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10 Burning Questions: LSU

By Matt Smith
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The schedule is again challenging, as LSU opens with Wisconsin at a neutral site and faces road trips to Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M, but there are enough breaks for the Tigers to make a run at the SEC West title.

LSU enters 2014 as a bit of a forgotten team after consecutive 10-3 seasons following their SEC title and BCS National Championship Game appearance in 2011. The household names have moved on to the NFL, but the Tigers are once again loaded with talent on both sides of the ball.

The schedule is again challenging, as LSU opens with Wisconsin at a neutral site and faces road trips to Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M, but there are enough breaks for the Tigers to make a run at the SEC West title. One thing we’ve learned over the past decade is to doubt Les Miles at your own risk. Let’s look at 10 burning questions for LSU.

1. Who emerges in the quarterback battle?

After he came off of the bench to lead a comeback against Arkansas and guided the Tigers to an Outback Bowl win, it was presumed that sophomore Anthony Jennings would naturally take over for the departed Zach Mettenberger. That changed in the spring, as early-enrolling freshman Brandon Harris turned many heads in Baton Rouge. The competition is now dead even as fall camp starts to pick up. Neither is the pure passer that Mettenberger was, but should be more effective throwers than Jordan Jefferson was in prior years, while also bringing some of Jefferson’s versatility. It’s unlikely that LSU makes it through the season with only one starter, but the call here is for Jennings to barely hold on to the starting role for the season-opening showdown with Wisconsin in Houston.

2. Leonard Fournette: when and how much?

Arriving with the hype of being the best running back recruit since Adrian Peterson has set the bar absurdly high for Fournette, a New Orleans native. Fournette joins a backfield containing seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, who combined for almost 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns last season backing up Jeremy Hill. Running back is the easiest position at which to make an impact as a freshman, so don’t expect Fournette to be on the bench for long. 120 carries and 800 yards is a reasonable expectation for Fournette this year before becoming the full-time back in 2015.

3. Is there a true weapon in the receiving corps?

Until further notice, there isn’t. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry were exceptional SEC receivers, and both are now in the NFL. Travin Dural burst onto the scene by catching the game-winning touchdown from Jennings against Arkansas, but he had just six other catches all season. Redshirt freshman John Diarse and true freshmen Malachi Dupre, another New Orleans native, will likely fill out the starting unit. Senior Quantavius Leslie was a disappointment last year after arriving from junior college, meaning freshman Trey Quinn could be the first man off of the bench immediately. The sky is the limit for Dupre, but it won’t happen overnight. This is a clearly a rebuilding year for the Tigers wideouts.

4. Who fills out the offensive line at right guard?

New position coach Jeff Grimes’ unit should be one of the better ones in the SEC with four starters returning, led by left tackle La’El Collins. The lone vacancy is at right guard, as second-team All-SEC performer Trai Turner left for the NFL. Senior Hoko Fanaika, weighing in at a whopping 348 pounds, was a backup last year after arriving from junior college. Also in the mix is versatile sophomore Ethan Pocic, who made one start at center last year but could start at guard in the interim as incumbent Elliott Porter departs. Senior Evan Washington played in every game last year after being an academic casualty in 2012. He’ll be in the mix for the open spot during camp as well.

5. Where are the star defensive linemen like in years past?

There’s no Glenn Dorsey. There’s no Michael Brockers There’s no Barkevious Mingo. There’s no Anthony Johnson. The lack of star power up front is a concern for the Tigers, who have rarely lost the battle in the trenches since returning to the top of college football. There is at least experience at end with senior Jermauria Rasco and junior Danielle Hunter, both 13-game starters a year ago. Tackle is a different story with Johnson and Ego Ferguson both departing. Sophomore Christian LaCouture has one of the two spots, but the other will see some competition. Redshirt freshmen Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron along with true freshman Travonte Valentine (if his academics are in order) will battle veteran Quentin Thomas. Across all four spots, there’s actually more experience than there was last year at this time, but the talent level, on paper at least, is down a notch or two.

6. What can we expect from the linebacking corps?

In the nine-year Miles era, linebacker has been the one position where LSU hasn’t produced many national stars. Ali Highsmith (2007) and Kevin Minter (2012) made at least one All-American team, but seven Tigers defensive linemen and five defensive backs have earned such honors during that time. Again, the second level of the LSU defense appears solid but not spectacular. Senior D.J. Welter is everything you want in a middle linebacker, bringing intelligence and sound tackling, but will sophomore Kendall Beckwith’s athleticism advantage be a trump card?. Junior Kwon Alexander has established himself on the weak side, but what about the third spot? Can five-star freshman Clifton Garrett work into the mix? He might be better suited inside, but his opportunity for early playing time likely comes outside.

7. What is the status of safety Jalen Mills?

The junior’s name first garnered national attention two years ago when he was forced into a starting role as a redshirt freshman after Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team during fall camp. Mills has since slid over to free safety, but a June arrest for suspected battery has clouded his future. Miles immediately suspended Mills indefinitely, but he has returned to the practice after the charge was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor earlier this month. Any discipline is uncertain at this point, as Miles moves to the beat of his own drum, as evident by how he handled Hill’s legal situation at this time a year ago. The good news for Tigers fans is that depth is not a major concern at safety, with sophomore Rickey Jefferson and freshman Jamal Adams fully capable of filling in for Mills.

8. Overall, what is the state of the defense after a subpar 2013?

LSU never allowed more than 18 points per game in John Chavis’ first five years as defensive coordinator. 2013 was a significant step back, however, as the Tigers allowed 22 points per game, including more than 25 on six separate occasions. The overall talent level has dipped since the 2011 team that included Mathieu, Brockers, Johnson, Minter, Mingo, Eric Reid, Morris Claiborne and Sam Montgomery. The good news is that the Tigers may have bottomed out in 2013. Seven starters return this season, and only three are seniors. 20 years in the SEC have earned Chavis any benefit of the doubt. While returning to an 11-points-per-game level like in 2011 isn’t reasonable, matching the 17.5 points per game allowed by the 2012 unit seems likely with the experience and a workable schedule.

9. Is LSU flying under the radar?

There’s plenty of buzz around Auburn as the defending conference champion. There’s buzz around the Mississippi schools for their Cinderella potential. There’s buzz around Alabama because it’s Alabama. But most pundits aren’t talking much about LSU. Is that a credit to Miles’ consistency? Or does it signal concerns about the state of the program? Despite the losses on offense, this team should be favored in 10 of 12 games. That means it may only take one upset to win the SEC West. Fair or not, there’s still a perception that Miles is a step below Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn as a head coach. Couple that with the losses on offense, and the Tigers find themselves again outside of the preseason top 10.

10. How will LSU finish in the 2014 season?

There are too many questions on offense for this team to earn a playoff berth, but they’ll once again hold serve in Tiger Stadium and contend for the SEC West until late in the season. Even with a split of consecutive October road trips to Auburn and Florida, the Tigers could very well still be playing for the division title Nov. 8 when Alabama comes to Baton Rouge. The call here is for LSU to vault to the top of the SEC West with an upset of the Crimson Tide, but for the Tigers to hit a late landmine at either Arkansas or Texas A&M to ruin any title hopes. A 10 or 11-win season is still in the cards, however, as is a fun date with Baylor on New Year’s Day in the Cotton Bowl.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.