The spring game.
College football’s version of demo mode.
It looks a lot like the real game, but it’s really not. If they’re not charging admission for it when it comes to the cash cow that is football, you get the picture.
It’s difficult to get a true sense of who is doing what or how well, especially with the teammates opposing each other as they are. Often who gets the start for one side or the other is the most telling thing, though with players being held out for injuries and surgical recoveries, even that is a skewed picture.
That said, with Skepticism Mode fully engaged, what we see Saturday afternoon in Tiger Stadium could be the most meaningful LSU spring game in recent memory. Perhaps ever.
Let us not forget that this is an LSU football program less than five months removed from a major managerial crisis. A lot of people who came to Tiger Stadium on Thanksgiving weekend thought they were doing so to bid Les Miles adieu.
That Miles got an 11th-hour reprieve doesn’t change that his seat was scalding. Since then, no one has had a cooler ride, hiring a hot new defensive coordinator in Dave Aranda, signing a stellar recruiting class and convincing six of the seven most likely rising LSU seniors to return this fall.
Neither Miles nor the major players on this LSU team have attempted to hide their championship aspirations. This is a team that is widely expected to start the season in the top 10.
Saturday’s game is the first small glimpse of their chance to prove it.
Aranda’s defense should be fascinating to watch, if for nothing else but the quirky newness of it. We should see LSU’s dominant 3-4 alignment, which hasn’t been its base defense since the 1980s, but how much will Aranda show of the stand-up defensive ends? Remember, this is a game open to everyone and set to be televised on SEC Network. Spies, from an LSU perspective, will be in everyone’s midst. LSU probably wants to save a few wrinkles and gimmicks for the Wisconsin season opener, which will be interesting in itself since Aranda’s former employer will be expecting a fair measure of them.
Judging by Leonard Fournette’s recent comments that LSU’s defense has had even him confused this spring, don’t be surprised if that unit has the upper hand Saturday. Too much of an upper hand, though, and LSU faithful everywhere will rightly get discouraged.
Defense may traditionally win championships, but if LSU is to be a championship-caliber team this season, the offense is going to have to be more explosive.
By offense, we mean the passing game. And by passing game, we mean Brandon Harris.
Reading the tea leaves in Miles’ cup can be a fool’s errand, and all we can do at this point is speculate. But his late-spring dispatches are a strong indication that rising junior Harris has to date fended off the attempts of Purdue transfer Danny Etling to unseat him.
Both will get a chance to show their wares in the spring game. Again this can be faux gold; Harris has given some dynamite spring-game performances in the past, even as Anthony Jennings’ understudy.
LSU’s passing game definitely won’t give us a true read; Travin Dural is still mending from his severe hamstring injury last season. It’s entirely possible that his absence will throw the entire quarterback/passing game picture out of kilter, considering the untested hands Harris and/or Etling may have to throw to at any given point.
That said, inquiring minds will be looking for nuance here. For style, to use a much-favored Miles word, as much as or more than substance. Campaign promises were made way back, the day before the Texas Bowl to be exact, from Miles that the offense would be more diverse. That passing would become more than a vague — or often desperate — notion of moving the ball and become an absolute staple of the offense.
No one expects Miles, a religious zealot when it comes to faith in the power running game, to completely change his tiger stripes. With players like Fournette and Derrius Guice to hand off to, he’d be crazy to go all-in with a pass-crazy offense.
But Saturday, Fournette shouldn’t get much more than a test drive, then back into storage with him, an armed guard and alarms at the door. If LSU doesn’t show much of a willingness and ability to throw in the spring game, granted even without Dural, how much hope of offensive diversity is there when the games are real?
That’s what makes this spring game such compelling viewing. What we see won’t be the real thing, but it’s almost certain to be telling.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.