Oregon and West Virginia probably are looking forward to this football season more than anyone else on LSU’s schedule. It’s not so much that the Ducks are picked to win the Pacific-12 Conference and the Mountaineers are picked to win the Big East Conference, it’s more that they can’t wait to put their tumultuous offseasons behind them.
For Oregon, the offseason meant dealing with an NCAA investigation into whether there was anything improper in their recruitment of running back Lache Seastrunk, who had close ties to a recruiting service that received $25,000 from the Ducks. That investigation continues. Additionally, standout punt returner/defensive back Cliff Harris was suspended at least for the opener against the Tigers on Sept. 3 for several traffic violations. Also, middle linebacker Kiko Alonso was suspended for an alcohol-related arrest.
“I think we have the best fans in all of college football,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “The support I’ve gotten from the fans has been tremendous. The emails that are sent to me, the people that I see on the streets, we’re excited about the 2011 season, and I hope we have a lot of them show up Sept. 3 (against) LSU.”
West Virginia also had NCAA and personnel issues. In July, the NCAA found the Mountaineers guilty of “major violations” and placed the program on two years probation and assessed recruiting restrictions and scholarship reductions. That came just days after new offensive coordinator/head coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen quickly turned into head coach after a nasty resignation by Bill Stewart.
“Change is hard anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you’re at or how it happens; change is hard,” Holgorsen said. “It was going to happen anyway. By us fast-forwarding, it didn’t affect any of the coaches or any of the players.”
LSU’s other nonconference, out-of-state opponent - Western Kentucky - had no such upheaval, but the Hilltoppers, coming off a 2-10 season and last-place finish in the Sun Belt Conference, have greater on-the-field issues
Oregon’s game against the Tigers in Arlington, Texas will be the first time the Ducks, who are ranked third in the USA Today preseason top 25 (while LSU is ranked fourth), take the field since losing the BCS Championship game on Auburn’s field goal as time expired in January. The Ducks have enough talent to make another run at the title game.
More importantly, they have retained the key components of Kelly’s lightning-fast offense - running back LaMichael James, a Heisman finalist a year ago, and quarterback Darron Thomas.
“We’ve had a great tradition of running backs in the four years that I’ve been yere, but LaMichael is a special, special player,” Kelly said.
Oregon averaged 47.0 points and 531 total yards last season. The time of possession the Ducks needed on average to get those 47 points per game was 27 minutes, 54 seconds.
Though James, Thomas and newcomer Seastrunk should keep the points and yards coming in waves, the Ducks do have to replace their top two receivers and three starting offensive linemen from a year ago.
“To come in as a first-time starter and go undefeated in the regular season and lead his team to a berth in the national championship game ? it seemed like every week he just got better and better,” Kelly said of Thomas. “He’s probably the toughest quarterback I’ve ever been around.
“I don’t know if there is a ceiling for him, and I hope there is not, because college football is a quarterback-driven game. ? And we’re going to go as far as Darron can play.”
The defense got overshadowed by the prolific offense but gave up just 18.7 points per game last season and contained Auburn and Cam Newton as well as anybody did last season.
The Ducks figure to win the first Pac-12 championship just as they won the last two Pac-10 championships.
Conference championships have been pretty commonplace for West Virginia as well. The Mountaineers have won or shared the Big East title five times in the past eight years and have finished no lower than second in the last nine seasons.
Similar success is expected under Holgorsen, but West Virginia’s offense won’t look the same. The running version of the spread that Stewart and his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, utilized is gone, as is Noel Devine, the fourth-leading career rushing in Big East history.
Holgorsen, who has retained the offensive coordinator’s responsibilities through the transition, runs a pass-happy version of the spread he used as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State and at Houston and Texas Tech before that.
The Cowboys averaged 44.2 points and 520.2 yards per game last season, and in Holgorsen’s six seasons as a Bowl Subdivision coordinator, his teams have averaged 521 yards per game.
“Our offensive system is multiple enough to the point to where we can take what we have and fit them in,” Holgorsen said. “We’ll figure out who the best ones are and figure out how to get them on the field.
“The biggest difference you’ll probably see is - which has been my philosophy the last three years - if you run a play and it works, and you probably ought to call it again.”
Holgorsen should be able to put up big numbers again with junior quarterback Geno Smith, who led the Big East in passing efficiency last season.
“Geno Smith has picked up the system well,” Holgorsen said. “The kid really likes to play football. And that’s fun to watch. ? We only have several starters coming back on offense, so he has to get a lot of those guys to feed off him and make everybody better.”
The Mountaineers will look more familiar on the defensive side of the ball as longtime coordinator Jeff Casteel and his distinctive 3-3-5 stack alignment are back.
They have just four starters back from a defense that allowed just 13.5 points per game last season, but end Bruce Irvin, cornerback Keith Tandy and tackle Julian Miller are standouts.
“My job in the spring was to try to get the offense as good as I possibly could get it,” Holgorsen said. “I don’t think I should be changing anything (on defense).
“Coach Casteel has done an unbelievable job over the last 10 years at West Virginia. The other assistant coaches are all West Virginia people. They’ve been there for a long time. ... That was part of the process back in December (when we discussed) what we felt like the future of West Virginia football needs to be.”
West Virginia returns the All-Big East kicker in Tyler Bitancurt, but breaks in a new punter for the fourth consecutive season.
The expectations for Western Kentucky, which snapped a 20-game losing streak with a 54-21 victory at Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 23, are several notches below those of West Virginia and Oregon, but the Hilltoppers do have a top-flight running back to give opponents concerns.
Senior Bobby Rainey (1,649 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns) was the Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year and the third-leading rusher in the country last season. On the other hand, the passing game averaged just 143 yards per game.
Western Kentucky’s starting secondary for the last eight games last season was comprised of two true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and a sophomore. Whether that trial-by-fire experience pays dividends this season remains to be seen.
The defense is in the hands of new coordinator Lance Guidry, a 1995 graduate of McNeese State, and his first-year secondary coach is Alonzo Hampton, a 1997 graduate of Louisiana-Monroe.