The LSU Football program is at a crossroads and 2010 could change the course of the near future. Head Coach Les Miles has a BCS Championship under his belt and an 8-8 record in the SEC over the last two seasons.
With such a crucial season on tap, I contacted Saturday Night Slant to get some insight on the upcoming season.
What Must Les Miles Do This Season To Turn Down the Heat?
He needs to win, plain and simple. In Miles' first three seasons in Baton Rouge, he finished each ranked in the top five. He won a pair of SEC West titles, one SEC title, and one national title. The last two seasons? No BCS bowl games and a very pedestrian 8-8 in conference play.
LSU fans always believed they had the pieces in place to be an elite college football program. The facilities and fan base are second to none, and they are in a fertile recruiting ground with no in-state competition. After reaching that elite level during the 2000s, fans and supporters are not about to go back to being just “pretty good” without a fight.
This is a big year for Les Miles. He needs to win big or else the pressure on LSU's administration to go in a different direction will be enormous. LSU's athletic director, Joe Alleva, has already felt some of the pressure.
In a letter to season ticket holders, Alleva said that LSU's 9-4 record in 2009 was a “nice season.” But he followed that up by saying that “being 'nice' is not our annual goal. We intend to contend for—and win—championships at LSU.” Consider that a public warning to Coach Miles.
Another four or five loss season is not going to get it done. A double digit win season while competing for championships will turn down the heat on Miles—for one season at least.
Jordan Jefferson Looked Marvelous in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl Two Years Ago: What is Holding Him Back?
Jefferson gave LSU fans a ton of hope for 2009 due to the poise he displayed in the Chick-Fil-A bowl in 2008. His performance during the 2009 season was a regression from what he showed at the end of '08. A couple of things led to that.
First, Jefferson knew why he was the starter and that was because in 2008, Jarrett Lee turned the ball over entirely too much. Jefferson's priority was clearly to take care of the football, and he did so to a fault.
He was extremely tentative to “let 'er rip” and did not take any chances. The result was way too many sacks and not enough big plays. With receivers such as Terrance Toliver and Reuben Randle, Jefferson has to trust that it's okay to throw the ball when the guys are not completely wide open.
Secondly, LSU's offensive line in 2009 was—to put it kindly—horrible. Jefferson had no protection and also had no running game to help him out. It's difficult enough for a young quarterback to learn how to keep his eyes downfield, go through his progressions, step into a pocket, and deliver a throw.
However, it's even harder when the quarterback cannot trust that a pocket is even going to exist. The poor play on the O-line also led to numerous unfavorable down and distance situations. Operating out of second and five and third and two is a heck of a lot easier than second and nine and third and seven.
With what looks to be an improved line and running game in 2010, as well as some experience under his belt, expect to see an improved Jordan Jefferson this fall.
Do You Expect Jefferson or Jarrett Lee To Take Control of the Job in Fall Practice Or Will They Be Rotated?
Do not expect any kind of quarterback rotation. Despite what happens at practice this fall, expect Jordan Jefferson to be LSU's quarterback in 2010. For better or worse, Les Miles has hitched his wagon to Jefferson.
Jarrett Lee has consistently been a practice All-American at LSU.
However, once the green jersey comes off and the lights come on, he reverts to his old ways of rushing throws and tossing balls up for grabs. I believe the coaches have finally learned that lesson. So while I would not be surprised if Lee outplayed Jefferson in practice, it will have no effect on who begins the season as LSU's starter.
Will We See Russell Shepard in a Percy Harvin Type Role This Year?
Shepard is often compared to Percy Harvin in terms of talent and ability. However, Shepard did not see the field enough in 2009 to warrant such a comparison. Despite Shepard enrolling in the spring prior to his true freshman season, LSU's coaches looked absolutely clueless as to how to utilize the multi-talented quarterback. The excuse given is that Shepard was busy taking reps with the quarterbacks but was also tasked with practicing with the running backs and receivers.
He was also called upon to practice some gimmick plays. By spreading his time amongst various positions, he was unable to master any of them.
Things look different heading into 2010. Shep is practicing primarily as a wide receiver and will be utilized in the slot. If the spring game is any indication, then the staff has suddenly gotten a lot more creative.
Shepard ran routes at receiver, motioned into the backfield and took some carries, and he also ran some Wildcat plays from the quarterback position. And I expect that is what we'll see during the season. Who knows? We might even see him throw a pass this year.
With Billy Gonzales coming over from Florida to coach receivers, LSU now has a guy who knows exactly how to best utilize Shepard's talents. In Harvin's last season, he carried the ball 70 times and recorded 40 receptions. That amounts to approximately eight touches per game, and I suspect we'll see at least that many from Shepard this season.
The differences between 2010 and 2009 are the presence of Billy Gonzales and the fact that Shep is focused on playing receiver. But I have bought into those two things and expect a big season full of big plays from Russell Shepard.
The Top Two Rushers are Gone from Last Year. Who Steps Up Here?
While it's never easy to replace 4,788 career rushing yards and 53 touchdowns, I believe LSU will see better production from their running backs in 2010 than they did in 2009. Charles Scott, Keiland Williams, and Trindon Holliday are all gone after four very productive years.
Junior Stevan Ridley should be the guy who opens the season as LSU's primary runner. Ridley runs very hard and very decisively, and he's at his best between the tackles.
Returning from a knee injury is the versatile senior Richard Murphy. Murphy brings a lot of speed and athleticism to the position and is often used as a receiver out of the backfield. Murphy is also a team leader and will be on the field quite a bit.
If Ridley is the power back and Murphy is the speed back, then redshirt freshman Michael Ford is the balanced one. Ford does everything well. What's most impressive is that he always seems to be falling forward for positive yardage.
At 5'10,” 210 pounds, and built like a weight lifter, Ford is tough to bring down. But the former high school track star has some speed to burn if he gets into the secondary. He was one of the stars of spring practice, and many believe he'll ultimately become LSU's primary runner.
True freshmen Jahkari Gore and Spencer Ware have both had impressive fall camps thus far. Don't be surprised to see Gore used some in the slot as a multi-purpose guy or to see Ware run some plays out of the Wildcat formation.
Receiver Russell Shepard will also log some carries this year to help carry the load in the running game.
Once the season gets rolling, I expect Ridley and Ford to share the majority of the carries. Murphy will see some specialty plays and Shepard will get some carries from plays specifically designed for him.
LSU's Offensive Line Has Had Size, But Has Not Been Able to Push People Around: What Must Be Done to Improve This Unit?
To improve, all they have to do is show up. Because it's practically impossible to be any worse than last year's unit.
Actually, LSU's offensive line did not have size in 2009. Up the middle, both guards and the center were under 290 pounds. All three guys were athletic, but the problem was that the coaching staff insisted on forcing the issue with a power running game. Predictably, the results were poor.
On 2010, all starters along LSU's offensive line check in at 300 pounds or better. The guys are also pretty versatile and seem better suited to handle the variety of different looks that LSU likes to show on offense.
I believe LSU upgraded with new starters Will Blackwell at right guard and P.J. Lonergan at center. And while departed left tackle Ciron Black had a decorated career at LSU, he was ineffective as a senior as he battled some lingering injuries.
Joe Barksdale will be an improvement at left tackle. Left guard Josh Dworacyzk returns with some added bulk and a year of starting experience under his belt. The new right tackle is sophomore Alex Hurst, who played well in spots last year and has drawn very positive reviews in practice.
LSU's offense struggled in 2009, and it all started with the poor offensive line play. If the line can make improvements, give the quarterback some time to throw, and move some people around in the running game, then LSU's offense, and entire team, will look drastically different in 2010. The early reports are encouraging, but I'll wait to see it with my own eyes before buying in.
The Defensive Line Has Always Been Nasty, but Lost a Lot of Talent: Who Needs to Step Up This Year?
The defensive line will have a lot of new blood in 2010, especially at defensive end, and I think it will be for the better.
Seniors Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston are your starters at defensive tackle. Nevis has always been productive when on the field, and he is finally a regular starter. He led the team in tackles for loss in 2009.
He has always been able to make plays, but has to play with consistency. Levingston started at defensive end a year ago and now moves back to his more natural position at tackle. He has bulked up and really looks ready to go this fall. Both guys are in the 290 – 300 pound range and are the quicker, penetrating type of tackle.
Their top backup is 6'5,” 300 pound Michael Brockers, who has earned high praise from his coaches since he stepped on campus. Also look for sophomore Josh Downs and redshirt freshman Chris Davenport to play a good bit. Overall, LSU is solid at the tackle position with Nevis being the only true play maker at this point. It is my belief that Nevis will have an outstanding season that will put him on many All-SEC teams.
Things look different at defensive end for LSU. While LSU had a ton of success last decade with big defensive ends such as Marcus Spears, Marquise Hill, and Tyson Jackson, you'll see some smaller, speedier types manning the edges in 2010.
The guy most likely to make a big impact is redshirt freshman Sam Montgomery. Montgomery has always shown insane athletic ability, but he was a bit undersized to crack the lineup in 2009. He is now up to the 250 pound range and is probably ready to be an every down defensive end. He was an absolute menace this spring.
On the other side, look for junior college transfer Ken Adams. Adams is built like Montgomery at 6'5," 255 pounds.
A pair of sophomores, Lavar Edwards and Chancey Aghayere, have a little more size to them and will play a good bit too.
Another guy to watch is Barkevious Mingo, who is a very quick 6'5” 235 pounds. Mingo gave LSU's offensive line fits in the spring game and will be used in obvious passing situations to get after the quarterback.
While I think LSU will be okay at tackle, the ends have to step up and apply pressure on the quarterback, especially on 3rd down. They struggled to get off the field on 3rd down a year ago.
Can the Secondary Carry This Defense If the Front Seven Struggle?
While it's tough for any secondary to look good without help from the front seven, this is a very talented group for LSU.
Headlining the group is of course cornerback Patrick Peterson, who will be competing for All-America honors this season. Peterson is a physical marvel who checked in at 6'1,” 222 pounds this fall. That is unheard of for a cornerback, but he also recorded the fastest 40 time on the team over the summer.
Peterson certainly showed flashes of greatness. When matched against some of the best receivers in the SEC such as Georgia's A.J. Green, Alabama's Julio Jones, and Arkansas' Greg Childs, Peterson locked down his focus and stepped up his game. He performed exceptionally well in those games.
However in other games, Peterson was not as focused. Since teams often stayed away from him, he seemed impatient and would gamble a little too much. He got caught peeking into the backfield a few times and got burned as a result.
While Peterson is the key, the other cornerback, Morris Claiborne, has raced up the depth chart to earn a starting position. Coaches and teammates already discuss Claiborne as if he, too, is a lockdown corner. With teams staying away from Peterson, Claiborne will certainly be tested.
Brandon Taylor returns at one of the safety positions after a pretty solid 2009 campaign. The other safety spot is up for grabs with three guys competing for the spot. Converted cornerback, Jai Eugene, Craig Loston, and Karnell Hatcher have all taken turns with the starters during fall camp.
Eugene is better in coverage while Loston and Hatcher provide better run support. At the start of the season, you may see a steady rotation of guys. Loston is the most talented and most hope he wins the job and lives up to his recruiting hype.
This secondary, combined with an anticipated improved pass rush, should help LSU's defense immensely.
Who Are Some of the Freshman That Are Likely To Contribute?
A number of redshirt freshmen should contribute in 2010 for the Tigers. Running back Michael Ford, safety Craig Loston, defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, linebackers Lamin Barrow and Kevin Minter, and defensive tackle Michael Brockers are all expected to contribute for LSU this year. Expect Ford, Loston, and Montgomery to really stand out.
Some true freshmen are vying for playing time too. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu has made the biggest impact thus far in fall camp. He is now working with the second string at cornerback and even with the starters in nickel and dime situations. He has really impressed the coaches so far.
With LSU's fullback position wide open, a pair of true freshmen are vying for the spot. Travis Dickson and Brandon Worle are competing with some veterans for that position.
Receiver Kadron Boone has also made a big impression at fall camp and may see the field as LSU's fourth or fifth receiver.
Lastly, running backs Spencer Ware and Jahkari Gore have looked impressive. Ware may run some Wildcat formations while Gore could be utilized in many different ways.
How Much Respect Do Tiger Fans Give North Carolina Coming From the ACC?
LSU fans are giving North Carolina a lot of respect. At this point, I'd say the fan base is split 50/50 on whether the Tigers or the Tar Heels will win the game.
North Carolina has garnered a ton of attention nationally for their top notch defense. With LSU's offensive woes a year ago, it's easy to put two and two together to deduce that LSU may struggle to score points in that game.
Like many, I see this game being a close, low-scoring affair.
Describe a Successful Season and Describe a Disappointing One
A successful season will be one that involves a BCS bowl game, a SEC West Championship, or double digit wins. Any combination of one or more of those things will equal success in 2010. Anything less will be viewed as another sub-par season where LSU did not compete with the big boys.
After going 17-9 over the last two seasons, LSU supporters are not willing to hear about re-building or about “next year.” Three seasons like that in a row would be one too many and it could very well spell the end for Les Miles' tenure in Baton Rouge.
What is your prediction for this season?
I predict an 8-4 record for LSU this season.
vs. North Carolina (Atlanta) – TOSS UP
@ Vanderbilt - WIN
vs. Mississippi State - WIN
vs. West Virginia – TOSS UP
vs. Tennessee - WIN
@ Florida - LOSS
vs. McNeese St. - WIN
@ Auburn – TOSS UP
vs. Alabama – TOSS UP
vs. Louisiana-Monroe - WIN
vs. Ole Miss - WIN
@ Arkansas – LOSS
I see two losses at Florida and at Arkansas. Then I see four games that could go either way. If LSU splits those four toss-up games, that will put them with an 8-4 record. I would not be terribly surprised with a record anywhere from 7-5 to 10-2.
My Take on LSU...
Something has been missing in Baton Rouge the last two seasons. If you believe the recruiting rankings, it is not talent. Many say its coaching, some say luck, I will throw in focus as well. Even Nick Saban could not go undefeated at LSU and "struggled" to a 9-3 season following the 2003 BCS Title.
The defense has plenty of talent and should be improved in its second year under DC John Chavis.
If LSU's QB situation can turn from a negative to a positive then the Tigers' SEC hopes could go from distant to serious contenders.
The out of conference schedule is challenging and that on top of playing in the toughest division in football, the SEC West, could hold down the victory total even if LSU plays better than last year.
I think the first game against UNC will set the tone for the season. Saturday Night Slant said LSU fans are split 50/50 on who will win, but I think the majority still look at ACC teams as inferior. If Miles gets upset against the Tar Heels he will have a big hole to dig out of.
8-4, T3rd SEC West
Thanks again to Saturday Night Slant for their insight.