The inaugural year of the Ed Orgeron era was a tale of two seasons for the former LSU defensive line coach. The opening month of the 2018 campaign was a tumultuous experience in which the Tigers endured two surprising losses. In the third week of the season, the Tigers were steamrolled 37-7 by Mississippi State in Starkville, suffering the worst defeat in the series’s history. LSU hit rock bottom two weeks later after suffering a 24-21 upset at the hands of Troy University, a presumed “rent-a-win” from the lowly Sun Belt Conference. The program seemed doomed to undergo its first losing season since Gerry DiNardo’s paltry 3-8 campaign in 1999.
Then something changed.
The Tigers rallied, beating the next two ranked opponents, en route to a 6-1 record in October and November. Despite a disastrous September, Orgeron led the Tigers to their best Southeastern Conference record (6-2) since the 2012 season.
Orgeron’s initial team endured the typical transitional growing pains associated with a coaching regime change. This year, the Tigers cannot afford to gradually ease into the season. They face a gauntlet of a schedule from the opening kick to the finish. September is once again crucial for LSU and Orgeron, as the Tigers jump straight into the fray with big time opponents Miami and Auburn within the first three weeks. With an emphatic season opening win against the Hurricanes in Arlington, Texas would set the tone for a successful season. A loss could send the 2018 season careening out of control before it even gets started.
Is Joe Burrow the Answer?
As surely as the sun rises in the east, LSU will have questions regarding the quarterback position (at least that’s how things have been for quite some time under center in Baton Rouge). Enter Steve Ensminger. The former LSU tight ends coach was promoted to offensive coordinator in the off-season and has big plans to revitalize the Tigers’s offense with a more balanced attack, starting with the quarterback position.
Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow is the presumed starter, but the Tigers have three other players vying for the starting role under center. The former Buckeye will be challenged by sophomore Miles Brennan, junior Justin McMillan, and redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse.
After six straight seasons of Jeremy Hill, Leonard Fournette, and Derrius Guice, the Tigers will be counting on several unproven running backs in 2018, none of whom scored a touchdown last season. Senior Nick Brossette and sophomore Clyde Edwards-Helaire may see the bulk of the carries to start the season, but do not be surprised if freshman Chris Curry emerges as a key force in the running game as the year progresses.
The Tigers’s wide receiving corps is littered with former four- and five-star talent waiting to be utilized by the proper quarterback. Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles is the Tigers’s most experienced receiver, racking up 1,158 and 13 touchdowns during the 2016 season in Lubbock. Giles will be wearing the prestigious No. 7 jersey for the Tigers this season.
Lengthy juniors Stephen Sullivan, Drake Davis, and Dee Anderson all have the potential to break out this season, while sophomore Justin Jefferson has been the talk of the off-season. Highly touted freshmen Terrace Marshall, Jr., and Ja’Marr Chase will push for playing time sooner rather than later. Along with senior tight end Foster Moreau, Burrow (or whoever plays quarterback) will have no shortage of weapons at his disposal this season.
The key to this offense will be the experienced line that returns several key starters and rotation players for 2017 and adds a couple of impressive junior college players. If the line can continue to gel like it did in the final portion of 2017, it’ll provide much-needed protection for an unproven backfield.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda nabbed a hefty raise in the off-season to prevent him from bolting for Texas A&M, making him the first coordinator in college football to make over $2 million per year. There’s a reason Aranda is such a hot commodity—his defenses are stout, ferocious, and productive. Since bringing his defensive schemes down from Wisconsin two seasons ago, Aranda’s LSU defensive units have finished fifth and twelfth in total defense.
This year’s defense might be his best yet. Stocked with talented defenders, particularly upperclassmen, there has been talk that LSU boasts a championship-caliber defense with a stout front seven. Each level of the defense is anchored by third-year studs.
Linebacker Devin White led the SEC in tackles last season and figures to be a one-man wrecking crew. He’ll be joined by a trio of sophomore inside linebackers—Jacob Phillips, Tyler Taylor, and Patrick Queen—as part of LSU’s fearsome linebacker corps. On the defensive line, LSU features depth not seen for quite a while in Baton Rouge. Juniors Rashard Lawrence and Texas Tech transfer Breiden Fehoko should anchor the line, along with Ed Alexander, Glen Logan, and Tyler Shelvin. Edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson has some 2016 Arden Key potential to terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
LSU’s secondary, typically the program’s defensive calling card, is uncharacteristically slim in proven talent heading into the season. Andraez “Greedy” Williams emerged as one of the nation’s top shut-down corners last year, leading the SEC with six interceptions. If former Rummel star Kristian Fulton miraculously has the second year of his NCAA suspension overturned, the Tigers could have a dynamic cornerback duo. Should Fulton not return to the field in 2018, sophomores Jontre Kirklin and Kary Vincent are next up for DBU. From there, Aranda has gotten creative, adding depth with converted receiver Mannie Netherly, converted freshman safety Kelvin Joseph, and Stanford graduate transfer Terrence Alexander.
Field Goal Faux Pas
LSU’s kicking game was atrocious last season. Jack Gonsoulin and Connor Culp combined for 16-of-27 field goals last season. Fortunately, reinforcements arrived in the off-season. The Tigers picked up Assumption College graduate transfer Cole Tracy to shore up the kicking game this season. Tracy was the top placekicker in Division II in 2017, connecting on 27-of-29 field goals and making all 67 extra-point attempts. Punters Zach Von Rosenburg and Josh Growden will likely split duties again this season. In the return game, LSU has plenty of playmakers to choose from, but it will be up to first-year special teams coordinator Greg McMahon to gauge which Tigers are ready to step up.
A season opening win against Miami could be a sign of good things to come for the rest of the 2018 campaign. Road trips at Auburn, Florida, and Texas A&M are looming, along with home dates against Georgia and Alabama, last year’s national championship game participants. LSU will split the home games against Georgia and Alabama, but drop a road game somewhere along the way. LSU: 11-2 (6-2), New Year’s Six Bowl
Photos by LSU Sports