First impression of the USA Today coaches’ poll released Thursday, which starts LSU squarely at the tipping point at No. 13:
The Tigers draw more respect nationally than they do at home.
At home there are concerns aplenty in the wake of an 8-5 season, which ended with a frustrating loss to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl and left LSU unranked in the final polls for the first time since going 8-5 in 2008. The Tigers have a huge question mark at quarterback in terms of productivity, even if as expected the current criminal charges against Anthony Jennings are dropped and he returns to the team in time for the Sept. 5 opener against McNeese State.
The rest of the team is top-10 worthy, from running back to the lines to certainly the linebackers and secondary corps.
But that quarterback position, and subsequently the passing game that averaged just 162.9 yards per game to rank 114th in the nation, must improve significantly for the Tigers to be worthy of a ranking such as this.
No. 13 is pretty close to where LSU started in 2003 at No. 14, a team with the only question at quarterback being how well recovered Matt Mauck was from a serious foot injury midseason the year before.
Is this LSU team in that category? At this point, it’s not. Aside from quarterback, there are smaller concerns about how Kevin Steele’s defense will pan out that have been drowned out by the quarterback watch all offseason.
I don’t have a vote in The Associated Press media poll this year (our Ross Dellenger is voting for the second straight season, that poll to be released in a couple of weeks). At first I thought if I was voting, I’d probably put LSU somewhere around No. 20.
However, after putting pen to paper, I probably would put the Tigers at No. 17, just ahead of a raft of teams like Ole Miss, Arkansas, Missouri and over-hyped Tennessee.
This said, if LSU can get off to a promising start, I would be inclined to push the Tigers toward the top 10. A lot of voters, including myself in the past, are too beholden to their preseason rankings.
This year, though, there are too many teams like LSU who could be good but have too many potential or pitfalls not to be reshuffled once the season’s weeks start clicking past.
LSU’s schedule will provide a quick litmus test. After McNeese State to open, the Tigers travel to Mississippi State (unranked but still dangerous) then return home to host No. 7 Auburn.
LSU has three more ranked opponents, all in what shapes up as a make-or-break November: at No. 3 Alabama and No. 15 Ole Miss and at home against No. 20 Arkansas, along with a home game against Texas A&M in the Chavis Bowl which finished just outside the preseason poll.
By November, LSU may well be worthy of a No. 13 ranking — or better. But the Tigers first have some proving to do.
No. 3 Alabama. It has become a matter of course to plaster Alabama in the top four in the preseason, and certainly the Crimson Tide is again talented after a string of top-rated recruiting classes. But what other school would be ranked this high with an unproven quarterback, losing college football’s best receiver, losing a 1,000-yard rusher, a rebuilt offensive line and a defense that was suspect at times last season and lost Dutchtown safety Landon Collins? I would have Auburn at No. 6 and Alabama at No. 7, leaving the SEC out of the top four spots for now, meaning no CFP for the SEC.
No. 17 Georgia Tech. The knock on the Yellow Jackets is their triple option offense is much easier to defend in a bowl — yet Tech wrecked Mississippi State 49-34 in the Orange Bowl. The Yellow Jackets have Justin Thomas back to conduct their offense, a huge bonus. I’d put the Yellow Jackets at No. 13, behind Florida State and Clemson but at the head of the pack in the ACC Coastal Division (whatever that is).
No. 1 Ohio State. Many voters lobby (incorrectly) each year to rank last year’s champion at No. 1 until someone knocks them off. This time, the Buckeyes are worthy of the distinction. Ohio State’s bounty at quarterback is well documented, but Ezekiel Elliott also returns after rushing for 220, 230 and 246 yards in the postseason. The Buckeyes’ biggest problem is simply that it’s so difficult for anyone to repeat.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.