I’ll be honest with you.
LSU could make me look very, very dumb in 2018. I realize that’s a strange thing to admit before I break down the Tigers’ season, but it’s the feeling I can’t shake.
Obviously a big part of that is Joe Burrow. It’s been so long that we’ve seen LSU have a game-changer at quarterback that it’s almost hard to imagine what that would even look like. And if he’s not that game-changer, we’ll be looking for the next Leonard Fournette or Derrius Guice somewhere in LSU’s backfield.
There are questions galore surrounding the offense. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for the sake of making preseason predictions, it’s a difficult thing for a program like LSU.
That’s my way of saying that I’m prepared to have some serious egg on my face.
2017 record: 9-3 (6-2)
That still hasn’t gotten old yet. Burreaux, AKA Joe Burrow, has LSU fans buzzing and understandably so. The quarterback-starved program is hoping that the guy who couldn’t beat out J.T. Barrett or Dwayne Haskins at Ohio State is going to become a star. And quite frankly, I’m not opposed to the optimism.
Why? It’s not like Burrow was developed by Darrell Hazell (no offense to Danny Etling). He was developed by Urban Meyer, Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day. Say what you want about the off-field issues of those first 2 coaches, but no one can deny their history of developing quarterbacks.
Meyer told me at Big Ten Media Days that he thought Burrow was a “made quarterback.” That’s the best news that LSU fans can hear. It won’t be on new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger to build him from the ground up. It’ll be his job to adjust with Burrow and to make sure they’re on the same page, but nobody needs to teach the Ohio State transfer how to play the position at the collegiate level.
Will he be named the starter before the Miami game? I highly doubt it. Will people still act like this is a real competition? Definitely. But to me, Burrow was brought to Baton Rouge for 1 reason, and that is to get LSU through this daunting schedule.
Speaking of the schedule …
So initially, I thought what everyone pretty much did. LSU’s schedule is so tough that it seems inevitable that we’re going to hear about Ed Orgeron’s future throughout 2018. Vegas set the over/under for LSU’s regular season win total at 6.5, which has since gone up to 7. That’s for an LSU program that won at least 8 games in every year of the 21st century, so naturally, it has fans fearing doom and gloom.
I’m kind of going in a different direction now, at least as it relates to LSU’s expectations. As daunting as the schedule is — 5 matchups against teams that could start in the top 15 won’t be fun — it seems like the bar has been lowered to a more realistic level for LSU. Now, an 8-4 season is going to look a whole lot better than it would in most years.
If the Tigers win one or even two of those huge headliner matchups, especially at home, Orgeron has the chance to change the narrative in a hurry. LSU fans might remember when it opened the 2016 season against a Wisconsin team that had such average expectations because of its brutal schedule. The Badgers beat LSU and went on to play for a conference championship.
I’m not saying that’ll happen to the Tigers, but there’s something to be said for an elite program having lower expectations than normal.
Dave Aranda’s new territory
I always think it’s convenient to have at least one legitimate All-America candidate at each level of a defense. Rashard Lawrence, Devin White, Greedy Williams … OK, we’re good there. It’s even more convenient to have one of the game’s top coordinators running the show. Dave Aranda … OK, we’re good there, too.
I’d expect LSU to have another top-15 defense. To be honest, I thought Arden Key and Donte Jackson were talented, but easily replaceable pieces. Shoot, I’ve seen Aranda take 2-star walk-ons and turn them into more productive players than Key was last year (when healthy).
Perhaps that’s part of the reason LSU shelled out then-record setting money to keep Aranda in Baton Rouge. The Tigers were essentially forced to exceed what Texas A&M offered, which set an odd precedent. Now, he’s making just $1 million less than what Orgeron made in 2018. I’m still not convinced that’ll be a conflict-free situation.
Aranda is so respected that if LSU’s defense starts wearing down because the offense can’t sustain drives against elite foes (where have I heard that before?), it’ll be Orgeron who gets blamed. If LSU is putting that kind of investment into Aranda, that can’t be the case.
The pressure is on for Aranda deliver, and fortunately for him, he has plenty of pieces to do so.
Week 1: vs. Miami (L)*
While I think Burrow is going to be vastly better than any LSU quarterback in recent memory, I think facing a top-10 defense in his first career start in Jerry World will be awfully challenging. I’ve been saying all summer this has the feel of a 17-14 game. I think the Tigers fall just short to a Miami squad that’s eager to get the bad taste out of its mouth from the end of 2017.
Week 2: vs. Southeastern Louisiana (W)
Isn’t this where the Water Boy went to school? Does Bobby Boucher have any eligibility left? No? OK, moving on.
Week 3: at Auburn (L)
I know. Sound the alarms. It’s panic time in Baton Rouge. A 1-2 start is the result after Auburn avenges last year’s embarrassing collapse at LSU. It’s hard to pick against the home team when the host has been the victor in 5 consecutive years. A loss in the Tiger Bowl sends LSU fans into “here we go again” mode.
Week 4: vs. Louisiana Tech (W)
For what it’s worth, Louisiana Tech came up a point short at South Carolina last year and at Arkansas the year before that (also, remember Louisiana Tech’s 59-57 loss to Johnny Manziel’s Texas A&M squad in 2012?). Skip Holtz would love nothing more than to finally get over the hump against an SEC team. Unfortunately for him, LSU takes all of its 1-2 anger out and cruises at home.
Week 5: vs. Ole Miss (W)
Ole Miss will be a welcome sight for the LSU offense in Week 5. By then, the ground game should have more of an identity and Burrow will be a bit more comfortable running the offense. Williams against AJ Brown has potential to be the No. 1 WR/CB matchup in the SEC, but it’s probably not ideal that Ole Miss’ best player is lining up against a potential All-American. LSU gets on the board in SEC play.
Week 6: at Florida (W)
This is going to be a huge, huge, huge game for shaping the 2018 narrative on Orgeron. Win in Gainesville and suddenly a 1-2 start overall doesn’t look so bad with a 2-1 start to SEC play. I think that’s what’ll happen. Want a weird stat? Florida has won 3 games vs. LSU in the past 9 meetings. The Gators didn’t score more than 16 points in any of those wins. I wouldn’t be surprised if this would up being a 24-21 or a 21-20 game that LSU pulls out. Burrow leads a poised drive to win it in the closing minutes and delivers his best moment yet.
Week 7: vs. Georgia (W)
Let’s get weird. You already know the atmosphere in the Bayou will be electric for this one. LSU will be the team with nothing to lose while Georgia is probably a top-4 team after a 6-0 start. We saw the Dawgs crumble in their toughest regular-season matchup at Auburn last year. While I don’t think it’s that kind of a blowout, I think it all just clicks for LSU. The Tigers’ ground game has its most impressive performance of the year and fuels the upset. Orgeron is hoisted off the field like he just won a national title and all is well in Baton Rouge.
Week 8: vs. Mississippi State (L)
Ah, but thus is life in the SEC. Right after LSU is feeling like it just overcame a major hurdle, it struggles to capture that same juice the following week against MSU. After the Bulldogs dismantled LSU in Starkville last year, they find themselves in a much closer game this year. Ultimately, Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat take over late and LSU’s last-ditch effort comes up short.
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: vs. Alabama (L)
So here’s what I will say. I think LSU actually exceeds 24 points against the Tide for the first time since 2007. How’s that for a prediction? Having a quarterback who can actually stretch the field will pay huge dividends for the Tigers. And I think the same will be true for Alabama. Tua Tagovailoa and Burrow make this matchup different than the limited quarterback play we’ve seen in recent memory. Still, the Tide escape Baton Rouge with a hard-fought 34-27 win.
Week 11: at Arkansas (W)
After that brutal 3-game gauntlet of top-15 teams, LSU finally gets to face a team that it should dominate at the line of scrimmage. Chad Morris’ offense against Aranda’s defense could be fun in a couple years, but for now, Lawrence and the Tigers’ line should feast.
Week 12: vs. Rice (W)
Is there a such thing as a crawfish cupcake? If there is, Orgeron has probably tried it.
Week 13: at Texas A&M (W)
A roller-coaster regular season ends on a high for LSU. It’s interesting that Jimbo Fisher was brought to Texas A&M to beat Alabama and Georgia for SEC titles. Really, though, Aggies fans should probably be more focused on ending a 7-year losing streak to the Tigers first. Say what you want about the limitations of the LSU offense, but averaging 49.5 points per game against Texas A&M the past 2 years is plenty impressive. New A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko won’t let that happen, but LSU will still have enough to squeak out a gutsy road win in College Station to reach the 8-win mark.
2018 projection: 8-4 (5-3)
Final Standings: 4th in SEC West
* at AT&T Stadium in Dallas
I’m warning you, LSU fans. If this season plays out like I projected it will, it might take years off your life. The highs will be high, and the lows will be low. But in the end, I think an 8-4 regular season with that challenging of a schedule would be a win.
In a weird way, I actually think this could be a pretty satisfying year for LSU. Burrow will have his tough moments early on, but he’ll live up to the expectation that he’s different from recent LSU quarterbacks. We’ll see the Tigers get a seminal moment against Georgia, and they’ll put up a better offensive showing against Alabama. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
The narrative will shift from LSU being this team that can only run the ball, and that’ll make some of those losses easier to stomach. No, they won’t get to Atlanta, which I realize is the measuring stick for some LSU fans. But with Burrow back in 2019 and an extremely talented young core expected to take over next year, 2018 has the makings of a major foundational year for the program.
And yes, Orgeron keeps his job.
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