Tell the Truth Monday: LSU improvement needs to match tougher schedule
LSU has won 3 games in a row.
The Tigers won their SEC opener, on the road no less, when they beat Mississippi State 28-25 Saturday.
They have gotten better each week since tumbling out of the Top 25 after losing their opener at UCLA 37-28 on Sept. 4.
That’s a lot of good stuff to soak in as they prepare to host Auburn on Saturday night.
But this is Tell the Truth Monday.
And the truth is, LSU has done little to get excited about.
It stopped the bleeding from the UCLA game when it beat McNeese State. It showed continued marginal improvement when it beat Central Michigan. It survived against Mississippi State.
That’s fine – because the Ws are what matter most, but the truth is LSU is not improving at the same pace that the schedule is toughening.
LSU hosts No. 22 Auburn next Saturday night. That starts a stretch of 6 consecutive games against 6 ranked teams that includes Kentucky (ranked in Coaches poll), AP No. 10 Florida, No. 12 Ole Miss, No. 1 Alabama and No. 8 Arkansas.
Incremental improvement is going to have to be replaced by significant progress – and soon.
Let’s start with the defense because it was in the spotlight against State because of what happened last season.
LSU played much better, much smarter and much more efficient against Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense than it did in the 44-34 loss last season, though it gave up two late touchdowns that turned a comfortable game into one that required preventing State from recovering an onside kick.
But this LSU team aspires to be much better than last year’s LSU team.
So the defensive improvement against State from last September to this September isn’t that big a deal.
But the improvement since the UCLA game is kind of a big deal.
The pass rush has been very good, the linebacker play is getting better and the secondary has played well, even with Derek Stingley Jr. sidelined against State.
It looks like LSU will not have to get into shootouts in order to win because the defense can keep scores manageable.
And Max Johnson and the passing game give LSU a puncher’s chance. He has started 6 games in his career. He threw 3 touchdowns in each of his first 4 starts. He threw 5 against Central Michigan. He threw 4 against State.
In 4 games this season he has thrown 8 to Kayshon Boutte. He has thrown 7 more to 5 other receivers. He is tied for 2nd nationally with 15 TD passes.
A competitive defense and a productive passing game – as well as very good special teams – give any coach a lot to work with.
But that alone isn’t enough. Not when your expectation is to contend in the SEC West.
If you’re going to contend in the SEC West, if you’re going to successfully handle the schedule that awaits LSU, you have to have very good blocking and a dependable running game that complements and doesn’t hamper the passing game.
LSU has yet to have an offensive-line performance – or a running-game performance – worthy of an SEC West contender. Not against UCLA. Not against McNeese. Not against CMU. Not against State.
The starting line was intact against UCLA and didn’t perform well. Then injuries set in and improvement has been a weekly goal that has gone unachieved.
The productivity of Johnson and the passing game has been in spite of the pass blocking instead of a result of it. The productivity has been in spite of a viable running game rather than a result of it.
Where LSU goes from here is mostly dependent on the offensive line and the running game.
There are 2 ways of looking at this. One is that LSU can emerge as a contender in the SEC West if the offensive line and the running game raise their level of play to that of the passing game, the defense and the special teams.
The other way of looking at this is that LSU cannot become an SEC West contender unless the offensive line and the running game raise their level of play to that of the passing game, the defense and the special teams.
Either way, the truth is that the 3-game winning streak has changed little of what was apparent after the opener.