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A Somewhat Obligatory Assessment of: LSU

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason. By popular demand.
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What’s Changed. Maybe because its takes a year to establish players who don’t completely dominate, Matt Flynn probably didn’t get enough credit for his role in last year’s offense, which itself was largely underrated because of the talent on defense and its tendency to spread the ball around to quality non-stars. But the Tigers topped 30 points eleven times, and 40 points seven times, and Flynn was the unsung hero of both the gut-wrenching stretch of comeback wins over Florida, Auburn and Alabama (especially the latter two, when he passed for three touchdowns and went over 300 yards in both games, and twice brought the team back from the brink) and the championship win over Ohio State, where he threw four touchdowns, completed 70 percent of his passes and was virtually flawless in keeping the sticks moving; for once, the quarterback was denied an MVP he deserved.


Alright, Mr. Ivy League, contemplate the implications of Grigori Perelman’s deceptively simple solution to the Poincaré conjecture while we’re handin’ off. Think you can handle that?
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The depth around him didn’t necessarily pick up the slack when Flynn didn’t play well, either; it did against Florida and South Carolina, two of his worst games as a passer, but not at Kentucky or Arkansas, where Flynn completed less than half of his passes and finished with a pair of dreadful efficiency ratings, or in the SEC Championship, where the offense scored a season-low 14 points with Flynn watching -- the defense had to provide the decisive score.

The least you should know about LSU...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 12-2 (7-2 SEC; 1st/West, Champion)
2003-07: 56-10 (34-9 SEC)

Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 2 • 22 • 7 • 4 • 11
Returning Starters, Roughly
12 (7 Offense, 5 Defense)
Best Player
Any member of the defensive line will fit here, but even if there are better pro prospects in the bunch, Kirston Pittman was the most productive player on the front last year and the best story: he was on the SEC’s all-freshman team in 2003 but only had one career start, against Vanderbilt in 2004, before missing consecutive seasons in 05-06 to two different injuries. Surrounded by this kind of talent, most careers would end there, but Pittman led the team in ‘07 with 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, and was granted a sixth year by the NCAA, just to watch quarterbacks squirm.
Bizarre Tradition
Even though it wasn’t adopted until the early 1900s, "Tigers" is an old Civil War nickname, of course (it is after all the War That Will Never Die, and there are no real Tigers in Louisiana, other than Mike) for a group of Louisiana volunteers described thusly:

A large number of the men were foreign-born, particularly Irish immigrants, many from the city's wharves and docks. Another large segment were French-speaking Creoles. Many men had previous military experience in local militia units or as filibusters.
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Syphillis-ridden wharf and dock workers from mid-19th Century New Orleans meeting up with wild bayou Creoles, in a scenario in which both groups were intentionally armed to the teeth, conjures up one of the most terrifying spectacles I can imagine. Although, frankly, if they brought in muskets and rifles, Tiger Stadium probably wouldn’t look all that different from the Battle of Gaines’ Mill when Ole Miss came around.
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* According to Rivals.

So if Flynn was "just a manager" with many options at his disposal, he fit the role very well, he was money in close games, and Jimbo Fisher’s system ran primarily through him. It’s hard to see that being the case with Jarrett Lee or Andrew Hatch, aka "Green and Greener." It would be nice to combine the two: Lee is physically gifted, the No. 7 incoming QB in the country last year by Rivals, but has no experience whatsoever, and isn’t the talent Perrilloux would have been; the only thing anyone knows about Hatch is that he’s a transfer from Harvard, and therefore presumably longer on brains than arm strength. Yeah, viva la stereotype, but he didn’t vanquish Lee in the spring, or vice versa. The massive, experienced offensive line and sheer volume of the running game -- Keiland Williams, Richard Murphy and Charles Scott are all 20-carry guys, if necessary, and all averaged way over six per carry behind Jacob Hester last year -- will carry the offense a long way, but it’s not like there’s any chance of becoming ‘95 Nebraska here: if the quarterback is too mistake-prone or doesn’t have the arm to challenge elite defenses down the field, one-dimensional won’t win any championships.

What’s the Same. It’s not fair, really, that LSU can lose one of the most dominating linemen of the decade and still field a near-impenetrable front four, but they collect unblockable defensive linemen here like Louisiana politicians collect kickbacks: the Tigers bring back not only first rate ends Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman, who both should be (but can’t be) double-teamed at all times, and Marlon Favorite on the inside, but also junior tackle Al Woods, a thoroughbred recruit in ‘06 and oft-deployed nuisance off the bench who no one would be surprised to see eventually dominate the league on a Dorsey-esque level as a full-time starter -- if he can manage to hold off Ricky Jean-Francois, suspiciously-deployed secret weapon of the mythical championship game after missing the entire regular season to suspension. Senior/’07 injury casualty Charles Alexander actually came out of the spring listed in front of both Woods and Favorite at one of the tackles, as if the order really matters; ex-blue chips Rahim Alem, Pep Levingston and Tremaine Johnson all notched at least one sack and multiple tackles for loss last year. It’s unseemly, man.


Jean-Francois: Not necessary, but nice to have around.
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"Max protect" does not adequately describe the necessary precaution to protect quarterbacks here, and with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones out of the picture, there’s not much question about its sturdiness against the run. But the Tigers are likely to ask for more pressure from the front four alone -- Bo Pellini was an aggressive, frequent blitzer (a dozen sacks each of the last two years came from the back seven), which new co-coordinators Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto may not be, especially without the luxury of two veteran corners who could be trusted in man-to-man, which Pellini had in Jonathan Zenon and Chevis Jackson. There are nothing but raves about incoming Patrick Johnson, by all accounts the top cornerback recruit in the country, but no coach has ever slept well after thinking, "Can’t wait till the freshmen get here."

Large Men Who Know What They’re Doing. Gary Crowton has a history as a pass-oriented play-caller and didn’t hesitate to get the Tigers’ talented receivers on the field in spread sets last year, but LSU was a power running team at heart -- the Tigers ran a little over 58 percent of the time, mostly straight ahead with Hester. So Crowton doesn’t need issues at quarterback to convince him to pound it with his big backs.

It must also help to have a line with four returning starters, three of them -- Ciron Black, man-mountain Herman Johnson and Bret Helms -- for the third consecutive year. Add Lyle Hitt, who started all but the first game last year in place of injured would-be all-American Will Arnold, and the returnees have logged 93 career starts between them, with no substantial injuries. Johnson was first team all-SEC by the coaches last year; Black was second team. Really, the new quarterback will not have to worry about much: whether one guy assumes the lion’s share of the work at tailback or they spend another year doing the committee thing, this is still the most punishing running game in the conference, if it needs to be.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. Richard Murphy dominated the spring game and went a long way to pushing Keiland Williams for playing time in the backfield, but safety Chad Jones created a buzz just by showing up:

Just two weeks after declaring, at LSU baseball's media day, that baseball remained, "his first love," Jones has left the diamond to focus exclusively on football for the remainder of spring practices, head football coach Les Miles said Tuesday. Jones will rejoin the baseball team in April after the spring game.

Jones' move, which Miles said was baseball coach Paul Mainieri's idea, became possible when he lost out on the starting right fielder's job to fellow freshman Leon Landry. Landry is off to a hot start at the plate and playing solidly in the field so it was unlikely Jones would be anything other than a pinch hitter and occasional starter at this point.
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LSU’s other two-sport guys, Trindon Holliday and Jared Mitchell, remained busy with track and baseball, respectively, but neither is expected to have the kind of impact Jones will as a starting safety in place of Craig Steltz -- judging from his recruiting hype and freshman contribution (he returned punts, made 35 tackles, picked off a pass at Kentucky and created the decisive fumble at Alabama), he likely won’t be a dropoff there at all. It’s a little reassurance, if nothing else: Jones almost passed up football altogether to play minor league ball last year, but now it seems his "first love" has become his second priority.

LSU on You Tube. I remember the LSU-Florida game in 1997 very specifically, mainly because I was out of range of cable TV, disconnected enitrely, but still sure enough of a win by the No. 1 Gators that I didn’t think I was missing anything. Until, that is, someone around with a radio started relaying the score. We were home in time to see the ending, thankfully -- though this version criminally omits Jevon Kearse’s unflagged late hit on Herb Tyler, which is really all that endures:

Two years after the Nebraska debacle, you’d think the Gators would have learned to defend a little option -- and that someone else would have tried it.

See Also: tour of LSU’s campus, and then a guide according to Aphex Twin. ... And, of course, the final drive of the 1988 game against Auburn.

Best-Case: As a whole, this team is at least as good as last year’s on paper, with the notable exception of quarterback, Assuming feisty Appalachian State broke the Cinderella bank last year at Michigan, the non-conference slate doesn’t even rise to the level of a cakewalk (paired with Troy, North Texas and Tulane, the I-AA team is probably the toughest of the lot), the Tigers’ season essentially comes down to three games in a six-week span: at Auburn, at Florida and vs. Georgia in Baton Rouge. Arkansas is way, way down, and completely lacking the weapons that pushed the Tiger defense the last two years; whatever optimism surrounds Mississippi State (LSU’s taken eight straight and 15 of the last 16 against MSU), South Carolina (three straight and 6 of 8 since 1982) and Ole Miss (six straight and 7 of the last 8), those teams’ talent levels remain well below LSU’s class. Alabama, too, has lost five in a row and seven of the last eight in the series. It’s a very good bet the iffy quarterback situation will cost the Tigers one of the road games at Auburn or UF, but if the defense and running game can grind out one of those away from home and the offense is in-sync by the time Georgia comes to town, LSU can be right back in the SEC and mythical championship pictures with one loss.


The biggest and the fastest of the biggest and the fastest.
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Worst-Case: LSU could afford something like the Perrilloux situation at any other position -- at running back, wide receiver, defensive line, linebacker and in the secondary, there just more stars waiting behind the current ones. But uncertainty at quarterback is a different sort of problem: if one or the other fails to take hold of the job, the whole ship can veer off course. A sketchy offense that takes two months to find itself will wake up 0-3 against Auburn, Florida and Georgia and out of the conference championship race before November. Last year’s letdowns to Kentucky and Arkansas also suggest a certain vulnerability to competent snipers, like South Carolina or Alabama (which led well into the fourth quarter against LSU last year), or even Ole Miss, which has a recent history of playing the Tigers tough and should be much better under Houston Nutt, who also has a good track record vs. LSU. It’s the loss that shouldn’t have been that will make an 8-4 season seem like a real disappointment, with a stopover in the Bowl Formerly Known as the Peach before reloading for ‘09.

Non-Binding Forecast: Back to the Doorstep or Bust. The SEC hasn’t had a repeat champion in a decade. Nine wins is virtually assured; it’s the "big three," and especially the annual West rubber match with Auburn, that will stand as the divider between this two-loss regular season and the first three two-loss regular seasons under Miles, which -- while eerily similar on the field -- produced dramatically different results in terms of perceived success. Ten-and-two in 2005 bought a West title but not an SEC championship or BCS bid, or even a January bowl game; 10-2 in 2006 was only good for second in the West but got the Tigers into the BCS; and 11-2 last year was good enough not only for division and conference championships, but, against all precedent for two-loss teams, a mythical championship shot, of which they took full advantage. Those teams weren’t really very different from one another, and this one isn’t, either -- the spoils depend not on whether it will lose, but to whom.

This time, only because of the situation at quarterback, I’m assuming a one-for-three effort against the "big three." The trip to Auburn is the first early test for a young QB, in a venue where LSU hasn’t won since 1998, against the Brother Oliver-led band of Terry Bowden’s orphans (the home Tigers have won every game this decade). A loss there, and a split against UF-UGA, probably dooms LSU to the Cotton Bowl or Bowl Formerly Known as the Citrus despite another 10-2 regular season. A win over Auburn, even with a pair of losses to the East teams, probably gets the Tigers to Atlanta for a rematch with the Florida-Georgia winner...where, given the competition for the SEC’s second at-large spot in the BCS, a loss probably dooms them to the Cotton Bowl or Bowl Formerly Known as the Citrus. I call this section "non-biding" for a reason, but for now, I’ll call LSU the best team destined for the bittersweet cold of New Year’s morning.

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Previous Absurd Assessments -- Premature, Anticipatory, Obligatory and otherwise...

March 17:  Ball StateMarch 20:  AuburnMarch 21:  Kansas StateMarch 25:  Washington StateApril 3:  DukeApril 7:  KentuckyApril 9: Southern CalApril 16:  VirginiaApril 21:  MiamiApril 23:  Iowa StateMay 24:  Oregon State • May 27:  MarylandMay 29:  ColoradoMay 30:  Tennessee • June 2:  San Diego StateJune 3:  VanderbiltJune 10:  Central FloridaJune 11:  Oklahoma StateJune 14:  WisconsinJune 18:  Florida AtlanticJune 20:  South FloridaJune 23:  ArmyJune 25:  Texas TechJune 25:  Virginia TechJune 27:  ArizonaJuly 1:  UtahJuly 2:  IowaJuly 8: CaliforniaJuly 10: Penn State