This has been a strange offseason in Baton Rouge. For the better part of two decades, the preseason narrative around LSU football has been that if the Tigers can find a quarterback, they’ll be in the national-title mix.
This season doesn’t feel that cut and dried.
Make no mistake, these Tigers are talented. Devin White and Greedy Williams are All-Americans on defense and projected to be first-round picks in next spring’s NFL draft.
According to the 247 Sports Composite, LSU had the sixth-most talented roster in 2017 and shouldn’t be far off this year. And that is precisely why oddsmakers pegging the Tigers as a seven-win squad is perplexing.
That is, until you look at LSU’s returning talent and the brutal slate it faces in 2018.
The Tigers return only 11 starters (four offense, seven defense). They rank 122nd of 130 FBS teams in returning production.
Gone are senior quarterback Danny Etling, running backs Derrius Guice and Darrell Williams and leading receivers DJ Chark and Russell Gage. For the first time since 1974, LSU begins a season without a running back who has scored a rushing touchdown, and the leading returning receiver is tight end Foster Moreau (24 receptions, 278 yards). Defensively, six of the top 10 leading tacklers are gone.
Even though Ed Orgeron will be breaking in a new crop of talented 4-star and 5-star players, he will be doing it against what might be the toughest schedule in America. The Tigers face four preseason top-10 teams (Alabama, Georgia, Miami and Auburn) and No. 18 Mississippi State. Throw in road games at Florida and Texas A&M, and it’s easy to see why Vegas has LSU as an underdog six times.
Before we bury these Tigers, however, let’s acknowledge that it’s not all doom and gloom. Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow has been named the starting quarterback and could be the next-level talent LSU has lacked under center since Zach Mettenberger in 2013.
There are only 31 total receptions returning among LSU receivers, but Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles caught 69 passes for 1,158 yards and 13 TDs in 2016 in Lubbock, and 5-star freshmen Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall should make an immediate impact.
While there is no Leonard Fournette or Guice on this roster, the sum of Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Nick Brossette and Chris Curry could equal the whole of one of those former greats. And paving the way will be an offensive line whose only starter without three years’ experience is left tackle Saahdiq Charles, who might be the most talented of the lot.
Defensively, White and Williams pace a group that might be LSU’s most talented since the 2011 unit that led LSU to the BCS National Championship Game. Breiden Fehoko, another Texas Tech transfer, will start at nose tackle, and coaches swear OLB K’Lavon Chaisson is the next Arden Key — but he might be better.
The defense and the entire team got a shot in the arm last week when the NCAA ruled defensive back Kristian Fulton immediately eligible after he served one year of a two-year ban for attempting to falsify a urine sample during a drug test. While Williams gets the hype, Fulton is the former 5-star prospect who might be the best cornerback on the roster.
If a game comes down to special teams, Orgeron feels better in 2018 than he did a year ago. After all, it would be difficult to feel much worse. LSU kickers combined to miss 11 field goals and three PATs in 2017, the unit’s worst season since 2005. Enter Assumption College transfer Cole Tracy, the winner of the 2017 Fred Mitchell Award, given to the top placekicker outside Division I.
The Tigers lost a ton of production from 2017 but replace it with a ton of talent. If Orgeron and his staff can maximize that talent, 2018 could be a special year for the Tigers relative to expectations.
If, however, they falter early in a season opener against No. 8 Miami and two weeks later at No. 9 Auburn, the snowball could start rolling downhill with an emphatic crash in College Station looming in the final week of the regular season against an Aggies program that has not beaten LSU since 1995. Things could get bad in a hurry.
At No. 25, this is the lowest preseason ranking for LSU since it was unranked in Nick Saban’s first season in Baton Rouge in 2000. If the Tigers are going to exceed the oddmakers’ expectations, that inexperienced talent will have to grow up in a hurry, and it starts Sunday night in Arlington against the Hurricanes (LSU +3.5).