THE NEXT LEVEL: With Jalen Mills out, will LSU’s secondary still be a strength?

With all the concern focused on the LSU quarterback derby, the assumption has been that the Tigers defense will be the rock it usually is. But there are issues on this side of the ball as well. LSU is starting the season under a new defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, who is charged with keeping the Tigers near the top of the SEC’s defensive rankings (LSU led the SEC in yards allowed and was second in points allowed last year) and generating more pass rush (the Tigers ranked 12th in the SEC with just 19 sacks).

Both tasks were made harder when senior free safety Jalen Mills went down in August with an ankle injury likely to keep him sidelined the first half of the season. Mills has been the bedrock of LSU’s secondary, starting all 39 games he’s played as a Tiger.

Junior Rickey Jefferson steps into his place next to sophomore strong safety Jamal Adams, quite likely the most underrated defensive back in the SEC. When LSU is in the nickel (five defensive backs) set, expect to see cornerback Dwayne Thomas shift from corner to nickel while true freshman Kevin Toliver or sophomore Ed Paris takes over at corner.

Scott Rabalais

FOUR DOWNS: Scott Rabalais breaks down the season opener

1. Brandon’s ball: No. 6 is now No. 1. Brandon Harris makes his second career start at quarterback, with the hope being the largely unproven sophomore will bring success to LSU’s anemic passing game. It’s an FCS opponent at home, not Auburn on the road like last time, but does Harris have the chops not only to win the job but hold on to it?

2. Up or down? It’s a truism in sports that if you’re not improving, you’re getting worse. The last four years, LSU has gone from 13-1 to 10-3 twice to 8-5. Since 2012, six SEC teams have finished in the AP top 10. LSU hasn’t been among them. In an increasingly competitive conference, it’s critical the Tigers take a step forward.

3. Seeing is believing: With a trip to face SEC West rival Mississippi State up next, LSU is expected to employ a vanilla-flavored game plan against McNeese State. Still, Les Miles said Wednesday his players deserve to have LSU’s best plays called. There’s talk the Tigers worked on a lot of spread formations in August, but we’ve heard that before.

4. Focus on the field: It’s not an offseason for LSU football without distractions. Three players, including QB Anthony Jennings, were arrested and suspended, contributing to Harris’ rise at quarterback. Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron had health issues. In the past, the Tigers have shaken these off, but it’s not a given.

PREDICTIONS

Ross Dellenger: LSU 52, McNeese 13

This season opener has no teeth. It’s not Oregon or Wisconsin or any other one of LSU’s recent season-openers. Because of that, it provides the Tigers with a tuneup for a critical, early-season two-game stretch against Mississippi State and Auburn. A tweaked defensive scheme under new DC Kevin Steele can iron out the kinks, and new starting QB Brandon Harris can get a boost of confidence going to Starkville.

Sheldon Mickles: LSU 38, McNeese 13

After coming oh-so-close to a monumental upset at Nebraska a year ago, McNeese State gets another shot to shock the world — this time in Tiger Stadium. But Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette will have none of it as they warm up for a tough SEC stretch against Mississippi State and Auburn. They ignite LSU’s much-maligned offense and Kevin Steele’s defense does its part for an easy season-opening win.

Scott Rabalais: LSU 45, McNeese 10

Not to dismiss LSU’s visitors from the west, but this game is about what the Tigers can do, not whether the Cowboys can spring an upset. They can’t. Though LSU should coast to a victory, this game is critical for the development of starting quarterback Brandon Harris and the Tigers defense under new coordinator Kevin Steele. The question isn’t whether LSU will win, but how crisp the Tigers’ execution will be.