Previews 2019: Arkansas, Auburn and LSU

Oct 13, 2018; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron reacts after a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs at Tiger Stadium. LSU defeated Georgia 36-16. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

LSU Tigers

Projected record: 10-2 (UA, UTex); 7-1 and 2nd SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 7 (FL, WR, LT, C, RG, RT, QB)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (DT/E, E, WLB, SLB, RCB, SS)
Returning specialists: 1 (P)

Unit ratings
QB: Av DL: Vg
RB: Fr LB: Av
WR: Av DB: Vg
OL: Ex ST: Fr

Offense – what’s to like: There is plenty of competition on an offensive line that already returns four starters from a year ago, to the point that two sitting starters are in danger of losing their jobs while the one vacant spot has more candidates than the Democratic presidential primary field. In years when LSU has strong lines of scrimmage (and they do in 2019), the Tigers are usually very, very competitive.

As for the rest, QB Joe Burrow had a good year statistically last year but no one really thinks he’s a difference-maker. As a game manager, though, he’ll be effective so long as LSU develops some kind of attack on the ground. The wide receiver situation features a lot of guys with a lot of raw talent, but beyond slot receiver Justin Jefferson, there needs to be more consistency shown. Also, LSU will have to find a new tight end.

Offense – potential pitfalls: The running game is going to make or break this team. Clyde Edwards-Helaire will probably be the starter, but it won’t take long for fans to begin calling for freshman John Emery Jr. Emery will probably be the deciding factor in whether LSU’s running game is top-tier, or just there. There is also some sentimental calling for Lanard Fournette, now a senior, to get more playing time.

The biggest potential pitfall will actually be on the sidelines. Steve Ensminger was not seen as a top-tier, modern offensive coordinator when Ed Orgeron named him as such, so Orgeron raided the New Orleans Saints for Joe Brady and named him “passing game coordinator.” The first time the offense sputters, fans tired of seeing 1980s offense are going to begin calling for Ensminger’s dismissal and Brady’s battlefield promotion. With Texas sitting in the Week 2 slot on the schedule, that could happen sooner rather than later. Ensminger’s preferred style does not match Brady’s.

Defense/special teams – what’s to like: Returning starters dot the depth chart throughout all three levels, but it’s the secondary that gets the most raves. Grant Delpit will benefit more than anyone in the SEC from the relaxed rules regarding targeting fouls. Corners Kristian Fulton and Kary Vincent Jr. are being looked to for game-changing plays, while Derek Stingley Jr. may be good enough as a true freshman to unseat one of them.

Up front, LSU is solid at end, where multiple players rotated last year and built depth. The arrival of Siaki Ika at defensive tackle came just in time to help bolster thin numbers there. And when things go wrong, punter Zach von Rosenberg can get LSU out of trouble.

Defense/special teams – potential pitfalls: Replacing Devin White at linebacker isn’t just going to be tough, it might be impossible. LSU is looking at some combination of Michael Divinity and Patrick Queen to handle the task, but as was proven on the field last year in the times White was absent, neither of those players are on White’s level. For that matter, LSU linebacker play has been spotty for awhile, coming and going depending on the season far more than one would expect given the level of recruiting.

The rest of the worry comes on special teams, specifically whether true freshman Cade York can handle the placekicking duties. LSU also needs to tighten up on special teams, all around. LSU was bad on punt returns and kickoff return defense, something that shouldn’t happen in Baton Rouge.

Final analysis: Any time a team that recruits as well as LSU does has a year where both lines of scrimmage mature together, championships are a possibility. With the exception of Alabama, no team in the SEC West looks better than this one, or at least not more complete. Again, most questions concern those at the top of the program. Orgeron is still coaching at least one level above his competency, and the decision to leave the offense in Ensminger’s hands – and then to divide the duties heading into 2019 – is par for the course for a guy who probably should be doing something else. But no one has ever questioned whether Orgeron could recruit, and recruit he has, to the point that LSU isn’t going to be an easy out for anyone on its schedule in 2019.

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