On Monday, I gave you five reasons why LSU would win the National Title. No matter the publication, no matter the network, they all lump LSU into the small handful of teams considered favorites to win the BCS Title. Talent is dripping from Les Miles’ earlobes in Baton Rouge. Most teams lose their best WR, two best CBs, best interior DL, starting QBs and a host of other starters and are staring at a rebuild. LSU does it and arguably gets more talented all around. No one will argue the losses of Claiborne and Mathieu in particular won’t hurt the Tigers. But could their new QB be enough to make up the difference?
Accumulating talent isn’t a priority in Baton Rouge… it’s a way of life. Yet… that may not be enough to bring them to the Promised Land. Scores of talented teams have fallen by the wayside… 2007 Michigan. 2011 Oklahoma. Seemingly every football team Clemson has ever fielded. LSU 2012 could very well be on their way to being the over talented, under achieving team of the decade. Here are five reasons why.
1) 1) Tyrann Mathieu is Irreplaceable
LSU fans can gush all they want about their seemingly bottomless pit of a depth chart and how they’ll "lose one stud and drop another one in," but they will only be deluding themselves. Tyrann Mathieu is a once in a generation type of football player. His statistical impact, though significant, doesn’t even capture the extent to which he influences games. No player for LSU, not Patrick Peterson, not Morris Claiborne, not Jamarcus Russell, not Dwayne Bowe, none of them made as many game changing plays as Mathieu has in the past 2 seasons. Sure, the highlight reel plays get all the run, but the respect an opposing offense pays to him makes special.
When you consider he would often command an offense to account for his presence, either by using multiple blockers or scheming entirely away from him, LSU is suddenly play 10 on nine on defense, and that’s not even counting the big boys up front drawing double teams. Ever watch LSU play last season and think, "My god, they have to be playing with 15 guys on defense?" That is commonly attributed to speed, which is partially accurate. But what’s often not said is the amount of double teams players like Mathieu, Brockers, Montgomery, and even Mingo can command. Mathieu helped turn the numbers game into LSU’s favor, which often resulted in big plays.
All that and no mention of his return significance? Put all those pieces together and you wind up with a player whose value cannot simply be replaced by offensive improvement.
2) 2) The Formula is Changed
Say what you will about how LSU won football games last season… it worked. Ultimately, the weakness at the QB position proved to be damning, but who can blame any coach for out-bludgeoning opponent after opponent by tossing waves of talent at them until they could breathe no more? LSU won games in a very decisive, very matter of fact way. There were three key ingredients: 1) Run the ball 2) Create big plays on defense 3) Play killer special teams. Those were enough to beat every team they played except Alabama twice. Those would likely be enough to beat every team they will encounter this year.
Yet, the formula will be different. The special teams units will have a different feel without Claiborne returning KOs and Mathieu on punts. The kicker and punter remain, but the return games may take a step back. The rushing attack is sure to remain daunting, but will it continue to be thrust down the opponents throat? Zach Mettenberger will be an improvement, almost certainly, but there is danger in over correction. He’s got confidence and arm strength you love, but those two things often equal interceptions. LSU dominated last season by routinely burying opponents with bad field position. If Mettenberger makes risky decisions that put opponents in better position, that could be all it takes to end the dream. Further, the defense loses top playmakers and likely won’t be able to replicate those type of game-changing turnovers that seemed to flip every big game (Oregon, WVU, Bama 1, Arkansas, Georgia) over to their favor. If they improve on overall offensive production but slack on efficiency and take a step back on defensive dominance, suddenly you are talking about a very good, but not great, team.
3) 3) Can weaker scheduling actually be a hindrance?
The pre-season argument against 2011 LSU went as follows: Very good team, but that schedule is too difficult to overcome without a loss. Yet, by scheduling Oregon week one, what happened is that LSU became more focused, more hungry, and more fit. There can be zero room for apathy when preparing for a team as qualified as Oregon. Their obscene paces forces opponents to be focused mentally and physically… constantly. Many LSU players, after the game, gave testimony to the level of hard work put into preparation for that game, with even Michael Brockers remarking that the game felt like a break compared to what they had been doing. This unfolded throughout the season as LSU simply exerted their physical and mental dominance over opponent after opponent, including Alabama in the first go round.
Yet, this season sets up a bit more cushy. The odds of LSU losing a game before week four are remarkably slim. In fact, they’ll probably be heavy favorites up through week six. Sharpening your teeth against Oregon and West Virginia as a primer for the SEC schedule may have actually set up LSU for a championship run. There’s a good chance for complacency (even after coming off a devastating loss) against opponents like North Texas, Towson, and Idaho. Will the Tigers treat those games as proper warm-ups? Or could it set a precedent for apathy that may spoil should be wins down the road?
4) 4) Inexperience in the Secondary
By this point, LSU fans are simply spoiled. Patrick Peterson plays a true freshman, becomes a star. Mo Claiborne plays as a true freshman, becomes a star. Tyrann Mathieu plays as a true freshman, becomes a star. It’s no longer a hope that young players will step up at LSU; it’s an expectation. Heading into this season true freshman Jalen Mills will be asked to fill the role of Tyrann Mathieu. RS Freshman Jalen Collins will be asked to slide into the spot Tharold Simon is vacating by moving to the no. 1 CB role. At safety, you have a hodge podge of an upper classmen under achiever (Loston) or some young pups with no experience (Eugene, Martin, Thompson). All told, LSU is replacing 4/6th of its secondary, three of which were top four round draft picks and the other well on his way to being one. To expect another batch of young guys to step in, step up and match that production is simply unreasonable. If John Chavis turns this secondary into the force of last season’s, then he truly deserves all the money he will ever make.
5) 5) Alabama
It’s self-evident, but LSU’s biggest hurdle to winning the National Championship may again be that they share not just a conference, but a division, with their biggest rival. Many now pencil Alabama as another in that small handful of BCS Championship caliber teams, despite the fact that their defense should regress and they lose the bulk of their offensive playmakers. Much like LSU, Alabama just moves talented bodies in and out of the lineup seamlessly. If it’s not one guy, it’s another. Ignoring everything else, Alabama may prove to be the biggest obstacle from LSU claiming another trip to the BCS Title game.