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LSU head coach Ed Orgeron speaks with LSU nose tackle Tyler Shelvin (72) during practice ahead of LSU's matchup with Clemson in the National Championship, Saturday, January 11, 2020, at the Saints' facility in Metairie, La.

When LSU opened at No. 5 and 6 in the preseason coaches’ and Associated Press polls, that seemed about what was expected. The previous season’s national champion is always bequeathed the benefit of the doubt, and with the talent the Tigers returned from 2019 despite heavy losses to the NFL draft, LSU looked like it could still be in the conversation for the national championship hunt. Whatever that hunt turns out to be amid the pandemic.

But now, well, frankly “Benefit of the” has opted out.

Only “doubt” remains.

It was one thing for defensive end Neil Farrell and nickel cornerback Kary Vincent to opt out. Those are good players but not irreplaceable in terms of talent. Not that it helps LSU this fall, but Farrell reportedly plans to return in 2021.

But when wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin opt out, it is not possible for Ed Orgeron to set his jaw and growl “Next man up!” and have the equilibrium restored. There are still lots of talented players on this LSU team, make no mistake. But there is no one who is the offensive playmaker Chase is, the 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner. There is no interior defensive lineman like Shelvin to anchor the front on Bo Pelini’s new 4-3 defense.

As of this writing — and one hesitates to type a number because it could change — LSU is down 33 players from the national championship game. A quick glance shows the Tigers are down to about 70 scholarship players on their roster, including newcomers. Five of those players are returning starters: wide receiver Terrace Marshall, right tackle Austin Deculus, cornerback Derek Stingley, defensive end Glen Logan and linebacker Damone Clark.

That’s it. Or it may not be it. Orgeron candidly admitted he knew of “one or two” other players who were considering opting out of this season.

“Hopefully, they don't,” Coach O said. “But if they do, that's what we're living in. But we have depth. If they do opt out, we're still going to have a great football team.”

Some of those talented newcomers LSU continues to recruit in droves will have to ante up quickly. More will be expected out of blue-chip defensive linemen like Jaquelin Roy from University High and Jacobian Guillory from Alexandria. More catches could be coming the way of first-year receivers like Koy Moore from Archbishop Rummel and New Iberia’s Kayshon Boutte. And freshman tight end Arik Gilbert, the national Gatorade Player of the Year, who looks amazing in the LSU practice video being sent out to the media, figures to be an even bigger force in this offense.

The Tigers are scheduled to play 10 games. Six still look like almost certain wins: Mississippi State, at Vanderbilt, Missouri, South Carolina, at Arkansas and Ole Miss. But the four games where LSU’s season is to be decided — at Florida, at Auburn, Alabama and at Texas A&M — all just got a lot tougher.

A resetting of goals is in order. It’s gotten pretty basic, especially when you take into account the rising number of coronavirus cases on LSU’s campus and elsewhere around the Southeastern Conference.

If you are an LSU fan sifting frantically for silver linings in this whole situation, there are a couple of nuggets for you.

One is time. If you had all these opt outs in a normal season, the Tigers would be scrambling to get ready for a first game Saturday. But LSU still has three-plus weeks to do the “next man up” thing before their Sept. 26 opener with Mississippi State.

A second is the schedule itself. Yes, there are concerns about facing Mike Leach’s new wing-it offense with State, but through all of this it’s still hard to conceive of the Bulldogs coming into Tiger Stadium and pulling off that upset. The added games at Vanderbilt and with Missouri follow, still giving LSU a great chance to start 3-0 and work out the kinks and polish up the chemistry before the Tigers go to Florida on Oct. 17.

Third, no matter the circumstances, the odds always seem against repeating a championship run, whether on the conference or national level. Just ask 2019 Clemson. Given that, being forced to play a lot of young future stars in 2020 may give LSU, which was always going to be trying to buck the odds this season, a running start at being what should be another excellent team in 2021.

“We have some young guys,” Orgeron said. “They're going to have to play. We have to get better as the season goes on.”

As for Chase and Shelvin and the other players now gone, their decisions are their decisions and deserve respect. They helped LSU win a national championship and now they are looking out for themselves and their families. I personally think Shelvin would have benefited from staying another year, that his potential as a first-round draft pick is hampered now and could have been helped by another season. But his issues with weight and academics always carried a bit of scare factor for Orgeron and his staff. That headache, at least, is removed, though traded for another.

Lastly, LSU is not alone in dealing with these issues. UCF, a top 25 preseason team, has had 10 players opt out. Texas A&M has lost a couple of players recently. Vanderbilt has lost six. There are naturally a lot of theories swirling out there as to why this is happening at LSU, but whatever the reasons, the Tigers will not be alone in dealing with these issues.

Maybe that will allow the Tigers to still have a great season. Luck will play a bigger factor this season than ever.

But for now, only doubts and unanswered questions remain.

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