offense. Like LSU, Ole Miss must figure out who will start at quarterback. The Rebels’ problems do not stop there, needing a consistent rushing attack and a healthy Laquon Treadwell in hopes of a standout season.
Ole Miss has a tough stretch leading up to LSU’s visit, traveling to Memphis, hosting Texas A&M, at Auburn, hosting Arkansas, and then the Tigers before finishing the season in the annual Egg Bowl on the road against Mississippi State.
4. Nov. 28 vs. Texas A&M
At this point in the season LSU is either a team with somewhere big to go or fighting to maintain its reputation. What could make this game even tougher is John Chavis. Chavis was LSU’s defensive coordinator from 2009 until last season, but now he’s part of Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin’s staff. What opposing coach will know the Tigers’ offense and personnel better than Chavis?
3. Nov. 14 vs. Arkansas
The final four games of the season are where Miles will earn his paycheck and his team will hopefully earn its stripes. The Razorbacks are a mirror image of the Tigers but have better returning experience on offense.
LSU is sure to remember the 17-0 beating it took in Fayetteville last year but might be a little beat up coming home after playing Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
2. Nov. 7 at Alabama
Even though it’s Alabama, the Crimson Tide check in as the second toughest game of the season. One could argue LSU has a pretty easy six-week schedule from Week 3 (Auburn) to Week 10 (Alabama). And the Tigers should be fresh coming off a bye to face the Crimson Tide.
The Tigers could once again play spoiler to Alabama or Alabama could play spoiler to LSU, either way it’s a very big game for both squads late in the season.
1. Sept. 19 vs. Auburn
The way individuals count returning starters, Auburn should be in trouble in 2015. Only three starters of consequence return out of the five listed on offense, but there is far more depth and talent on the roster making these Tigers extremely dangerous.
LSU will have this game circled as a revenge game after getting tossed around 41-7 in Jordan-Hare last year. Auburn opens with what should be a tough game against Louisville in Atlanta and then get an instructional “fix what’s wrong” game against Jacksonville State. LSU could be pushed against Mississippi State or could be coming off a momentum-building win.
Whoever wins this one assumes the position of early favorite in the ultra-competitive SEC West.
— 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.