All the pieces are there for the LSU Tigers to have a great, national championship-contending season.
The Tigers possess abundant talent, depth and experience. LSU has spared no expense to allow Les Miles to assemble a top-notch staff. A preseason Athlon poll ranked LSU’s staff 10th nationally, second in the Southeastern Conference behind only, well, I don’t have to say it.
But questions abound for LSU. Big ones. In the constantly churning world of college athletics, there are always questions. For the Tigers, heading into Saturday’s season opener with Wisconsin in Green Bay, we’ll call them the unknowables, the questions that will only be answered when foot meets ball, block meets tackle and game plan meets the unplanned ad-libbed reaction.
We’ll start with the biggie:
1. Has Brandon Harris matured into the leader LSU needs him to be?
Conventional wisdom says the most improvement comes from Game 1 to Game 2, from the first season to the next. But there’s something to be said for the transition from underclassman to upperclassman, especially for one who plays a decision-making role like quarterback.
Harris is a junior now. He’s played in 21 games for LSU with 13 starts. It’s the kind of experience precious few SEC teams have entering 2016. And yet there is a question about Harris. Not about the strength of his arm or his footspeed or his intelligence. But his ability to make the right decisions and lead his team as a quarterback should.
Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly threw for 4,000 yards last season. Harris doesn’t have to do that for LSU to win. He and LSU’s passing attack really just have to be average.
And by average, we mean exactly that. There were 127 FBS teams last season. Right in the middle, ranked 64th in passing offense, was Virginia Tech. The Hokies averaged 225.8 yards per game through the air. LSU ranked 105th at 180.4.
That Harris has mostly been sheltered from speaking to the media (he would have talked on media day but it was canceled because of the Baton Rouge floods) doesn’t inspire confidence. It doesn’t speak well that he isn’t trusted more often to speak for the team.
But it’s his team now. A team that will go as far as his ability to lead it.
2. Will LSU’s players grasp Dave Aranda’s defense?
Hiring Aranda away from Wisconsin to be LSU’s new defensive coordinator has been a universally praised steal for Miles. Aranda brings a cutting edge defensive philosophy rooted in a 3-4 base that in reality is multiple in its approach, intended to keep opposing offenses guessing.
In the long run, this should be a big win for LSU. In the short term, though, there’s no escaping the fact that Aranda is the Tigers’ third defensive coordinator in as many seasons after John Chavis and Kevin Steele, both of whom ran a 4-3. There are players moving to different positions, like Arden Key going from defensive end to outside linebacker. No doubt at least early on there will be mistakes and blown assignments. It’s critical that LSU minimizes those mistakes, especially against a Wisconsin team that knows Aranda’s tendencies.
3. Will this all-hands-on-deck coaching approach work?
It looked like a typo in LSU’s game notes. On the page with the Tigers depth chart were listed the assignments for all of LSU’s coaches. All of them will be on the field Saturday. When pressed, Miles said LSU would of course have some eyes in the press box. By that we assume graduate assistant coaches.
That Aranda and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will be on the field appear to be wise choices. Having Cameron on the sideline in the Texas Bowl seemed to pay dividends for LSU’s offense, and Aranda will have hands-on lecturing to do with his defense (he also coaches inside linebackers). It is surprising, though, that Miles doesn’t put new wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig or tight ends coach Steve Ensminger (former offensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech, McNeese State and Clemson) in the box along with, say, secondary coach Corey Raymond.
Miles said they once had all coaches downstairs when he was an assistant at Colorado, but in nearly 30 years of covering LSU football I can’t remember any other LSU staff doing it this way. Miles made the decision sound like a bit of an experiment at his Monday media luncheon, something he could change if it doesn’t work out. Playing Wisconsin, not the most talented team on LSU’s schedule but solid and disciplined, is a heck of a time for an experiment.
4. When will it be Valentine’s day?
Another thing that seems a first at LSU: a player being completely kicked off the team, attending another school then being allowed to return to the varsity.
Of course, Trevonte Valentine is no ordinary player. Listed at 6-foot-4, 356 pounds, he could be the space-eating, run-suffocating keystone to Aranda’s 3-4 set.
Valentine is listed as junior Greg Gilmore’s backup, but if he’s really all that one expects, Valentine could earn more and more playing time. Teammates like offensive guard Will Clapp continue to sing Valentine’s praises as a special talent. LSU, especially after the season-ending knee injury to senior defensive end Christian LaCouture, really needs him to live up to the hype.
5. Is Colby Delahoussaye ready to kick?
After surviving a tragic car crash in July in rural Wisconsin that claimed the lives of two other young kickers, Delahoussaye is back to handle LSU’s place-kicking duties. He suffered a burn on his (left) plant leg but kicked from Day 1 of preseason camp and has been pronounced good to go.
LSU has no other proven options after Trent Domingue transferred in a huff to Texas. Hopefully for him, Delahoussaye is mentally ready for the job after going through such an ordeal.
It’s worth noting, and probably surprising to most, that Delahoussaye didn’t attempt a single field goal or extra point last season. It won’t be a surprise if LSU counts on him to win a game or two with his foot to keep its championship hopes intact.