Let’s just get this out of the way from the start: LSU won’t repeat what it did last season.
In fact, no college football team in our lifetime—or perhaps ever—may top what the Tigers accomplished in 2019.
Just for a quick refresher (not that we all haven’t been reliving it for the past seven-plus months), LSU took down seven top-10 teams while completing an undefeated 15-0 season, beating its opponents by an average of 26 points per game on its way to a national championship.
Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy, Ja’Marr Chase won the Biletnikoff Award, Grant Delpit won the Thorpe Award, and the Tiger offense set multiple records for points, yards and touchdowns. LSU tied an NFL draft record with 14 players selected to cap off what many national pundits dubbed the greatest single season in the history of the sport.
So no, this fall we shouldn’t bank on seeing the same dominance we witnessed last year. But that doesn’t mean the expectations should be any lower.
Hear me out.
In sports, there’s a common term: the “championship hangover.” As the name implies, it refers to the lackadaisical season that often follows a title-winning run. And in a sport as ever-shifting and highly competitive as college football, a championship hangover can set a program back multiple years.
If LSU is looking to establish itself among the consistent elites of college football—up with the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma—it can’t afford to have its intoxicating 2019 season spill over into 2020.
To put it simply, the expectations can’t change. This new Tiger team will need to carry on the torch lit by last year’s unit, while simultaneously carving its own paths and establishing its own legacies. And after talking to the team, they seem ready.
“A lot of people that I run into in public, always say ‘Oh yeah, big shoes to fill’ or ‘No pressure,’” redshirt junior quarterback Myles Brennan tells 225. “But there’s not one day where I wake up sitting here [feeling] like I’ve got the weight of the world on my back. We’re working every day as hard as we can, because we want to get back to where we were … and relive what we lived. I’ve just got to be the best Myles Brennan I can be every single day and every single game. I’m not going to go out there trying to be some superhero, but I’m gonna do everything I can to make sure that we come out victorious.”
That challenge has only been amplified by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world.
Team meetings and daily group workouts have been replaced by Zoom calls and neighborhood runs. Several players have had to find creative ways to lift whatever heavy objects may be lying around the house to stay in top physical shape.
Head strength coach Tommy Moffitt even started a virtual competition, asking players to send in videos of their at-home workouts during quarantine.
“A lot of the guys didn’t have access to the resources to work out,” Brennan says. “So there were guys pulling cars down the driveway or lifting tree trunks. O-linemen were doing drills like hitting a tree like it was a human, so it was cool to see that. A lot of players throughout the country probably didn’t take advantage of each day. So I feel like that’s where us as a team separate ourselves. I made sure I stayed in contact with all the guys on offense and defense and special teams and just made sure that everybody was doing something each day.”
Pandemic or not: In order for LSU to cement its spot in the upper-echelon of college football programs, this year needs to be a reload, not a rebuild.
Household names like Burrow, Justin Jefferson or Clyde Edwards-Helaire may be gone, but taking a deeper dive into the makeup of this year’s Tigers reveals plenty of reasons to believe LSU can be right back in the national title mix at the end of the season, even with a target on its back.
“We like the challenge,” sophomore cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. tells 225. “We like to be the one that everybody is aiming at. We’ve just got to go out there and do our thing.”
SAME AIR, NEW FLAIR
LSU’s “thing” last year revolved around its new-look, fast-paced, high-flying offense powered by the brains of former passing game coordinator Joe Brady and the brawn of the Heisman-winning Burrow.
Both of those names are gone, but the foundation of the Tigers’ offensive philosophy is still very much intact, anchored by third-year offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger.
It was widely reported last year that despite Brady’s massive impact on the offense, Ensminger was still in charge of 90% of the play calls. And there’s no reason to believe that will change this fall.
Longtime NFL offensive mind Scott Linehan was brought in to replace Brady as passing game coordinator, bringing more than 30 years of coaching experience to LSU’s offense.
“[Coach Linehan] has a lot of knowledge,” Brennan says. “It’s been nice to just have a guy that’s been at that level for that long come here and give us that knowledge, which is going to make us all better players. He’s going to add some things that we think are going to help benefit us, but other than that I feel like our offense is going to stay the same. A lot of it is going to be pretty much identical to what we did last year.”
That’s good news for Tiger fans.
As good as Burrow and company were a year ago, the advanced offensive scheme alone gave defensive coordinators fits all throughout the season. And Brennan—while relatively inexperienced on the field—has spent more than three years on campus adapting to the college game and one entire season in this system, learning under the tutelage of Burrow along the way.
He’ll have loads of talent at his disposal, too.
Chase and fellow wideout Terrace Marshall have already established themselves as dominant SEC receivers. But it’s some of the more unknown assets that could give LSU an extra edge.
Racey McMath showed flashes of his athletic prowess last season. Trey Palmer displayed his top-level speed on the Tigers’ only punt return touchdown of the season. Jontre Kirklin is poised to shine in his senior season.
And that’s not even factoring in the star-studded freshman class that includes five-star wideout Kayshon Boutte, four-star receiver Koy Moore and the nation’s No. 5 overall prospect Arik Gilbert, who finished his high school career as the highest rated tight end in the history of 247Sports’ rankings.
“Every time I or one of the other quarterbacks throw [Gilbert] a ball, we look at each other and just smile or laugh at each other,” Brennan says. “He’s gonna be a great player at LSU and at the next level. He has the body frame. He’s a very smooth athlete. He has the size, he can catch, he has the speed, he has the knowledge, and he likes to work. That’s a guy I didn’t even realize was a true freshman because of the amount of time he’s spent with us upperclassmen working. He has not missed a single day, and he’s going to be really, really helpful for our football team.”
RUN IT BACK
No matter who snags the starting role, both Chris Curry (left) and John Emery Jr. (right) will be crucial to the Tigers’ ground game.
Speaking of helpful, outside of Burrow, arguably no one was as impactful to last year’s team as Edwards-Helaire. The Baton Rouge native just about did it all for the Tigers.
He carried the ball on more than 40% of LSU’s run plays. He caught the third-most passes on the team. He was the best pass-blocking running back to protect Burrow. And he returned kickoffs.
He was a one-man Swiss Army knife of weapons for the Tiger offense, but he’s being replaced by a four-headed monster of tailbacks, each with different skill sets.
Fellow local standout Tyrion Davis-Price is the leader in the clubhouse, despite carrying the ball just 64 times to Edwards-Helaire’s 215 last year. John Emery Jr. potentially has the highest ceiling of the group with a toolbox full of shifty, speedy moves, but he often struggled in pass protection as a freshman.
Chris Curry is the most veteran of the group as a redshirt sophomore and was the one most relied upon late in the season on the biggest stage. He earned the start against Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinal and ran for 90 yards on 16 carries.
Throw four-star freshman speedster Tre Bradford into the mix, and LSU has a variety of weapons to deploy at any given time.
“I think it’s going to be beneficial because everybody should be fresh,” Brennan says. “Whether it’s every series or every other series, we have enough guys to where one of those guys isn’t going to get beat up the whole entire game.”
No one individual player is going to be able to replicate the offensive production of Edwards-Helaire. But the Tigers are hoping the running back-by-committee method will pay off.
Along with the increased competition for carries, it allows for more versatility in the backfield.
“They all are capable of doing different things—whether it’s sideline to sideline or downhill running or catching—they all have different strengths,” Brennan says. “That’s all going to come into play, especially with an offense like we have right now where the running backs are getting out on a route or he’s in protection. They’re all able to catch, run the ball and block. And playing in this offense, those three things are very important to be able to perform on Saturday.”
The final question mark offensively comes down to the offensive line, which is having to replace multiple starters from the unit that took home the Joe Moore Award last season, given annually to the best O-line group in the country.
There are four- and five-star talents all throughout the depth chart, but the position battles will need to be ironed out this fall.
‘HARD TO HANDLE’
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more drastic change in personality than going from Dave Aranda to Bo Pelini.
Aranda, who left LSU to take the head coaching job at Baylor, was always known to be soft-spoken and analytical. He was often described as a “mad scientist.”
Pelini, who was LSU’s defensive coordinator from 2005 to 2007, has a history of being a fiery, in-your-face coach who won’t hesitate to speak his mind.
As one anonymous coach described it in a Lindy’s Sports questionnaire, “One coaches like the Pope. Another coaches like he’s in a rock band.”
Tiger fans could certainly be in for a show with the way the defense is shaping up this fall.
Pelini is back for his LSU encore 13 years after helping the Tigers to the team’s previous national championship in 2007.
He’ll have tons of talent at his disposal, as well. It will all be headlined by consensus All-American Derek Stingley Jr.
Even as a true freshman, Stingley was arguably the best player on LSU’s defense a year ago. He started all 15 games at cornerback and snagged six interceptions, ranking him tops in the SEC and tied for fifth nationally.
He’s the anchor for what could be one of strongest “DBU” classes LSU has fielded in recent years, even without the services of Kristian Fulton or First-Team All-American Grant Delpit in the secondary.
“We know that we’re strong,” Stingley says. “We know that if somebody goes down, then the next person can step up, and do just as good if not better. We are trusting each other that we’re all going to work together and get the job done as the whole unit. And if it happens that this secondary is better than last year’s secondary, that’s just how it is at LSU. It’s DBU.”
Kary Vincent Jr. and JaCoby Stevens, who were second and third respectively on the team in interceptions last year, are both back, along with a wealth of young talent with high ceilings like Cordale Flott, Jay Ward and incoming five-star cornerback Elias Ricks.
Add in the fact that safety Todd Harris returns to the team after suffering a season-ending knee injury in his third game last year, along with fellow safeties Mo Hampton and Eric Monroe.
“That changes how you can play,” Pelini says, referring to the wealth of talent in the secondary. “If you feel like you’ve got good cover guys, you’re not scared to do certain things, and I know that’s the case right now. You can get real creative.”
They’ll work in tandem with the big bodies on the defensive line, which is also shaping up to be one of the deepest and most talented units on the team.
And they’ve got a little bit of everything.
Glen Logan’s 22 career starts bring experience. Neil Farrell Jr. was the team’s most productive lineman with 45 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. The 340-plus pounders in Tyler Shelvin and Siaki Ika bring elite size and strength. And the star-studded freshman class of D-linemen brings a healthy balance of youth and experience to add to the rotation.
“They can do a lot of different things,” Pelini says of the group. “They’ve been well coached. They’re physical. I think we can be outstanding up front.”
A lot of pieces still need to fall into place, but the good news for LSU fans is that there appears to be a more concrete vision and direction for the program than Baton Rouge has felt in some time.
In a COVID world where there are more question marks than ever before surrounding the sport, a good foundation is more important than ever.
And while it may not quite be the historic run of 2019, this season could be lining up for another something special.
“I think if we stay healthy, we’re going to be hard to handle,” Pelini says. “I like everything. I like the character. I like the talent. I like the leadership so far. I think our guys are very eager, and they’re hungry. And if it stays that way, we’re going to be hard to handle.”
This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of 225 Magazine.