Louisiana can be an apprehensive place during the months leading up to the start of the college football season. There is an anxiousness in the air, which is compounded by extreme heat and constant 90-percent-plus humidity.
I know. I grew up there. I can remember listening to my dad talk about LSU football with friends.
"I think the Tigers will look good this season. We'll be close to the SEC championship game for sure this year," he would say. But his tone relayed doubt. Coach Gerry DiNardo was at the helm, after all.
While the Tigers improved under DiNardo (LSU had six straight losing seasons before DiNardo took over in 1994), LSU was never close to competing for a national championship. DiNardo's Tigers went 33-23-1.
Two BCS championships and top-10 recruiting classes have changed things. There is still a nervous anticipation for the first football kickoff. My dad still talks about the Tigers' chances. Only now he believes they can win it all.
LSU isn't a popular national, or SEC, champion pick for 2009. Tim Tebow's return makes Florida the consensus favorite to win the SEC (which almost guarantees a spot in the BCS title game).
The Tigers struggled last season; their 8-5 finish would be satisfactory in the 90's, but fans grow accustomed to BCS wins quickly. Here are the first three reasons LSU should be in the national-title discussion.
The Tigers play Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas at home. While home field doesn't win games by itself (see Georgia and Alabama in 2008), Tiger Stadium is a tough place to play. LSU hasn’t lost to Auburn at home since 1999. The Tigers lost to Arkansas in Baton Rouge in 2007, LSU’s first home loss to the Razorbacks since 1992.
LSU played Florida at home in both national championship seasons. The Tigers lost to Florida (only loss of the season) in 2003, and won 28-24 in 2007.
LSU's toughest road games will be Georgia, Ole Miss, and Alabama. Strangely, the Tigers play better against the Tide when the game is played in Alabama (LSU has not lost in Tuscaloosa since 1999).
Ole Miss will be tougher this season, the Rebels second under Houston Nutt, but LSU has won the last four meetings in Oxford. Georgia embarrassed LSU 52-38 at Tiger Stadium last year, so the Tigers will have extra motivation to play well in Athens this season.
LSU's defense struggled last season. The Tigers gave up 24.2 points a game (ninth in the SEC) and 325.5 total yards a game. Those numbers were up from the previous season, when the Tigers held opponents to an average of 19.9 points and 288.8 yards.
The defensive problems can be attributed to the loss of Bo Pelini, LSU's defensive coordination from 2005-07, or the loss of players to the NFL (nine players from 2006-08).
After Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory didn't quite work out as co-defensive coordinators in 2008, LSU Head Coach Les Miles hired a new defensive coordinator who has 20 years of experience in the SEC—John Chavis.
Chavis, who has been at Tennessee for the last 14 years, will be in charge of restoring LSU's dominant SEC defense. It will start with the defensive line.
LSU has 16 defensive linemen on scholarship (19 total), even with the Tigers losing Tyson Jackson, Kirston Pittman, Rick Jean-Francois, and Marlon Favorite from last season. It will be important for senior Al Woods and junior Drake Nevis to set the tone for the younger players.
LSU’s d-line has set the tone over the past several seasons. When the d-line is giving up chunks of rushing yardage and not pressuring opposing quarterbacks, the team struggles to win games. LSU controls the game when the d-line’s play is solid (think Glen Dorsey when he was healthy).
Chavis has the experience to get the younger players ready to face SEC offenses. In his 14 years at Tennessee, the Vols finished in the top four in the SEC in total defense 10 times. He knows how to coach an attacking, dominant SEC defense. The question is how fast he can transform the talented youngsters.
Speed, Speed, and More Speed
Starting with Nick Saban in 2000-04, and now Miles, speed has been a priority for LSU recruiters. With burners like Trindon Holiday and Terrance Tolliver the Tigers receivers unleash track-and-field quality speed on opposing defenses.
Holidayis tied with Jeff Demps for fastest college football player. Each has posted a 100m time of 10.1 seconds while running track. Xavier Carter, a former LSU receiver, left the team in 2005 to pursue professional track and field.
Russell Shepard is one of LSU’s top recruits from last year’s class. He is listed as a quarterback, but the freshman will most likely line up as a receiver this season.
Shepard will fit right in with Holidayand Tolliver. Just watch Shepard’s highlights from his senior year at Cyprus Ridge High School in Texas. It is difficult to find a clip that doesn’t end with a touchdown for Shepard. He has incredible open-field speed. He doesn’t break many tackles, not unlike Holiday, but the two are a threat to score each time they touch the ball.
The discussions leading up to the BCS championship game the past several years have focused on which team has more speed. The SEC has proved the winner of that argument for three straight seasons.