Les Miles has the best nickname of any coach in the country. His zany personality and hat that never fits quite right earned him the “Mad Hatter” moniker. Known for bizarre clock management and behavior like eating grass, many people look down on Miles’ coaching abilities, but the man does have a national title and has been to another title game. However, LSU has slipped from the standards that there rabid fans expect in recent years, so Les needs to put together a big year to stave off the creeping “hot seat” grumblings.
Leonard Fournette will be the man in this offense this season, and even in a loaded conference from the running back position, he just might be the best. Fournette rushed for over 1,000 yards and ten touchdowns as a freshman last season. With shaky quarterback play and the top two backs behind Fournette last year gone, I think that there’s a great chance he leads the conferences in touches, yards and touchdowns on the ground. Fellow sophomore Darrel Williams will most likely be his complementary back.
Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins might be the top tackle combo in the conference and should both clear running lanes for Fournette and give whoever plays quarterback a nice pocket from which to throw the ball. Ethan Pocic, who has starting experience at center but is projected to start at left guard, is another experienced player for the Tigers and should help out when Fournette wants to keep it between the tackles.
LSU’s receiving corps is also a competent group even if their quarterback play last year prevented them from reaching their full potential. Travin Dural is one of the top receivers in the conference, and managed 758 yards in an offense that was super one-dimensional last season. He will be joined by a trio of sophomores coming off of effective freshman campaigns and a fourth looking to make more of an impact. Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn and John Diarse finished second, third and fourth in targets for the Tigers last season. D.J. Chark is the other sophomore who, despite not catching a pass last season, is expected to see an up-tick in playing time in 2015.
Who, if anyone, can play quarterback well enough to allow the playmakers around him to make plays? That’s the question that will be the difference between the Music City Bowl and the playoff. Neither Brandon Harris, nor Anthony Jennings have shown an ability to do that in their time in Baton Rouge. Harris was a freshman last season, so there is a chance that he takes a step forward, and that’s probably a big reason why many expect him to start this year. If Harris can live up to the expectations levied on him coming out of high school, this team will have everything it needs to return to Atlanta.
“DB U” was supposed to be at it again this season, but with the news of Jalen Mills’ injury being more serious than previously anticipated, the Bayou Bengals will be without one of their two all-conference caliber safeties until at least October. Sophomore Jamal Adams is back and he will be a force to be reckoned with until he leaves campus for the NFL. Tre’Davious White and Dwayne Thomas won’t make things easy on opposing receivers either, as Dwayne Thomas steps up to replace the departed Jalen Mills at corner. Even without Mills, expect this secondary to be one of the stingiest in the conference against the pass.
Kendell Beckwith will definitely be the leader of this linebacking corps as the only returning member to top twenty tackles last season. He went way over twenty too, recording 56.5 tackles, 7.5 of which were for a loss. Seniors Lamar Louis and Deion Jones should flank Beckwith on either side rounding out a group that should, at the very least, be in the top half of the conference’s linebacking units.
Danielle Hunter and Jemauria Rasco will be a tough pair of ends to replace, but LSU should stay stingy up the gut with Davon Godchaux and Christian LaCouture back at defensive tackle. A pair of upperclassmen are projected to take Hunter’s and Rasco’s place. Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal may not have much college production to boast so far in their careers, but it cannot hurt that they’ve been in the program and have at least taken some college snaps before becoming full-time starters.
Brandon Harris may be ready to emerge as a star, but with LSU’s recent problems developing quarterbacks I’m not really expecting that to happen. The Tigers have enough talent and are strong enough on the ground and on defense that they will still be a bowl team, and I even think they get to eight wins, but without a playmaker under center they aren’t legitimate contenders for the division. Death Valley gives the Bayou Bengals a massive advantage though and Florida, Auburn, Arkansas and Texas A&M all have to pay a visit to Baton Rouge this season. LSU will go 3-1, at worst, in those games, but I believe trips to Alabama and Ole Miss will be losses. I also think that the Tigers might lose to Mississippi State, which would make back-to-back losses to the Bulldogs for the first time since the 1990-1991 seasons.