SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for LSU football in 2020
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues with LSU. Thursday morning: Mississippi State.
They say that repeating is the toughest thing to do in sports.
They say that repeating the best season in college football history is an even tougher thing to do. Or so I’m told.
These past 8 months have been almost a weekly reminder of why 2020 is an extremely different time in Baton Rouge. At least it is from a personnel standpoint.
A team that went into spring ranked No. 127 of 130 FBS teams in percentage of returning production after having a record 14 players drafted has since lost Tyler Shelvin, Kary Vincent, Neil Farrell and Ja’Marr Chase to opt-outs while once-possible starters T.K. McClendon and Justin Thomas entered the transfer portal. And just in case that wasn’t enough, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda took the head gig at Baylor while offensive mastermind Joe Brady joined Matt Rhule’s staff with the Carolina Panthers.
Out of breath yet?
LSU returns just 6 starters from last year’s championship squad. But they do return Ed Orgeron, Steve Ensminger, Derek Stingley, JaCoby Stevens and a water boy from that championship squad. My bad. We don’t say “water boy” in 2020. It’s “hydration specialist.”
Anyway, LSU had massive turnover, in case you haven’t heard. Does that mean a massive falloff should be expected? Let’s dig into that.
The LSU offense in a post-Joe Brady world
Stop me if you’ve heard this before — Ensminger called 70% of the plays last year.
Orgeron has said that so much this offseason that I’m starting to wonder if that number was actually much less, but 70 sounded like a nice, high, round number. Besides, it’s not like Brady is about to start off a Panthers press conference by saying “I actually called 45% of LSU’s plays last year.”
It’s somewhat irrelevant now. What is relevant is that Ensminger isn’t running his 2018 offense. He’s running the same spread concepts that Brady implemented in 2019. Of course, the question is how comfortable he’ll be in doing that on a full-time basis. I tend to think that Ensminger is going to have plenty of success implementing new looks for an offense that’s loaded with young and up-and-coming talent.
Of course, there will be a drop-off. Think of how long college football has been played. Now think about how LSU scored more points last year than any team in the sport’s history. How much regression can LSU stomach while staying in contention?
I’ll take the “over” on whatever those projections are.
Bo knows LSU
Bo Pelini’s return to Baton Rouge is one of the better SEC storylines of 2020. He’s back in an assistant role for the first time since that magical 2007 season at LSU, and it is inevitably going to be somewhat of an adjustment. But given where Pelini is in his career, it might be exactly what he needs.
After spending the past 5 years at FCS Youngstown State, Pelini certainly would have preferred to have had Shelvin and Farrell working on that defensive line, but he still has a defense with proven playmakers like Stingley and Stevens. Shoot, last year’s LSU defense had 6 (!) players drafted, and Orgeron said he believes this year’s group will be “much better.” It’s interesting that Orgeron said that repeatedly this offseason. Last year’s defense had its moments of lapses, which were well-documented.
This year’s defense, Orgeron hopes, will be more consistent in the regular season. Is a top-4 SEC defense in the works? That would be a sign that the Pelini move paid dividends.
Look beyond interceptions for Derek Stingley Jr.
I’m trying to get ahead of this belief that Stingley is going to regress. His numbers are coming down. Why? He’s at the top of every scouting report after having one of the best true freshman seasons we’ve seen in college football history. Throwing at him is like sticking your hand in a toaster. You know it’s dumb.
Inevitably, he’s going to be avoided. It’ll be fascinating to track the Pro Football Focus numbers with him. How many times will he be targeted? How many catches of 20-plus yards will he allow? Is it possible that he’ll end the year with maybe 1 or 2 interceptions but actually be even more successful? I wouldn’t bet against that. I also wouldn’t bet on throwing at a guy who for my money was as good as there was at the position in the entire sport last year.
But Stingley is going to be a bit like a right fielder. He’ll get the least amount of action his way on a weekly basis, yet we all know that’s not because of a lack of skill.
Well, hopefully we all know that.
Week 1: vs. MSU (W)
I think this is a bad Week 1 matchup for MSU’s defense. Even if things don’t get rolling from the first series for LSU, the Tigers have plenty of outside weapons like Terrace Marshall and Racey McMath (a major breakout candidate in the SEC) to attack a Bulldogs defense that has loads of questions under new defensive coordinator Zach Arnett. Myles Brennan should be able to get several pass-catchers all sorts of looks. This is going to be a pass-heavy approach from LSU in the opener. I don’t expect Mike Leach’s Air Raid to have enough success to keep pace with the Tigers.
Week 2: at Vanderbilt (W)
Are we sure that Vandy is going to have enough players to field a team? Man, it seems like the turnover and opt-outs have been the story of the offseason in Nashville. No, I don’t expect a Commodore quarterback who will have 1 career start to sustain drives against LSU. This is the closest thing the Tigers will get to a cupcake week matchup.
Week 3: vs. Mizzou (W)
So think about this. Pelini gets to face 3 new offensive coordinators in his first 3 games. That’s a victory. Granted, Eli Drinkwitz knows what he’s doing, and Leach is one of the best minds in the sport. But I think the timing of that proves vital. This winds up being a Stevens-stat sheet stuffing game and LSU rolls for the third consecutive week.
Week 4: at Florida (L)
This is when the roster attrition is finally felt. No, it won’t be the same type of rocking road atmosphere that LSU stepped into in 2018, but it will still be a hungry Florida squad with all sorts of experience. I wonder about how LSU’s new-look offensive line is going to handle all the pressure that Todd Grantham will dial up. He has no shortage of potential stud edge rushers even after losing Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga. I thought Kyle Trask played really well in that LSU game last year, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he delivered his best performance to date en route to a monumental Florida victory.
Week 5: vs. South Carolina (W)
Will Muschamp would love to get a win reminiscent of 2019 Georgia … but he’ll instead get an angry LSU team. That’s not ideal. This winds up being a coming-out-party for the LSU offensive line following a rough showing in Gainesville. Chris Curry and the Tigers deliver an emphatic statement with a 250-yard rushing performance against a solid South Carolina front, and they get back on track.
Week 6: at Auburn (W)
The narrative going into this game is going to be “but Auburn played so well in Death Valley last year and LSU lost soooo much.” I get that. Auburn played so well in part because Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson did their thing in what proved to be the only team with the personnel to successfully execute the 3-1-7 defense against LSU (sorry Georgia and Clemson), while LSU played so well because Clyde Edwards-Helaire did his thing. But yes, I’ll slightly lean LSU despite all of those major losses. I’m a Brennan believer, and I think the LSU receiver room is still stockpiled with enough talent even after Chase opted out. I’m not sure if Kevin Steele will bust out the 3-1-7 again without having 3 down linemen who can generate pressure consistently, but I think his unit will come up just short against an LSU offense that should still be one of the league’s best.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: vs. Alabama (L)
All things considered, getting to the Alabama game with West/SEC/Playoff aspirations would be quite the feat. Orgeron would deserve SEC Coach of the Year consideration for that alone. This game won’t feel like some of those 2015-18 offensive duds against Alabama, which is progress in itself. But in another high-scoring affair ends up going to the Crimson Tide, who gets a late Trey Sanders touchdown for the win. Dare I say, it’s similar of T.J. Yeldon in 2012. All of those West/SEC/Playoff hopes fade at the hands of Alabama.
Week 9: at Arkansas (W)
A slow offensive start from LSU turns into a comfortable win by game’s end. True freshman Arik Gilbert has his biggest game yet to fuel all of his preseason All-America buzz for 2021. Instead of hanging their heads after a tough loss to Alabama, the LSU defense dominates from start to finish. A 35-7 win in Fayetteville gives LSU its first victory in 3 weeks.
Week 10: at Texas A&M (W)
Do you think Orgeron is going to be fired up to return to College Station? I do. And this time, something tells me he won’t leave it up to chance against the Aggies. This winds up being a massive statement victory against an A&M team that was picked by many to leapfrog LSU. Another dominant defensive showing from LSU — led by 2 forced fumbles by Jabril Cox — makes Orgeron’s return to College Station a happy one. The only question is if he gets the Gatorade bath this time … nah. They wouldn’t do that.
Week 11: vs. Ole Miss (L)
Wait, what? A loss to Ole Miss? Here’s my thinking. I wonder how much motivation and gas will be left in the tank at this point. If LSU isn’t playing for a division title and with Playoff hopes are dashed because of the Florida loss, 1 of 2 things could happen. Either LSU has a rash of key players sit to avoid an injury in an otherwise meaningless game OR the Tigers are feeling the effects of a 10-game SEC schedule and not in the right place physically from a depth standpoint. This will be one of those “inferior team catches the superior team at the perfect time” games. Lane Kiffin unloads the entire bag of tricks and pulls off one of the weirder upsets of the 2020 season.
2020 projection: 7-3, 2nd in SEC West
I think the floor in Baton Rouge has absolutely been raised. And while some predicted doom and gloom for the Tigers following the news of Chase opting out, I was a bit more on the optimistic side. A 3-loss regular season might sound like a letdown to some, but in a year when I don’t think any SEC team gets to the conference title game undefeated because of that 10-game conference schedule, a 7-3 season will still be good for 2nd place in the division.
Even with that Ole Miss loss, as deflating as that would be, LSU would probably be in position to go to a New Year’s 6 Bowl for the 3rd consecutive year. Keep in mind that before 2018, they hadn’t been to a New Year’s 6/BCS Bowl since the 2011 season. That would still matter.
I do still worry about Brennan getting through 10 SEC games, and I’m especially worried about what’s behind him from a depth standpoint. Could that catch up to the Tigers at some point? Absolutely.
But remember that this is the ultimate “what’s Orgeron’s floor” season. His team is fresh off a national title with unprecedented turnover on his roster and his staff. If Orgeron’s team somehow manages 7-8 wins, to me, that’s a fantastic sign moving forward.
It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s the takeaway by the time the dust settles on LSU’s strange 2020 season.