An LSU football team is rarely like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.
You can usually figure out what you’re going to get.
Before the season, you can tally up the pros, subtract the cons and come pretty close to divining the kind of season the Tigers are going to have.
In 24 years of covering LSU football (that sound you hear isn’t fireworks, but my ancient knees cracking), I’ve seen the spectrum:
1. Championship contender, like 2003, 2007 and, yes, 2011, an exceptional team despite that one fatally flawed game.
2. Middle-of-the-road bowl filler. See last year’s Music City Bowl squad, which made good fodder for a broken-hearted Nashville country song, thanks to John Chavis.
3. Any team coached by Curley Hallman.
They all left telltale hints of what was about to transpire.
This LSU team, though ... this team is a puzzler.
Perhaps it’s because this season feels like such a pivotal one, a major crossroads not only for the Tigers’ season but for the program at large, that it’s so hard to pull the trigger on how successful a team this is going to be.
Is LSU’s glass half-empty? Is it half-full? Do the Tigers even have a glass?
Right about now, I wish I had access to the old Dunkel Index, or the computer with the hokey 1970s graphics that WBRZ used to trot out to make football predictions back in the Walter Hill/Mike Rhodes days.
Let’s start with the bottom line. LSU isn’t going to lose any of its four nonconference games, though Western Kentucky on Oct. 24 is going to be a tougher test than many fans expect.
Now, let’s hit the ceiling. LSU isn’t going undefeated, either. This isn’t a huge condemnation. I would wager the house note (OK, maybe the car note) that no Southeastern Conference team is going to get to December unscathed. It’s that kind of year in the SEC.
Top end, the Tigers could go about 10-2. That’s probably not going to get you in the College Football Playoff, but the right 10-2 could certainly have you in the SEC Championship Game and/or a CFP bowl. Ole Miss got to a CFP bowl (Peach) with a 9-3 record last year.
Every SEC game for the Tigers is winnable and losable. There isn’t an easy-touch Kentucky game on the slate this year. Even Mississippi State, the default pick in many corners to finish last in the SEC West, comes armed with none other than the preseason All-SEC quarterback, Dak Prescott.
So, minimum four wins for sure, max of 10. LSU could fall anywhere in between.
Just trying to figure out where is much more of a guessing game than usual because of the factors tugging the Tigers’ fate this way and that.
The pros: LSU boasts a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in tailback/kick returner Leonard Fournette. Recruiting has been strong and looks as good or better than ever for 2016, with the Tigers in serious contention to land the nation’s consensus No. 1 class.
And there’s history on LSU’s side. In the three previous seasons since 2000 after the Tigers won eight games, they rebounded the following year: (10-3 with an SEC title in 2001, 13-1 with a national title in 2003 and 9-4 with a Citrus Bowl appearance in 2009.
The cons: There’s the lingering Chavis lawsuit that led LSU to hire defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, whose confidence rating from Tigers fans is tepid at best. The Chinese calendar for LSU apparently says this is the Year of the Arrest Warrant. There’s a quarterback derby that doesn’t boast a truly appealing candidate. And there’s history that rings an ominous tone for the Tigers, who went 8-0 in SEC play in 2011, 6-2 in 2012, 5-3 in 2013 and 4-4 in 2014.
That’s what’s known in the football biz as a negative trend.
It may seem like overdramatizing, and perhaps it is, but LSU’s status as a national power seems to be riding on this season. Now, you can last a long time on national reputation. Miles’ alma mater, Michigan, leaps to mind. The Wolverines have had one double-digit win season since 2007. But eventually you have to win big again.
It may seem simplistic or a cliché, but LSU’s chances of that big splash ride on its quarterback play. If Anthony Jennings and/or Brandon Harris can improve, just moderately, the rest of LSU’s top 10-worthy talent could carry the Tigers to a CFP bowl.
Whether that will happen is the toughest call of a tough-to-call 2015 season.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.