Inexperience at key positions will prevent LSU football in 2014 from living up to lofty standards set by the program over the past decade-plus.
The biggest issue for the Tigers and coach Les Miles comes from the greater expectations created by continued success.
Since 2005 when Miles took over at LSU, the Tigers have won at least 10 games in seven of nine seasons.
Be clear. LSU getting its swag back means one thing: Winning the SEC.
For a second consecutive year, a combination of too much talent leaving the program and tough competition atop the division will leave the Tigers in the 10- or 11-win range.
In Baton Rouge, 11-2 stopped being cause for celebration by the end of Year 2 under Nick Saban (in 2001).
Miles’ biggest concern comes in the passing game.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger exhausted his college eligibility in 2013.
The (Baton Rouge) Advocate reported Anthony Jennings appears to be “in great position” to assume Mettenberger’s starting position.
“(In) our offseason program, there will always be some guys surface that maybe didn’t play this year, and we’ll build things around those guys,” LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said to The Advocate. “We’re going to have great competition at the quarterback position. Obviously, Anthony comes in in a great position. We’ll kind of see and let it evolve.”
The rising sophomore’s last two appearances showed both what he’s capable of and how much room he has to grow.
Jennings faced a late fourth-quarter deficit against Arkansas when he relieved Mettenberger who suffered a season-ending knee injury.
The first full drive run by Jennings started with the Tigers on their own one-yard line with 3:04 to play and needing a field goal to tie.
He responded by orchestrating a game-winning drive of which heroes are made.
Jennings completed 4-of-7 passes for 76 yards and ran three times for 26 yards. He also completed the game-winning 49-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Travin Dural with 1:15 remaining.
In the Outback Bowl, however, Jennings didn’t fare as well.
Making his first start, Jennings completed 7-of-19 passes for just 82 yards with a bad interception in the 21-14 victory over Iowa.
Additionally, Jennings struggled to identify from where Iowa sent pressure, taking four sacks in 23 dropbacks as a result.
Perhaps the worst omen came from the game plan.
Cameron opened with 12 consecutive runs. When he dialed up first-half passes, most were quick, short passes—perhaps because Jennings hadn’t learned how to identify pressure.
The Advocate reported Penn State transfer Rob Bolden, Stephen Rivers and true freshman Brandon Harris figure to provide Jennings with the stiffest competition.
Harris, rated by 247Sports as the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback prospect this year, enrolled in school early so he could go through spring practice.
If breaking in Jennings—or another quarterback—as a full-time starter doesn’t serve as enough concern, the LSU collection of pass-catchers might.
Receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Jr. both declared for the NFL draft. The duo leaves in its wake an enormous void. The two combined for 2,345 yards and 18 touchdowns on 136 catches this year.
Their departure leaves Dural as the leading returning receiver. He caught seven passes in 2013.
LSU rarely—if ever—finds itself without talent. This year will be no different.
How quickly that talent materializes into a championship-caliber team, though, remains to be seen.
On a positive note, La’El Collins headlines four returning offensive linemen. Collins might be the best offensive tackle in the SEC next year.
The decision by 1,400-yard rusher Jeremy Hill to go pro muddles a backfield with plenty of talented options.
Incoming freshman Leonard Fournette receives most of the preseason hype for good reason—the nation's No. 1 prospect as ranked by 247Sports has the talent to be a game-breaker from Day 1.
Don’t discount Terrence Magee, though.
Magee, Hill’s primary backup, ran for 626 yards (7.3 per attempt) and eight touchdowns.
Whoever gets the nod as LSU’s starting tailback will likely need to carry the load for the Tigers while they develop a passing attack.
LSU can seemingly always run the ball, especially directly at defenses.
It should field a defense capable of keeping a maturing offense in the game as well.
Defensively, the Tigers lose four key starters—leading tackler Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson. Still, they are certainly capable of reloading with the way LSU recruits under Miles.
A few future superstars have already surfaced. Defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco have the potential to be the most disruptive duo in the conference.
Cornerback Tre’Davious White made mistakes as a true freshman, but showed great ball skills and a willingness to make tough tackles at the line of scrimmage.
In the loaded SEC West, though, an improved young defense and a reworked run game should struggle to win the division.
Will LSU win the SEC in 2014?
There’s little question Miles has stockpiled the talent to win at LSU. However, no program can withstand as much unplanned attrition as the Tigers have faced over the past two seasons.
A nucleus of seven would-be seniors—including cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who would have been a senior in 2014—will instead play in the NFL next year.
The inexperience should make life difficult against Wisconsin, Alabama and Auburn. It could also cost LSU a game—or games—fans penciled in as wins.
As a result, the extremely-talented-but-still-young talent will likely prove too inconsistent to win championships.
In Baton Rouge, that’s how success—and swag—is determined.