Number Four: LSU
The Bayou Bengals are everyone's favorite to win the SEC, and some people have them in the BCS championship game. And I agree that they will be good, but I must say I think a lot of people are getting a bit carried away with it.
Defensively, LSU should be very good. They return eight starters from one of the best defenses in the nation a year ago, and assuming injuries don't hit them hard, they will be just as good this year.
However, they do lose arguably the best defensive player in the country (LaRon Landry), a very solid safety (Jesse Daniels), and a starting defensive end (Chase Pittman). The loss of Pittman is likely negligible at best, but the loss of the former two is a bit worrying. Landry's absence, in particular, will be painful. He was an all around threat, as he was a great run defender, pass rusher, and defensive back in coverage. In my opinion, he's the best LSU safety since Tommy Casanova 35 years ago, so he won't be easily replaced. Jesse Daniels, too, was a solid player, and his absence will hurt.
Nevertheless, though, this is a defense that is loaded with quality players at every level. Glen Dorsey is the best defensive tackle in the country, Tyson Jackson is a great pass rusher, the linebackers are good, and the cornerbacks -- Zenon and Jackson -- are fine players in their own right. Moreover, Bo Pelini is one the best defensive coordinators in the country.
Honestly, LSU's biggest concern on defense is also their biggest strength -- senior defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. When healthy, Dorsey is the best interior defensive lineman in the country, bar none. However, his health has been a bit of a problem as of late. He would have likely went to the NFL Draft last year -- and been a top ten selection at that -- but shin injuries convinced him to come back for a senior season. And now, this Fall, Dorsey has missed a good deal of practice time, a hamstring injury being the main culprit. Of course, those nagging injuries -- if they persist -- will only be exacerbated by the grueling battles in the trenches each and every week. If nagging injuries continue to plague Dorsey, he could go from dominant to just good.
Offensively, though, is where all of the major concerns are for the Bayou Bengals.
Matt Flynn will be the starting quarterback, and from there we just don't know. The truth is, Flynn has never played before, and no one knows what to really expect. He played a pretty good game a couple of years ago in the Peach Bowl against Miami, but that's it. And moreover, in that one game he faced a clearly declining Miami team that would implode the following year, and it was clear before the game that the Miami players weren't particularly pleased with ending the season in the Peach Bowl. So, again, we just don't know. He might be a great player, but he might be the next Brian Burgdorf. We can argue over it until we are blue in the face, but the truth is we simply won't know until he does it, one way or the other.
The real concern, though, is if Flynn goes down. If Flynn happens to get hurt and misses significant time this year, the LSU offense is in major trouble. Ryan Perrilloux was the dream recruit of a couple of years ago, and he would probably be the first to come off of the bench. However, it's a wonder that Perrilloux hasn't been kicked off the team yet, and just being brutally honest -- despite million dollar talent -- he's just not much of a quarterback at the moment. After him, it's true freshman Jarrett Lee, and while Lee could have a fine future, as we saw last year with Matt Stafford at Georgia, you just aren't going very far in this conference with a true freshman quarterback leading the way.
The wide receiver corps has a lot of talent, but also a lot of question marks after they lose Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis. Early Doucet returns, and he'll be the go-to guy, but even he has some question marks about him. While talented, to date he has thrived in the role of playing opposite big and talented receivers (see Bowe and Davis) who are taking the brunt of the defense's attention. Obviously, that won't be the case this year, so you wonder how he will do seeing the opposing defense's best players week in and week out. He won't be lining up against opposing defense's second cornerback or their nickel corner anymore. Moreover, beyond him, there's a lot of talent, but no real production or experience. Brandon LaFell will probably start opposite Doucet, but he only caught five balls a year ago, and only one of those receptions came in conference play (a reception good for four yards against Alabama). The rest of the receivers are talented, but generally have no real playing experience, and several of them are freshmen. The talent is there, but solid production from the wide receiver corps is far from a given at this point.
The offensive line, too, has some problems. They weren't very good a year ago -- the running game was non-existent for most of the year, and they were bailed out in pass protection mainly by an almost unsackable quarterback -- and the right side has to be rebuilt for 2007. To begin with, left tackle Ciron Black and center Brett Helms are good players, and Herman Johnson -- reputed to be unofficially the biggest baby ever born in the state of Louisiana -- can be if he can keeps his weight under control. Aside from that, however, this line has a lot of question marks. Lyle Hitt looks to start at right guard, and Carnell Stewart seems likely to start at right tackle, but both of those two players have never started on the offensive line before, and both are converted defensive tackles. That has to be a big concern for LSU at the moment.
Beyond those guys, you have Will Arnold, who, when healthy, is a fine player. The problem is, Arnold hasn't been healthy in a long time, and leg injuries continue to plague him. He'll try to give it a go this year, but I don't know. He was voted to the All-SEC team by the coaches, and some people act like he will be a key cog to this line, but he has missed most of Fall practice, and really just does not seem to be in good shape. For example, he surprised Coach Les Miles the other day in the Tigers' first scrimmage when he played a grand total of twelve snaps. The coaching staff had been expecting him to play only six. Something tells me that he won't be able to withstand the grueling environment of the interior line through a thirteen game schedule. And moreover, despite the pre-season accolades, the truth is that he's not starting now, he's running second-string at left guard behind Herman Johnson. Unless Miles and company decide to entirely re-shuffle the line, which will of course create problems of its own, Arnold is likely going to spend most of his time on the bench.
At bottom, the LSU offensive line has a couple of good players, and aside from that a lot of question marks.
To throw more fuel on the fire, there's a lot of turnover on the offensive coaching staff. Jimbo Fisher, the longtime LSU offensive coordinator, is gone, and Gary Crowton has been brought in to replace him. And, well, that's an odd-ball selection, to put it mildly. We don't know exactly what Crowton will run, of course, but if it's anything like he's run in the past, it won't be like anything LSU has ran before, and it won't be what we are used to seeing in the SEC. Beyond the loss of Crowton, offensive line coach Stacey Searels has moved on to take the same position with the Georgia Bulldogs, and wide receivers coach Todd Monken has moved on to the same position with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Their replacements will only bring further transition to units that have a good degree of uncertainty to begin with.
Moreover, LSU has a couple of more things going against them.
Of all of the top teams, LSU has by far the toughest road to travel in terms of scheduling. All told, they are going to have to knock off Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, and then win the SEC Championship Game against the SEC East champion. What can you say? It's a very tough road, and seemingly the toughest of any top team. And as we discussed in the USC and West Virginia threads, USC will likely go undefeated, and West Virginia has a very good chance of doing so as well. Moreover, as we established in the USC article, if any one loss team is going to make the BCS national championship game, it will be the Trojans. The truth is, if LSU loses a game anywhere along the way, they are done in terms of appearing in the national championship game. Truth be told, this team will most likely have to go undefeated to play in the BCS national championship game, and it's going to be very difficult with this schedule.
Also, of all of the top teams, LSU probably has the most uncertainty in terms of the coaching staff. Paul Bryant once said, "But it's still a coach's game. Make no mistake. You start at the top. If you don't have a good one at the top, you don't have a cut dog's chance. If you do, the rest falls into place. You have to have good assistants, and a lot of things, but first you have to have the chairman of the board." True enough. The other four head coaches in the top five aside from Miles have a total of four national championships, and eleven conference championships. Miles, on the other hand, has zero national championships and zero conference championships. I probably have a higher opinion of Miles than most people (I really think the whole Coker 2.0 argument is baseless), but nevertheless, I'm still not sold on the notion that Miles is the chairman of the board needed to go that far.
At bottom, LSU has a lot of talent, but also a lot of question marks. Of the top ranked teams in the pre-season of 2007, they are perhaps the most likely to fall out of contention. They should have a good year, no doubt, but things aren't going to be easy for LSU. Yes they are the runaway SEC favorite, but as I've posted before, no consensus SEC favorite has actually went on to win the SEC since 1997 (Tennessee), and during that span ('98-'06) only one consensus favorite has even made the SEC Championship Game (1999 Florida). Moreover, again as I've written about previously, since the expansion of the conference in 1992, only twice in fifteen years has the favorite at SEC Media Days actually gone on to win the SEC (1994 Florida and 1994 Florida). Those who think LSU will cake-walk through the SEC are simply sorely mistaken, and really have no appreciation of the overall strength and parity that is a constant in the SEC. It's a tough road to travel, and LSU will likely end up with at least a loss or two along the way.
Nevertheless, much like with what will be revealed tomorrow as our number five team, there is a palpable feeling of urgency in Baton Rouge. Despite having as much talent as almost any team in the nation -- arguably even USC -- LSU didn't win the SEC in 2005 or 2006, and the pressure is very much on for them to get it done this year. After the 2008 season, LSU will lose boatloads of starters, including Matt Flynn, Early Doucet, Keith Zinger, Will Arnold (assuming he can start this year), Glenn Dorsey, Ali Highsmith, Luke Sanders, Craig Steltz, Johnathon Zenon, and Chevis Jackson. And that's not to mention another one or two players who may declare early for the NFL Draft. At bottom, this team only looks to return around ten or eleven starters in 2008, and they'll have yet another quarterback transition as Flynn leaves. Moreover, Bo Pelini -- faced with rebuilding his defense -- will likely go out on a high note and finally take a head coaching job somewhere, so that's another problem.
At bottom, the water is murky at best for LSU beyond 2007, so now is the time. Though there are several question marks, it's now or never for Miles and LSU.