LSU Football Preview: The Year of the Tiger and Return of the Mad Hatter?

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LSU Football Preview: The Year of the Tiger and Return of the Mad Hatter?
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LSU has endured its fair share of disasters in recent years: Just prior to the start of the 2005 season Hurricane Katrina turned LSU's football facilities into a disaster recovery center and wreaked havoc on the Tigers' schedule for most of the season.

In 2007 Hurricane McFadden struck in the season finale as Houston Nutt's Arkansas Razorbacks opened up a can of "Wildcat" whooping on the Tigers' defense and seemingly knocked LSU out of the national championship race. 

Fortunately, an improbable miracle rescue from the Pittsburgh Panthers (over No. 2 West Virginia) and a Tiger victory over No. 14 Tennessee in the SEC championship allowed LSU to recover and claim a second national title in four years.

The future couldn't have looked brighter for the Tigers going into that (2008) off-season.  

Despite losing Bo Pelini (widely considered one of the best defensive coordinators in the country), who took over as head coach of the Nebraska Corn Huskers, the Tigers were returning solid defensive talent and what was expected to be one of the most potent offenses—2007 had been the most prolific in Tiger History—in recent college memory.

Yet the results of Katrina on the LSU football team would pale in comparison to the storm that was brewing.

Prior to the kickoff of the defending national champion's 2008 campaign, a perfect storm hit the Tigers from within.

First, head coach Les Miles elected to promote not one but two of Pelini's assistants to co-defensive coordinator, a move which would eventually leave a once fierce and dominant defense looking in different directions for leadership and frequently out of position.

Second, Ryan Perriloux —the top quarterback prospect in the country in 2005—got himself kicked off of the team after several run-ins with the coaching staff and local law enforcement.

The combination of these two factors doomed LSU’s 2008 season, and the Tigers lost more games than any other defending national champion in college football history.

Going into 2009 there was optimism that those storms had passed and that the Tigers would get back on track with a promising QB and new defensive coordinator, but the third leg of the perfect storm—attrition of the offensive line, including the entire 2006 recruiting class—reared its ugly head.

The running game, which had produced gaudy numbers in 2007 (3,397 YGR) and 2008 (2,510 YGR) and was returning 1,100-yard rusher Charles "The Truck" Scott, as well as veterans Keiland Williams and Richard Murphy, was expected to be a strength of the team.

Yet the inability of the depleted and undersized offensive line (one of the smallest on average in the SEC) to break open many holes or sustain protection made the LSU backfield an open house for defenders, who held the Tigers to just 3.7 YPC and sacked LSU QBs a devastating 37 times over the course of the season.

Then there was the man(Miles)-made disaster now commonly referred to as the "Ole Miss Debacle" followed by a disappointing last-minute loss to close the season in the "Mud Bowl" in Orlando.

So, 2010 is coming and neither Tiger fans, nor the national media—who has them ranked anywhere from No. 8 to not ranked inside the top 25 at all—really know what to expect from this team.

Some positive moves in the coaching staff with the addition of Billy Gonzales, Frank Wilson, and Steve Ensminger, along with another outstanding—and better than expected—recruiting class, preceded what many considered to be a lackluster showing in the nationally televised spring game.

Jordan Jefferson—who was expected to have a breakout year after his performance at the end of the 2008 season and in a dominating victory over Georgia Tech in the Peach Bowl—never really seemed to have "it" in 2009 and virtually couldn’t complete a pass in the second half of the spring scrimmage.

The running game, however, looked fantastic and could be one of the most underrated units in the conference. That's thanks to senior Richard Murphy returning from injury, redshirt freshman Michael Ford, junior Stevan Ridley, and highly regarded newcomers Jakhari Gore, Alfred Blue, Spencer Ware (a five-star recruit) providing much-needed depth to a unit that was so banged up last year that Ridley, who was No. 4 on the depth chart to start the year, ended the year as pretty much the only option.  

The front four —the only question mark to speak of for the defense—is losing defensive tackles Charles Alexander and Al Woods and defensive end Rahim Alem but adds a ton of speed with the likes of Kendrick Adams, Sam Montgomery, and Barkevious Mingo as well as size and depth with Michael Brockers, Chris Davenport, and J.R. "The Freak" Ferguson.

The middle and backfield, on the other hand, could be the best in the country. 

The largely unheralded linebacking corps is led by Kelvin Sheppard, who bypassed the NFL draft for his senior season after leading the team in tackles last year. He heads up a group slightly short on experience but extremely long on talent, as the three-deep includes blue-chip prospects Justin Maclin, Kevin Minter, Kyle Prater, Lamin Barrow, and several other top linebacker prospects.

Keep in mind too that "The Chief" John Chavis—now a second-year defensive coordinator—is known for getting the most out of his linebackers, and he has a lot to work with here.

The secondary is where this team gets downright scary despite losing Chad Jones—one of the hardest-hitting defensive backs in the country last year.

Junior Patrick "The Prototype" Peterson is simply the best shutdown corner in college football, and most offensive coordinators just did not throw it in his direction last year. 

Sophomore Morris Claiborne will make the other side of the field just as uninviting, and the safeties—senior Jai Eugene, junior Brandon Taylor, redshirt freshman Craig Loston, and freshman Eric Reid should be free to roam and reap all over the field.

The special teams should be solid again, as seniors Josh Jasper and Derek Helton return, and LSU is not short on return options with Peterson, Russell Shepard, Ron Brooks, and Ware.

So the critical question facing Miles—as his seat warms up, according to some in the media and an impatient fanbase—is "Can a revamped offensive line allow junior Jordan Jefferson to finally reach his potential and get the Tigers' offense rolling again?"

Oh, and he may want to invest in a watch with a second hand.

Another major obstacle for these Tigers is a schedule that looks to be one of the toughest in the nation, yet a deeper look indicates that it may be oddly manageable .

The Chic-Fil-a Kickoff Game places LSU in a position it hasn't found itself in for over a  decade, an underdog in the season opener to UNC —ranked higher in almost every preseason poll—as many pundits are expecting the Tar Heels to field one of the most dominating defenses in the country.

However, UNC returns a shaky offense at best, with a quarterback that has struggled even more than Jefferson to reach his potential, and LSU holds an all-time 5-1 record over the Tar Heels.

Moreover, the speed advantage in a dome on turf should make this a track meet that UNC will have a hard time keeping up in.

Then after two SEC opponents (at Vanderbilt and Mississippi State) that LSU struggled to beat last year, the Tigers welcome the West Virginia Mountaineers to Death Valley .

The Tigers haven’t faced a Big East team since 1989 (loss to Syracuse in the HOF Bowl) but beat recently departed Big East (now ACC) opponents Miami and Virginia Tech pretty handily in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

A third straight home game against the (new head coach) Derek Dooley-led Tennessee Volunteers might prove interesting but should favor the Tigers, as UT will be breaking in new players all over the field, including QB and other skilled positions.

Even a road trip to the swamp in Gainesville could find the Tigers favored —assuming they are still unbeaten at that point—as the Gators will be replacing most of their defense and all of their "Super Hero" action figures.

The first-ever meeting with in-state McNeese State should provide a nice scrimmage for the stretch run that starts at Auburn, where second-year head coach Gene Chizik has the "EaglePlainsTigerWarMen" setting higher expectations and preparing to compete for the SEC West again.

Auburn and LSU—with the exception of last year’s blowout win by the Bayou Bengals—always play close, and this year should be an epic battle.    

If LSU is still unbeaten at this point in the season, expect Saban Bowl IV to be hyped as the game of the century. 

Both LSU and Alabama have an extra week to prepare for the Nov. 6 showdown in Death Valley, and all three of the previous match-ups have been close and controversial. Despite losing the last two, LSU has won seven of the last 10 and should have an advantage in front of 93,000 or so hostile Tigers faithful.    

The Tigers stay home for the next two —homecoming vs. UL-Monroe and Ole Miss —a game the Tigers should carry a chip on their shoulder for, considering the Magnolia Trophy has been in Oxford for the last two years and the desire to erase the memory of the last-second loss last year at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

A final test against the always-tough Arkansas Razorbacks could be the last hurdle in the race to return to Atlanta for the SEC championship.

This could truly be the make-or-break year for the Miles regime at LSU—despite an unfavorable (for the team) buyout in his lucrative contract. Tigers fans are known to be some of the most vocal and demanding in the country. It’s doubtful they would stand for another lackluster year.

While it can be said, and statistically proven, that LSU improved significantly in 2009 from 2008, it was not enough to ease the pain felt by the Tigers faithful.

Another 8-4 (or worse) regular season would make the climate in Baton Rouge unbearable for both the coach and the administration.

A record of 10-2 (or better) would turn the heat down, while a division and/or conference championship would turn the heat off altogether.

My prediction: LSU will be the surprise story of 2010 . Expectations couldn’t be much worse for a team with this much talent, and despite some legitimate criticism hurled at Miles for questionable game and clock management at times, he knows how to win, with a .687 all-time (.772 at LSU) winning percentage.  

What's more, he has an experienced and highly respected coaching staff that has all the resources necessary to field a special football team.

Look for Jefferson to step up at quarterback, with extreme talents like Shepard, Terrence Toliver, Rueben Randle, Chris Tolliver, Ford, Ridley, Ware, and others to provide an embarrassment of riches that will be very difficult for opposing defenses to slow down, much less stop if (as I expect they will) the offensive line can provide a little better protection.

As I stated above, the defense will be one of the best in the country and I will be looking for Miles to regain his feared "Mad Hatter" persona and be in the discussion by mid-season and through the end of the year as the National Coach of the Year, with several players in the mix for individual position awards.

According to the Chinese Calendar, 2010 is the Year of the Tiger. I fully agree. Don’t believe the hype; the rumors of this powerhouse’s demise are GREATLY exaggerated . 

LSU will win the West and the SEC; that should get the Tigers into the BCS national championship game, and you know how that works!          

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