No. 15 LSU
Minutes after LSU finished their domination of Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the Citrus Bowl last December, head coach Ed Orgeron said it's not enough. He's right; he wasn't hired to win eight or nine games and appear in a mid-level bowl game.
“Coach O told us in the locker room it’s a great win, but next season, things are going to be different." offensive lineman Will Clapp said, “We’re going to be in it (College Football Playoff)."
In order to be "in it," LSU must replace an All-American center, their leading receiver and eight defensive starters, including two first-round defensive backs.
2016 Record: 8-4 (5-3, SEC)
LSU failed to reach 10 wins in a third-straight season, their longest such streak since 1998-2000. They dropped an ugly season opener to Wisconsin in which the offense committed three turnovers and had 257 yards of total offense. A similar loss to Auburn was the firing point for Les Miles, who was fired after 148 games (114-34) as head coach.
Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was named his temporary replacement. Though home losses to Alabama and Florida that featured 10 total points were frustrating, the offense took a big step forward in their final eight games, scoring at least 38 points five times, including 54 in a win at Texas A&M in the season finale.
Head Coach: Ed Orgeron (1st year)
Ed Orgeron is actually 6-2 as LSU head coach but those six wins came with an interim tag.
The 56-year-old Louisiana native gets his first full-time head coaching shot in a decade, and like his first chance at Ole Miss from 2005-07, it's back in the SEC. A 32-year-old coaching veteran, Orgeron arrived in Baton Rouge as defensive line coach in 2015 and is fired up to fulfill his childhood dream.
"It's a great day in my life, but obviously it is not about me," he said at his introductory press conference last November, routinely choking up. "It's about the people of Louisiana and the players all pulling together. One team, one heartbeat."
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Danny Etling, RB Derrius Guice, WR D.J. Clark, OT K.J. Malone, C Will Clapp
LSU's quest toward offensive consistency and explosiveness will be led by new coordinator Matt Canada, a 45-year-old longtime upper midwest assistant who was most recently coordinator at North Carolina State and Pittsburgh.
Canada has senior quarterback Danny Etling at the helm. The former Purdue transfer was good enough in 11 appearances last year, completing 59.5 percent of his passes — far better than Brandon Harris' 53.9-percent clip — for 2,123 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“[The offense is] still developing, something I’m working on with my footwork and continue to get better and better, with coach Canada teaching me to get better every single day,” Etling said during the second week of fall camp. “You’re going to run out of time soon enough (when) you need to start game planning, so you can’t work on this stuff anymore.”
Etling's backfield mate is Derrius Guice, a Heisman Trophy contender after rushing for 1,387 yards on just 183 carries (7.6 yards per carry) in relief on Leonard Fournette last year. Though Canada says Guice's playmaking potential is "off the charts," he's been most thrilled with the junior running back's attention to detail elsewhere.
"From Day 1 when I got here [Guice] wanted to know about protection. That's really a refreshing thing to see with a running back," Canada said. "His first question wasn't, 'How are you going to get me the ball?' He probably knew he was going to get the ball. But that wasn't what it was."
With receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural gone, Etling's primary target is senior D.J. Clark, whose 17.9 yards-per-catch average led the team (466 yards on just 26 receptions). And the offensive line is led by junior center Will Clapp — who's moving over to replace draft pick Ethan Pocic — and senior tackle K.J. Malone, the son of NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Arden Key, DE Christian LaCouture, LB Donnie Alexander, CB Donte Jackson, S John Battle
Orgeron retained high-priced defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who arrived just one year ago from the same position at Wisconsin. Four starters are back from a unit that ranked in the top three in the SEC in most categories, including scoring, sacks and total defense.
However, they forced just 17 turnovers, good for 88th in the FBS, proof that a dominating unit can be even better.
"Momentum has a lot to do with it," Aranda, the then-Wisconsin defensive coordinator said in August 2015 regarding turnovers. "And you've got to have one ball hawk that is able to come down with it. But once you get one there is a good chance of getting others."
The same applies for his 2017 Tigers, though instead of a ball hawk spurring the momentum, it needs to be junior pass-rushing specialist Arden Key (below). Key took a leave of absence over the offseason but is back with the team. An All-SEC First-Team selection, he led the conference with 1.1 sacks per game and is capable of taking over a game.
Linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley are in the NFL, leaving senior Donnie Alexander (44 tackles) as the group's leader — though that's just fine with Aranda, who can't stop gushing over his on- and off-the-field development.
"What I'm really excited about Donnie is the strides that he's made . . . He's a leader on our team. He's an emerging leader. And that's so cool to see," Aranda said over the summer. "I think he's strong and he's confident about hitting folks."
Most secondaries couldn't withstand the loss of elite defensive backs like Jamal Adams and Tre'Davious White. LSU's can. Junior corner Donte Jackson is back, as is senior safety John Battle. The pair combined for 12 passes defended and two picks a year ago.
Notable Player Losses
RB Leonard Fournette, WR Malachi Dupre, WR Travin Dural, C Ethan Pocic, DT Davon Godchaux, LB Duke Riley, LB Kendell Beckwith, CB Tre'Davious White, S Jamal Adams
Five of LSU's seven draft selections were defensive players, including two first-round defensive backs in safety Jamal Adams and corner Tre'Davious White. Their top two tacklers, Duke Riley and Kendell Beckwith, are also gone, along with big tackle Davon Godchaux.
Offensively, Derrius Guice's emergence has made the loss of Leonard Fournette manageable, if not — shockingly — irrelevant? They would've loved one more season from All-American center Ethan Pocic.
Notable Player Additions
WR/S JaCoby Stevens, OT Austin Deculus, C Lloyd Cushenberry
JaCoby Stevens is LSU's most intriguing and talked-about addition. A five-star prospect from Tennessee, the 6-foot-2, 216-pounder played both receiver and safety in high school and was expected to be a receiver for the Tigers. Then he might be a safety. Then receiver. For now, he is a receiver — who might play safety at some point in the future, or stay at receiver.
"We know he's an outstanding safety," Orgeron said. "We felt we need more depth at the receiver position. He was an outstanding receiver in high school. I told him he can play (sooner) here (by moving to receiver). He said, 'Coach, I want to give it a try.'"
Two other players to keep an eye on: redshirt freshman center Lloyd Cushenberry and true freshman tackle Austin Deculus. Both are projected backups but have earned big praise from the staff.
LSU opens the season in Houston with their first-ever matchup with BYU. It's arguably the most underrated matchup of Week 1.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. BYU|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Chattanooga|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at Mississippi State|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Syracuse|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Troy|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Florida|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Auburn|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Ole Miss|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Alabama|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Arkansas|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Tennessee|
|Saturday, Nov. 25|