For years, the LSU Tigers tried to keep pace on the national stage with their stone age offense while their peers jetted off toward the horizon. Picture Fred Flintstone trying to keep up by pedaling his bare feet off while the Alabamas and Ohio States and Oklahomas of the world were going all “Ford v Ferrari,” making their offenses sleeker and faster and more exotic.
The Tigers could still play defense, true, but it wasn’t enough. So coach Ed Orgeron decided to make the dependable old Ford sedan Ferrari fast. He found coaches who could craft a cutting edge offense and a quarterback who could make it go Speed Racer, go.
The ground up rebuild worked. This week after 714 yards of total offense at Ole Miss — a program record for a Southeastern Conference game — LSU ranks No. 2 nationally in total, scoring and passing offense. What do you know? That all adds up to a 10-0 record and the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. And, as if the proof to LSU’s new offensive equation, three of the other teams in the top five in scoring offense — Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson — are in the CFP top five as well.
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But for as spread, no huddle and RPO as college football has gotten, for how much the game has gotten in a big damn hurry, one thing still hasn’t changed if you want to be a major player:
You’ve still gotta play defense. At least keep it respectable.
LSU goes into its penultimate regular season game Saturday against Arkansas ranked 47th nationally allowing 367.8 yards per game. Not awful, but not great. This coming off an Ole Miss game where the offense rolled up 714 yards but the defense allowed 614, the most the Tigers have surrendered since 2001.
On balance, LSU’s defense isn’t terrible. But it isn’t elite. And with the Tigers’ offense it may not have to be elite in the long run, but it had better be better.
The defensive stats of college football’s most recent national champions bear that out.
Including LSU’s most recent national title season in 2007, 10 of the past 12 national champions have finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense, including LSU that year (third allowing 288.8 yards per game). The only exceptions: Ohio State ranked 19th in 2014 (342.4 ypg allowed) and Auburn with Cam Newton quarterbacking finished 60th in 2010 (368.4 ypg).
LSU has a quarterback making a Newton-like impact on its offense in Heisman Trophy frontrunner Joe Burrow, but that doesn’t mean the Tigers can keep winning as they have as the games get tougher in the postseason.
As some insightful local sports pundit wrote before the season started (OK, me), if LSU’s offense proved to be as potent as Orgeron and his players said it could be — remember Burrow’s 40-50-60 points per game quote? — it would put unprecedented stress on the Tigers’ defense.
As it turns out, the offense is better than probably anyone could have imagined. And the defense has struggled more than anyone could have imagined on the other side of the balance sheet. One reason is the offense. Former Tigers like Jacob Hester said LSU has been forced to play more zone defense than ever before because man defense is too taxing if LSU’s offense is going to insist on these multiple two-minute scoring drives.
Why else has it struggled? Well, stars like Grant Delpit and K’Lavon Chaisson haven’t always burned brightly. Delpit looks like he’s been playing on a bad ankle against Alabama and Ole Miss the past two weeks and it’s really showed. The Tigers are also missing players like safety Todd Harris and linebacker Michael Divinity, role players compared to Delpit and Chaisson and freshman cornerback Derek Stingley, but they have proven hard to replace.
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“On defense, we’ve got to coach them better,” said Orgeron, who still works daily in the trenches coaching the defensive line.
“Number one, it starts with me coaching them better. Number two, we have to make plays when we get in space, make tackles. I know we're going to get it fixed. The men in our room are going to be fine. I believe in (defensive coordinator) Dave Aranda, our coaching staff and our players. We're going to have a great defense, I know that.”
Some of LSU’s defensive woes at Ole Miss can be rationalized. The Rebels run a zone read offense the Tigers more than easily handled most of the first half as they built a 28-0 lead. But coming off an emotional meatgrinder of a win at Alabama the week before, it looked as if the Tigers lost their edge when they took that lead, trying to coast the rest of the way.
It’s amazing how quickly the coast can get rocky.
“I think their scheme got us a little bit,” Orgeron said. “I don't want to get down on our players. We're 10-0. We have a chance to have a great season. I know these guys are going to answer the bell. I think we're going to finish the season strong.”
The finish is here. After the Arkansas game, which should frankly be an easy win for LSU, there is Texas A&M then Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Two more wins probably puts the Tigers in the CFP.
The goal is to win them all. But LSU won’t get there even with a Ferrari offense if the defense continues to get tire tracks run all over it.
National champions total defense rank (since 2007)
Year Team Rank
2007 LSU 3rd (288.3 ypg)
2008 Florida 9th (285.3 ypg)
2009 Alabama 2nd (244.1 ypg)
2010 Auburn 60th (368.4 ypg)
2011 Alabama 1st (188.6 ypg)
2012 Alabama 1st (250.1 ypg)
2013 Florida State 3rd (281.4 ypg)
2014 Ohio State 19th (342.4 ypg)
2015 Alabama 3rd (276.3 ypg)
2016 Clemson 8th (311.5 ypg)
2017 Alabama 1st (260.4 ypg)
2018 Clemson 5th (285.9 ypg)
NOTE: LSU ranks 47th in total defense (367.8 ypg)