Since the 2000 college football season, fans of the LSU Tigers have embraced each year as an opportunity for greatness. The high expectations were given to the devout fan base with the arrival of Nick Saban (2000-04) and continuing with Les Miles (2005-16) creating and maintaining one of the top programs in the nation. Nothing will change in the Death Valley stands with new head coach Ed Orgeron leading the way in 2017. And, if history has a way of repeating itself, LSU could be hoisting a national championship sooner than later.
It took Saban four seasons to rebuild the fractured program Gerry DiNardo left behind before capturing a BCS national championship in 2003 with a 21-14 win over No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Miles kept the good times rolling in the Sportsman’s Paradise, bringing home the hardware in his third season toppling then- No. 1 Ohio State 38-21 in the 2008 All State BCS National Championship Game also held in the Superdome. If the trend continues, Orgeron could be set up to compete for a SEC West title, a SEC championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff if new offensive coordinator Matt Canada is as good as advertised and a win over rival Alabama can be had.
A national championship for “Coach O” in Year 1 would surpass all expectations, and talent has never been an issue for LSU. Putting points on the board against tough defenses has, however, which is where Canada comes in. In his only season with Pitt, the Panthers averaged 40.9 points per game to set a school record for points scored in a season (532). The feather in the cap win was the Panthers’ 43-42 road victory over eventual national champion Clemson. Obviously Tiger fans can only hope for similar success against every team on LSU’s 2017 schedule.
So can Orgeron do what Miles couldn’t – lead the Tigers to the playoff? All eyes will be on the offense, but defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has his own set of challenges after another NFL exodus that has just five starters returning. There’s also the schedule, which has LSU playing you-know-who on their home turf in November.
Expectations remain high for LSU, and for good reason, but life in the SEC West is never easy as only one team can play in Atlanta in December and that may be enough to keep everyone else in the conference out of the playoff.
Three Reasons LSU Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Matt Canada’s offense
A rallying cry in Baton Rouge over parts of Les Miles’ 12-year tenure was to open up the offense. Well the first change came with Orgeron replacing Miles, who in turn has brought in Matt Canada to install his wide-open offense that uses a lot of misdirection. Canada inherits senior quarterback Danny Etling, who is serviceable but doesn’t possess the dual-threat skill set that Canada prefers in his quarterbacks. Canada also will be working with a retooled receiving corps as D.J. Chalk is the only one back among the top six targets from last season. Still, Canada has seemingly done more with less.
2. Derrius Guice claims Heisman Trophy Leonard Fournette missed
That might be blasphemous to utter, but Guice could end up being the more highly decorated running back from the Tigers’ 2016 tandem when all is said and done. Guice is more electric than his predecessor and has already led the SEC in rushing, something Fournette did not accomplish because of Alabama’s Derrick Henry in 2015. Even with Fournette getting 129 carries in seven games, Guice ran for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging an eye-popping 7.6 yards per carry as a sophomore. With so many unknowns in the passing game, don’t be surprised if Canada rides Guice early and often.
3. Offensive line
Junior center Will Clapp is on every preseason award watch list of note including the Rimington, Outland, and All-SEC (third team). He will be flanked by juniors Garrett Brunfield (LG) and Maea Teuhema (RG) with K.J. Malone and Toby Weathersby manning left and right tackle, respectively. Malone is another preseason All-SEC honoree, named to the second team by the media. This unit helped anchor the No. 21-ranked rushing offense in the nation last season. How well the line adapts to Canada’s playbook, particularly in pass protection, could one of the difference-makers for this offense.
Three Reasons LSU Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. QB depth
There is no meaningful game experience in the huddle behind Danny Etling. Sophomore Justin McMillan completed one pass (for 19 yards) last season in his lone appearance against FCS member Jacksonville State. Protecting Etling is a top priority to ensure he’s able to finish the season upright. True freshmen Lowell Narcisse and/or Myles Brennan may be the future in Baton Rouge, but if that day can be held off until next year the Tigers might be better for it.
2. Inexperience at linebacker
Replacing Duke Riley’s (93 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss) and Kendell Beckwith’s (91, 6) production at linebacker will be tough, but senior Donnie Alexander and true sophomore Devin White appear to be the heir apparents on the inside. Alexander played in all 12 games last year, starting two, and recorded 45 tackles. White also played in all 12 games as a backup, and registered 30 stops. Going against SEC teams deep into the season will be a tough task for both Alexander and White in their first opportunity as starters. How well they hold up, especially over the final seven games (all conference matchups), will be one thing to keep an eye on.
3. The Crimson Tide
This season’s schedule is favorable for LSU, but still plenty challenging. The non-conference includes the season opener against BYU in Arlington, Texas. The Tigers also play both of their SEC crossover games (Florida, Tennessee) on the road because last season’s game against the Gators was rescheduled and eventually moved to Baton Rouge due to Hurricane Matthew. And then there’s the Nov. 4 date with Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide have won six in a row over LSU to extend their lead in the all-time series to 50-24-5. The two teams are similar in that they share a weakness – quarterback depth. However, there’s a reason Alabama is the three-time defending SEC champion and has been the conference’s only representative over the first three years of the College Football Playoff. It’s pretty simple – for the Tigers to get a shot at another possible national title they will have to beat the Tide on their home turf.
LSU finished 8-4 last season, but the record doesn’t tell the whole story. Those four losses were to Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Wisconsin by an average of 5.8 points per game. Those four teams combined to go 42-13 with three division championships, victories in the Cotton and Outback Bowls, and a runner-up finish in the College Football Playoff.
There is reason to believe that the Tigers can produce even better results this fall. If Canada’s offense introduces a new wrinkle or two it should make Guice that much dangerous when he runs the ball. It also will help take pressure off of a defense that has plenty of talent but is short on experience at key positions. In the end, however, it’s tough to see LSU dethroning Alabama in the SEC West, let alone as the conference’s top dog, which probably means Tiger fans are going to have to settle for a possible invite to a New Year’s Six Bowl.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 11
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9
— 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 has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.
(Top photo by Chris Parent (@chrisparent), courtesy of LSUSports.net)