The 2016 season is a “win or go home” affair for LSU head coach Les Miles after avoiding the axe at the end of the last year’s 9-3 campaign. A national championship does not necessarily need to be had but a win against Alabama is needed or a slip through the back door into the College Football Playoff is a must or a new era is likely to begin in Baton Rouge.
Miles, for the first time since 2011, has enough returning talent to be downright scary. When LSU takes the field in 2016, potential All-Americans line the roster in the backfield, up front on offense and defense, and in the secondary. The “Mad Hatter” has two national championships under his belt, so he knows how to get the job done, but he also has a tendency to lose at least one game a year that leaves college football fans and analysts befuddled.
Could 2016 be the year LSU returns to gridiron glory as a Playoff-contending team putting the alumni, boosters, and fans at bay for another four to five seasons or will Miles be swept out of the SEC by rival Nick Saban?
Three Reasons LSU Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Leonard Fournette
The LSU running back is a once-in-a- decade talent, arguably the best ball carrier the SEC has seen since Darren McFadden strung together back-to-back Heisman Trophy Award runner-up honors in 2006-07. In 12 games last season, Fournette scorched the opposition for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns, carrying an impressive 6.5 yard per carry average along the way, all without a quarterback to clear out the box.
The Tigers return three starters up front and are expected to rotate in senior linemen Josh Boutte at right guard and junior Toby Weathersby at right tackle to provide any even more experience and leadership to the front line. Fournette is talented enough to carry the entire offense again in 2016.
2. 18 Returning Starters
For the first time since the 2006 season, LSU was not decimated by underclassmen leaving early for the NFL. Entering the 2016 NFL Draft, LSU had lost 29 players early to the league, with 18 taking off between the 2013-14 seasons. Miles has eight returning on offense and 10 on defense giving LSU one of the more experienced teams in the nation. The SEC is loaded with raw talent but experience helps win championships.
3. SEC Birthright
Since 2003, the SEC has won nine of the 13 national championships as the most dominant conference in college football. If LSU wins the SEC West, it’s hard to imagine Tennessee or Georgia, or whichever team wins the East, stopping the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game. The SEC West, top to bottom, will not possess as many talented upperclassmen as in years past, giving LSU a legitimate shot at earning its first College Football Playoff berth and a shot at a national title since 2011. A win in Atlanta should be reason enough for the Playoff Selection Committee to put LSU in the final four.
Three Reasons LSU Will Not Reach the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Dave Aranda’s 3-4 Defense Does Not Work
LSU is breaking in its third defensive coordinator in three years with a big switch in the trenches from a 4-3 to a 3-4. On paper, the move frees up the defensive ends to make plays up field but how will the team respond against ground and pound teams like Alabama and Arkansas?
2. The Defense Stays Average
With Fournette in the backfield, LSU was able to shorten games by keeping the ball on the ground to run out the clock. The offense is not situated to be an explosive passing attack, unless new quarterback coach Dameyune Craig can work miracles with junior Brandon Harris. Even with the ball taken away from the opposition, LSU’s defense was by and large average across the board, especially against the pass. The defense gave up an average of 24 points a game, ranked No. 41 in the nation.
Expect LSU to improve those statistics in 2016, but if not, this could be a downfall against tough SEC competition. The defense has to help out the offense more in 2016 if a SEC title is in play.
3. Alabama and Arkansas
When LSU decided it no longer wanted to play Arkansas on Black Friday in favor of a national spotlight game against Texas A&M for recruiting purposes, the Tigers shot themselves in the proverbial foot. Now the schedule features back-to-back games against Alabama and Arkansas, both of which are built similarly to LSU – physical teams that like to run the football. For LSU to stay in the conversation for a SEC title and legitimate shot at the College Football Playoff, the Tigers will most likely need to put an end to their five-game losing streak to Alabama and beat Arkansas for the first time in three seasons.
Arkansas benefits from not only being the team that comes after the Alabama rivalry game, but also the fact that the Razorbacks will get the Tigers on their home turf.
LSU has enough talent at key positions to be one of the best teams in the nation by season’s end. The question that looms large is, can Les Miles get past Alabama and Nick Saban in 2016? If so, even with one loss on the schedule, the Tigers should be positioned for a College Football Playoff berth as long as one team from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12 does not go undefeated. Even then, LSU could still have a chance based on strength of schedule and the SEC’s reputation.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 9
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5
— 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.