It’s hard to say LSU is flying under the radar heading into this football season.
Last year’s 8-5 record wasn’t quite as dire as the downturn we’ve seen in the stock markets the past few days. LSU — as evidenced by the quotes on their recent visit from ESPN’s Rece Davis, Danny Kannell (who supposedly detests all things Southeastern Conference) and Joey Galloway — is still considered relevant as a national player.
For a team that finished unranked after losing the Music City Bowl to Notre Dame, LSU got a considerable measure of respect in the preseason polls, coming in at No. 14 in The Associated Press Top 25 and No. 13 in the USA Today coaches’ rankings. Personally I think the Tigers are a tad too high. I’m on board with Advocate LSU beat writer Ross Dellenger having the Tigers No. 18 on his preseason ballot.
For some other national observers, even that’s too high a rent district for LSU to afford this season. Fox Sports college football writer Stewart Mandel picks the Tigers sixth in the SEC West at 7-5, 3-5 in SEC play. Four of the seven college football writers/analysts on CBSSports.com, asked to rate the SEC’s most underrated and overrated teams, picked LSU in the overrated category.
For Chip Patterson of CBS, the problems go beyond the effectiveness of the over-analyzed quarterback position (which generated an SEC-worst 162.9 yards per game passing last season) and include the Tigers’ relatively ineffective pass rush (LSU’s 19 sacks ranked 13th in the SEC).
“The lack of a persistent pass rush last season concerned me even more than quarterback instability,” Patterson wrote. “Until the Tigers reaffirm their place as one of the league’s sack leaders and get their passing attack in gear, I’m going to doubt their place in the polls.”
It’s fair criticism, though it’s entirely possible that LSU will be better enough at throwing the ball and getting to the quarterback that it lifts all the Tigers’ boats all the way to a top-10 season and SEC title contender status.
For now though, maybe the doubts aren’t that bad. At least that’s the view of former LSU and San Diego Chargers tailback Jacob Hester.
“I think LSU is in a position a lot of teams want to be in: having some of the best talent and flying under the radar,” said Hester, who is helping DirecTV pitch a new NFL Sunday Ticket streaming service aimed at tech-savvy, college-age fans.
“They’re not the team everyone is gunning for. They’re the team that’s everyone’s pick as middle of the pack. But they can match everyone talent-for-talent in country — if they get some better play at certain positions.”
In other words, Hester isn’t saying the doubts are unjustified. He argues that they can be rectified, particularly at the quarterback position, where Brandon Harris has emerged as the preseason leader.
“I knew Brandon in high school,” said Hester, like Harris a Shreveport-Bossier City area native. “I watched him play at Parkway in Bossier. My brother coached against him. He came to work my football camp last year.
“You can tell he’s changed, that he’s more mature. Not that he was immature, but any freshman is going to have struggles. He looks like he’s added some good weight to his frame. From everything I’ve seen and heard, he can definitely be the starting quarterback moving forward.”
Linebacker Lamar Louis doesn’t mind the doubts people have in his Tigers. They’re always ready to be converted into fuel for the well-motivated football player.
“I’ve looked at them,” Louis said of the preseason predictions. “It’s not bad to be picked in the middle of the pack to start off. We play these top-five teams, and if we beat them, we’ll be back on top.”
At least moving back toward the top of the rankings and the SEC is critically important for LSU, not only for this season but for the direction of the program overall. If Mandel’s prediction proves true, coach Les Miles will likely be facing a must-win mandate in 2016.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.