DESTIN, Fla. — Former LSU great Booger McFarland is a rising media star for three reasons: his personality, his insight and his candor.
The Tigers’ former All-American defensive tackle is gearing up for another season of analyst work with the SEC Network and is about to branch out into a bigger role with ESPN (more expected on that this summer) along with his co-hosting duties on Sirius/XM radio’s “The Opening Drive” NFL show.
McFarland was at the SEC Spring Meeting here Wednesday for a meeting with fellow ESPN announcers and production personnel. He said he sees great things for this LSU football team in 2016, but he sees danger signs for his former program as well.
“LSU has got the best team they’ve had since Nick Saban left,” McFarland said. “Better than in 2011. They have more star power and more players who have potential to be good.”
Potential is one of those double-edged sword words. Like everyone else, McFarland is eager to find out whether LSU has evolved offensively since last season. That’s a key in his mind that will tell whether the Tigers are true championship contenders.
He said he’s heard this offseason that LSU coach Les Miles had a coaching epiphany after a tumultuous 2015 season that nearly saw him fired after a three-game November losing streak, that he’s finally willing to expand the Tigers’ offensive repertoire.
“But I also heard it two years ago,” McFarland said. “LSU has been so successful doing it one way. It’s human to want to go back to what’s worked.
“I want to see if LSU’s evolved. Not against Wisconsin. They can line up and beat Wisconsin (in the Sept. 3 season opener). But against Auburn (Sept. 24). To me, Florida (Oct. 8) has enough talent that that’s a test. And obviously, the biggest test is that first Saturday in November.”
That’s Nov. 5, the date of the Alabama game, expected to be another titanic encounter. CBS is already banking on it, unofficially anyway. The network revealed a partial schedule Wednesday that includes its only scheduled prime-time game of the regular season on Nov. 5, the day the Crimson Tide visits Tiger Stadium. No other game on the SEC schedule that day holds better potential for a great matchup.
LSU has lost five straight to Bama, dating to the 2012 BCS national championship game, which followed an epic unbeaten regular season under Miles. McFarland sees the problem as LSU’s one-dimensional, power-run dependent offensive approach that works against most teams but not the always-talented Crimson Tide.
“The hardest thing to do in football is move a man against his will,” he said. “But if you can do it, you take something out of him. The problem is when you hit someone in the mouth and you can’t take it away. You can’t do that against Alabama.
“Nick may be the best college football coach ever because he’s always the best prepared. Talentwise, LSU is better (this season). Can they be better prepared?”
This summer, LSU is a bonanza for people like McFarland who make their living talking about college football. No team is probably a better talker than LSU, with its championship-caliber talent — 18 returning starters and a Heisman Trophy front-runner in Leonard Fournette — and a coach whose seat may not be as hot as it was in November but is still warmer in a global sense.
McFarland sees a great opportunity for LSU this season. And it better seize it.
“If not now, when?” he asked. “Alabama is breaking in another starting quarterback and another new running back. Ole Miss has a bunch of new defensive guys. Dak (Prescott is) gone (at Mississippi State). You look top to bottom (in the West), and who’s better?”
You don’t have to have to be an LSU and NFL alum to know that much of LSU’s success rests on the improvement of junior quarterback Brandon Harris, though McFarland said the Tigers signal-caller doesn’t have to be All-SEC to win.
“Brandon Harris doesn’t have to be Chad Kelly,” he said, referring to Ole Miss’ quarterback who threw for over 4,500 yards last season. “But he can’t be the Brandon Harris of last year. If he has a stat line like 15-of-22 for 205 yards, two touchdowns and a pick, LSU is going to be hard to beat.”
McFarland also said for LSU’s chances of capturing a title to go up, Fournette’s carries need to go down. The Tigers junior had 300 carries for a school record 1,953 yards last season, becoming the first SEC player since 1949 to lead the nation in yards per game rushing (162.8).
“Leonard Fournette should be a Heisman candidate, but he shouldn’t come close to winning,” McFarland said. “If they give him as many carries as last year, that means they’re not giving the ball enough to Derrius Guice. He needs 15 touches a game. And you’ve got to get it in (Malachi) Dupre’s hands.”
McFarland said LSU also shouldn’t make it a one-game season, with the Alabama game serving as the Tigers’ pass-fail grade.
“It’s not just about beating Alabama,” he said. “If LSU goes 11-1 and loses to Alabama, they’ve had a successful year. But you have to look at the season and see how the team plays.”
A season of potentially great rewards — and great pitfalls.
--Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter,@RabalaisAdv.