LSU will beat Alabama again in football.
Beating Bama again soon is the real question.
The key is in recruiting. That’s where LSU lost to Alabama this year. Not on Saturday night, but back in February on national signing day and on the several signing days before that.
Alabama has stitched together the past five straight No. 1 recruiting classes. If you’re an LSU fan, you can take small comfort in the notion that Nick Saban is underachieving since he is without a national title since 2012.
LSU finished No. 6 in 24/7 Sports’ composite class rankings this year. Impressive and, given the subjective nature of recruiting rankings, right there with Alabama. Over the past five years, LSU has finished out of the top 10 just once and was No. 2 in 2014 with a class led by Leonard Fournette. LSU’s average the past five years: 7.2.
But it’s recruiting the right kind of players to slay the dragon in Tuscaloosa that’s the issue. It starts on the offensive and defensive lines, particularly on defense.
The Southeastern Conference’s unmatched run of seven straight BCS titles from 2006-12 was built on the strength of its unmatched defensive lines. Players like Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson and Barkevious Mingo, who we saw in the 2011 opener against Oregon track down and tackle from behind LaMichael James, one of that year’s fastest players anywhere.
Alabama possessed a mammoth, deep and talented front seven Saturday night, probably the best in college football. It swallowed Fournette and LSU’s offense as the Crimson Tide cruised to a not-even-that-close 30-16 victory.
Five-star recruits aren’t the best measuring stick, but it’s worth noting that since 2011 Alabama has signed seven five-star defensive linemen and linebackers. LSU has signed two: tackle Anthony Johnson in 2011 and linebacker Clifton Garrett in 2014.
Neither is still with the program. Johnson left for the NFL after the 2013 season, and Garrett barely lasted a year. (He’s headed to UAB in 2016.)
Defensive linemen and linebackers have been problematic recruiting areas for LSU lately. Since 2012, LSU has signed 26 front-seven players. Of those, 16 remain, while one (Ronnie Feist) is a backup fullback.
“Recruiting the front seven is absolutely paramount,” said Shea Dixon, recruiting analyst for 24/7 Sports’ LSU website. “They can win a lot of games, but if they want to beat Bama they’re going to have to find more talent on the front seven.”
At linebacker, the problem is potentially getting worse. The Tigers have signed just five since 2013 with Garrett and Melvin Jones no longer around. If Kendell Beckwith goes pro after this season, LSU will return just three scholarship linebackers in 2016.
LSU has recognized the front seven manpower shortage and made both D-line and linebacker are huge areas of emphasis for its 2016 class.
The Tigers already have five D-linemen and two linebackers committed — led by St. Thomas Aquinas tackle Edwin Alexander and John Ehret linebacker Michael Divinity, a pair of top 75 national prospects.
With its remaining slots, LSU is aiming as high as it possibly can.
The Tigers are pursing five-stars like New Jersey defensive tackle Rashan Gary, the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, and defensive tackle Shavar Manuel from IMG Academy in Florida (teammate Savion Smith, a five-star cornerback, is already an LSU commitment). Also a target is Monroe Neville defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence, the state’s No. 1 prospect; and Gordo, Alabama, linebacker Ben Davis, who 24/7 Sports says will make an official visit for Saturday’s Arkansas game with Divinity.
“This will be by default LSU’s best linebacker class in the last three or four years,” Dixon said.
The key to being in the picture nationally for so many top defensive linemen is new D-line coach Ed Orgeron, who arrived in January with defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
“The previous staff didn’t recruit a lot of heavy hitters who were coming in right away and making a big impact,” Dixon said. “The biggest thing they have with Orgeron now is they can go national and get guys who are ready to play.”
Steele, by they way, is a former national recruiter of the year like Orgeron and had a hand in landing many of the defensive players at Alabama who were stuffing Fournette on Saturday night. He’s a huge upgrade recruiting-wise from predecessor John Chavis, who did little of it.
While Chavis wanted LSU to recruit fast, light linebackers, Steele wants more like Beckwith, who goes 6-foot-2, 252 pounds.
“Steele is recruiting not just 220-, 230-pound linebackers but guys ranked No. 1 at their positions,” Dixon said. “They’re big and fast and cover. They’re going after guys who are a combination of both, like Beckwith. Steele is giving up speed for size, but he’s trying to get both.”
In 24/7’s composite recruiting rankings, LSU’s class is currently No. 1. Alabama is No. 4.
Staying at No. 1 until February is important, even if mostly for psychological reasons. Recruiting the right players of need is even more critical, especially when it comes to winning LSU’s biggest game.
They’re in the spotlight
LSU’s top defensive line and linebacker commitments and targets, with pertinent information on each player:
DT Edwin Alexander
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-2, 310 | SCHOOL: St. Thomas Aquinas
RANKINGS: No. 29 24/7 Sports national composite, No. 7 DT
LB Michael Divinity
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-2, 215 | SCHOOL: John Ehret
RANKINGS: No. 65 composite, No. 4 OLB
LB Erick Fowler
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-1, 232 | SCHOOL: Manor (Texas) High
RANKINGS: No. 75 composite, No. 6 OLB
DT Glen Logan
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-4, 290 | SCHOOL: Destrehan
RANKINGS: No. 210 composite, No. 11 DT
DE Rahssan Thornton
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-3, 225 | SCHOOL: Killeen (Texas) Shoemaker
RANKINGS: No. 218 composite, No. 15 WDE
DT Rashan Gary
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-5, 293 | SCHOOL: Paramus (N.J.) Catholic
RANKINGS: No. 1 composite, No. 1 DT
DT Shavar Manuel
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-4, 290 | SCHOOL: Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy
RANKINGS: No. 11 composite, No. 4 DT
OLB Lyndell Wilson
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-2, 220 | SCHOOL: Montgomery (Ala.) Carver
RANKINGS: No. 13 composite, No. 1 OLB
ILB Ben Davis
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-3, 240 | SCHOOL: Gordo (Ala.) High
RANKINGS: No. 17 composite, No. 1 ILB
DT Rashard Lawrence
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-3, 305 | SCHOOL: Neville
RANKINGS: No. 24 composite, No. 6 DT, No. 1 Louisiana