Every so often, the football schedules randomly align by geography, allowing for regional gridiron rivalries to be taken up a notch.
This is one of those weeks.
It's Louisiana versus the Carolinas. On Saturday, a reeling LSU squad welcomes South Carolina to Tiger Stadium. The following day, the Saints square off against the Carolina Panthers in the Superdome.
While both Louisiana teams are coming off bye weeks, LSU's was not originally planned. The Tigers' road game against Florida was postponed to December 12 after a rapid increase in positive COVID tests within the Gators' football program.
The unscheduled bye week couldn't have come at a better time for the Tigers (1-2), who are off to a rocky start this season, and who would have been without the services of starting quarterback Myles Brennan.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that Brennan is still recovering from a partially torn abdominal muscle injury he sustained against Missouri, and he likely will not play this Saturday. That means one, possibly two, true freshmen will be under center as the Tigers try to claw their way back to .500.
In New Orleans, the Saints are getting offensive reinforcements with the return of receiver Michael Thomas. The all-world pass catcher is back, just in time to welcome former teammate Teddy "Two-Gloves" Bridgewater back to town.
The Saints have had plenty of issues of their own, but a healthy Thomas, combined with a recently returned Marcus Davenport on defense, provide the missing components New Orleans has desperately needed this season.
LSU vs. South Carolina
With Brennan sidelined, the Tigers are turning to freshmen quarterbacks TJ Finley and Max Johnson to take command of the offense this weekend. Although Finley is slated to start the game, Coach Ed Orgeron insists that both players will see action against South Carolina.
Hailing from Ponchatoula, Finley was the top quarterback in Louisiana as a senior last year. Johnson was one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation, playing in Georgia. He's the son of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brad Johnson and the nephew of former Georgia and Miami head coach Mark Richt. Both freshmen quarterbacks were early enrollees at LSU last January.
No one really knows what to expect from this pair of diaper dandies in their first collegiate outings, especially given the truncated offseason. The young quarterbacks should have the entire stable of skilled players at their disposable, including touchdown machine Terrace Marshall leading the receivers. Offensive lineman Ed Ingram, one of LSU's top run blockers, returns this week, providing a much-needed boost to the Tigers line. Expect the Tigers to try and establish the running game early this week to relieve the offensive burden from the young quarterbacks and control the clock as long as possible.
The South Carolina defense feasted on Auburn quarterback Bo Nix last week, thrice sacking him and picking him off. Two of those interceptions came from cornerback Jaycee Horn, son of Saints legend and wide receiver Joe Horn. LSU has done a good job protecting the football through three games, but with a freshman quarterback under center, all bets are off.
The real question is: Has the LSU defense improved? The unit looked abysmal in the team's two losses, surrendering an average of over 600 yards to Mississippi State and Missouri. The time for excuses is over, and the time to step up is now. The Tigers have talent on every level of the defense, but thus far, they have not played as a cohesive unit for the entirety of a game. Giving up big plays to opposing offenses has become normal for the Tigers, but now Brennan's not under center to try to bail out the defense if the game escalates into another shootout. If Bo Pelini's defense lays another egg in Tiger Stadium this weekend, LSU should consider adding him and the defense to the facilities ban list currently headlined by alumnus Odell Beckham Jr.
South Carolina is the definition of a mediocre offense. Transfer quarterback Collin Hill has thrown for over 840 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. He's added another four touchdowns on the ground, but Hill is not a quarterback who strikes fear into the hearts of opposing secondaries. Receiver Shi Smith has been Hill's main target this season, hauling in 34 receptions for 347 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Kevin Harris rounds out the Gamecocks' offensive firepower, amassing over 400 yards on the ground so far and six touchdowns.
This is a winnable game for LSU. Without Brennan, Orgeron needs to take a page from the Les Miles playbook and run the ball while playing bend but not break defense. Easier said than done, but if the Tigers want to salvage the 2020 season, it starts with a victory on Saturday.
Prediction: LSU 24, South Carolina 21
Saints vs. Panthers
Sunday marks the return of Teddy "Two-Gloves" Bridgewater to the Superdome and Saints receiver Michael Thomas to the lineup.
In Thomas's absence, quarterback Drew Brees has developed a steady chemistry with new receiver Emmanuel Sanders, while stud running back Alvin Kamara continues to produce eye-popping plays to help the Saints stay alive, despite some shaky defensive efforts. Now that Thomas is back, the Saints offense should be humming and hitting a midseason stride.
Bridgewater has guided the Panthers to a 3-3 record so far this season, without running back Christian McCaffrey for most of the year. Carolina's offense isn't flashy, but they've been able to do just enough to stay in the hunt for the NFC South up to this point.
The key for the Saints defense is to force Bridgewater to beat them. The former Saint has passed for just six touchdowns and five interceptions, while being sacked 12 times. Bridgewater has shown flashes of being a good quarterback; the Saints witnessed that last season, but he's not great. New Orleans's front seven is getting stronger by the game, and harassing Bridgewater into hurried throws and creating mistakes should be a top priority. The return of defensive end Marcus Davenport last game was a huge boost to the Saints defense, and he should be able to wreak even more havoc in his second game back. Make Bridgewater beat you with his arm and live with the results.
Through five games, the Achilles heel of the Saints, particularly the defense, has been committing dumb penalties, allowing opponents to extend drives and garner favorable field position. To their credit, the penalties have decreased since the first couple of games, but that trend needs to continue to improve. New Orleans cannot bail Bridgewater out with silly defensive penalties, especially pass interference calls.
There will be around 3,000 excited Saints fans in attendance on Sunday. If the Saints can continue to produce offensively, sustaining drives to keep their defense rested and curb the defensive penalties, they'll give those fans something to cheer about and keep pace with Tampa Bay at the top of the NFC South.
Prediction: Saints 31, Panthers 17