Quarterbacks get a disproportionate share of the credit or blame for anything that happens on a football field. They lead the huddle, and they are the only ones who control the ball on every play, so they naturally become heroes or scapegoats every Saturday. They also got the majority of the attention this past off-season, for their actions on and off the practice field. But choosing a starting quarterback, whether it’s junior Anthony Jennings or sophomore Brandon Harris, is only one thing that will determine whether this is a playoff year or a painful one for the Tigers.
Here are nine other factors that could make or break the Tigers in 2015:
1. Scary September
LSU begins the 2015 season at home against McNeese State. They need to integrate all of their new faces quickly, because weeks two and three—at Mississippi State and versus Auburn—could determine the course of the whole year. “I like my team. I like how they work. I think they’ll compete like hell,” head coach Les Miles said. “If they stay healthy and improve, I don’t care who we play.”
Auburn marked the demise of LSU’s 2014 season. Harris made his only start and looked foolish, but nothing LSU did that day worked. Auburn won 41–7, and LSU left Jordan-Hare Stadium with little chance to win the SEC West. Mississippi State provided the first evidence that 2014 would be a struggle for the Tigers, and quarterback (and Louisiana native) Dak Prescott returns for his senior season with the Bulldogs. A split or better of these two games will allow LSU to contend for titles. Exiting 0–2 will bring another year of disappointment to Death Valley.
“We start fast, we get the speed, execution where we want it, get a nice start, we’ll be right in it,” Miles stated.
2. Leonard’s Leap
Leonard Fournette began 2014 as the top-ranked incoming freshman in the country, and ended it on top of the depth chart at running back. “He’s one of those guys that’s a hard worker,” Miles said. “He’s quiet, does not speak much. He truly is a leader of our team.”
Fournette made plenty of highlight reels by running over would-be tacklers last season, but he might be an even scarier presence on the field this year. “My weight’s down now,” he claimed. “I feel lighter, feel thinner, feel faster.” A slower, green Fournette was 26th in the nation in all-purpose yards. An improved Fournette could contend for the Heisman Trophy because…
3. A Strong Line
Fournette will run behind a veteran offensive line. Three starters from last season return, though all of them could play new positions. Jerald Hawkins will shift from right tackle to left tackle, Vadal Alexander will move from left guard to right tackle, and Ethan Pocic could play either center or left guard. They will all try to replace La’el Collins, who graduated and might start this year for the Dallas Cowboys.
“We have a lot of young, talented guys,” Alexander said, “like Will Clapp, Joshua Boutte; a lot of big recruited guys. And they’re really coming along with learning the offense well, so it should be interesting who gets the job.”
4. The “Steele Curtain”
The chief difference for LSU defensively is that “Chief” is gone. Defensive coordinator John Chavis bolted for Texas A&M as soon as the sweat dried after the Music City Bowl loss to Notre Dame. Replacing him is Kevin Steele, a former assistant for Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Nebraska and the Carolina Panthers, as well as a former head coach for Baylor.
“It was strange,” linebacker Kendell Beckwith said of the transition. “Coach Chavis was almost like a second father. I looked at him like a father figure. It was strange not having him there, but with him and Coach Steele being so close, it’s almost like they’re just like brothers. So it’s almost like he came in and filled that role well.”
“One of the things that he’s done is he’s been in the conference for some time now,” Miles stated, “and [I] kind of feel like he’s going to give us some advantages in this Western Division.”
Steele is expected to mix his 3–4 defense with the 4–3 alignment that Chavis preferred. Either way, he will have to have find new pass rushers to fill the spots vacated by Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter.
5. The Rushers
While Fournette rushes a lot on offense, two newcomers will be counted on to get to the opposing quarterback. Juniors Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal top the depth chart at defensive end. LSU managed only 19 quarterback sacks last season. That ranked 102nd in the country (worse than Central Michigan, Idaho, and Vanderbilt), even though Chavis has a reputation for aggressive play-calling.
6. Coach O
Teaching the line this year is Ed Orgeron, a Cajun with a big personality and a big resumé. Even though he has previously been head coach at Ole Miss and Southern Cal, “Ed Orgeron bleeds purple and gold,” Miles said. Orgeron is known as a great teacher of technique, and is also one of the premier recruiters in college football.
7. Welcome to “DBU”
The secondary has two open spots, with Jalen Collins leaving early for the NFL and Ronald Martin graduating, but the 2015 class of “DBU” should be as strong as any. Tre’Davious White and Jalen Mills return on the outside, while Jamal Adams established himself last year as one of the nation’s most exciting safeties as a true freshman. Sophomore Ed Paris and true freshman Kevin Tolliver are among the young players expected to compete for playing time as well.
“Donte Jackson, he’s really stood out to me,” Beckwith added. “He’s so fast, man. I mean, he’s real, real fast. He can really cover well, he plays the ball well, and has really good ball skills.”
8. Special Returns
Special teams will be special this year in that all of the key players return: Colby Delahoussaye will kick, Jamie Keehn will punt, Tre’Davious White will field punts, and Leonard Fournette will bring back kickoffs. Returning kicks could bolster Fournette’s Heisman campaign; he was 18th in the country in yards per return last year, and took one return 100 yards for a score in the Music City Bowl.
9. Long Division
The SEC West was as difficult as any division in college football last year, and with Arkansas’ apparent ascent under Bret Bielema, it may be even tougher in 2015. “It’s a great league with great players and coaches, Miles said. “I like the competition.”
LSU is one of five SEC West teams in the top 25 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll, and Mississippi State and Texas A&M were the first two out. Add a home tilt with Florida and a visit to South Carolina, and a losing conference record is a distinct possibility. “Our team, eight wins, certainly not enough,” Miles admitted about his 2014 team. “We played some really good ball clubs in that eight-win season and played them very close, but our goal is the playoffs, our goal is the SEC championship. We’re shy of our goals, and we want more.”
Photos courtesy of the LSU Athletic Department