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College Football Preview 2019: 9. LSU Tigers

9. LSU Tigers

The defense will be elite, but any hope of SEC Title contention will once more hinge on the offense

Kristian Fulton

Offense: The LSU offense was one of their best in years, averaging 32.4 points per game and showing impressive balance. They will hope they can get even better entering 2019, as the Tigers bring back their offensive coordinator, QB, top five receivers and four offensive line starters.

A post-spring transfer from Ohio State, Joe Burrow proved to be very effective for the Tigers a season ago. He finished with 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns through the air, but also flashed the ability to do damage with his legs, something LSU has lacked at the position for some time. He added 399 yards and seven scores running the football, and the Tigers are hopeful that moving to a spread offense will help these numbers even more. He could enter '19 as one of the top quarterbacks in the conference.

LSU produces top-flight running backs as well as anybody in the entire country and even losing Nick Brossette to graduation, the RB situation should be in a good spot. Junior Clyde Edwards-Helaire was very effective in a backup role last fall (658 yards) and should once again be featured often. However, most around the program believe a newcomer, John Emery Jr., will be the No. 1 guy by the end of the season. Emery is a five-star prospect from nearby Destrahan, Louisiana, who has blazing speed and has ball carrier vision well beyond his years. Add in Lanard Fournette, the younger brother of Tiger legend Leonard, and LSU should not struggle to move the ball on the ground.

The Tigers also have a long list of receivers that have taken the jump to the NFL, and this roster looks to have a number that will eventually be playing on Sundays. Junior Justin Jefferson was their top guy last year and was incredibly reliable, managing three-plus catches in all but two games. Also back to bring support are veterans Derrick Dillon and Stephen Sullivan, both entering their senior campaigns. Sullivan is a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive backs at 6'7", 232 pounds with a massive catch radius. Yet, a pair of youngsters, Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall, may end up being two of the most important pieces on the perimeter. Both of them were highly touted coming into Baton Rouge a year ago and flashed serious upside, particularly Chase, who made some truly impressive catches in 2018. Losing tight end Foster Moreau hurts, but the Tigers are hopeful junior Jamal Pettigrew or NC State transfer Thaddeus Moss can step up.

Returning four starters to this offensive line will obviously be crucial in opening running lanes for Edwards-Helaire and Emery. Center Lloyd Cushenberry and guard Damien Lewis started all 13 games last fall for the Tigers and are proven run blockers that know how to compete in the SEC. They're joined by left tackle Saahdiq Charles, who seems to only be getting better, as well as right tackle Austin Deculus. The only spot up for grabs on the O-Line should be at left guard, where Baton Rouge native Kardell Thomas has a legitimate chance to start.

Give credit to Ed Orgeron and this program for shifting away from their ground-and-pound offense to a more spread, wide-open offense. That type of scheme should really benefit the playmakers on this offense, and there are a lot of them, especially at receiver. It isn't unreasonable to think this could be a Top 5 unit in the SEC this year.

Defense: With studs returning at every position group, LSU could boast a Top 5 defense in 2019. Coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the highest paid coordinators in all of college football, and for good reason. He'll be innovative with how he gets all this talent to work together to stop opposing offenses.

The defensive line is led by two powerful defensive ends in Glen Logan and Rashard Lawrence. Lawrence flirted heavily with the NFL but decided to come back following a Fiesta Bowl MVP performance. The veteran has the chance for a monster grand finale with the Tigers. Logan is going to start, but will be pushed by former Texas Tech transfer Breiden Fehoko. Fehoko has dealt with numerous injuries during his time with LSU, but can really get after the QB. Figuring out who will play nose tackle will be important, as Ed Alexander left early for the NFL. Sophomore Tyler Shelvin saw a decent dose of snaps as a freshman, and could serve as a nice complementary piece to both Lawrence and Logan.

There is no question LSU will sorely miss linebacker Devin White, the 2018 Butkus Award winner and Top 10 NFL Draft selection. White had been the heart and soul of this defense the last few seasons and produced 123 tackles in '18. Yet, the linebacker corps is not in a complete rebuild, thanks in large part to the returns of Michael Divinity Jr. and Jacob Phillips. Phillips is going to have to become the new Tiger tackling machine playing at inside linebacker (he had 87 last season) but seems up for the task, even if he doesn't have White's natural instincts. Meanwhile, Divinity is an extremely effective pass rusher at the F-linebacker spot on the outside. Paired with fellow edge rusher K'Lavon Chaisson, Aranda is going to be able to dial up a lot of linebacker blitzes. Chaisson suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year's opener, but coaches have long raved about his significant potential.

A number of schools claim to be "DBU" as the best at developing defensive backs in the country, but it's hard to say that award should go to anybody but LSU. The lengthy list of former Tiger star defensive backs includes guys like Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne, Eric Reid and of course, Tyrann Mathieu. It appears time to add junior strong safety Grant Delpit to that list, as the elite playmaker is coming off a prolific 2018 campaign. Delpit stuffed the stat sheet full, picking up 74 total tackles, five interceptions and even five sacks. He truly did it all for this defense, and enters this fall as perhaps the best defensive player in college football and certainly the favorite to win the Jim Thorpe Award. Delpit is aided by another likely All-American, senior cornerback Kristian Fulton, an absolute lockdown defender. Fulton is a physical, athletic corner that has no fear going up against other teams No. 1 receivers. The likely starter opposite is unclear right now, but that isn't because of a shortage of talent. While junior Kary Vincent and sophomore Kelvin Joseph are both more proven commodities, true freshman Derek Stingley Jr. has the chance to be truly special. Stingley came in with plenty of fanfare over the spring and wowed this coaching staff. Add in another highly touted newcomer, Marcel Brooks, who will see snaps behind Delpit at SS and this LSU secondary looks like clearly the best unit in the country.

There will no doubt be some growing pains without Devin White, but LSU's defense still looks like one of the best in all of the land entering 2019. They should be able to get after the quarterback and also force turnovers, as their +12 turnover margin was seventh nationally and a big reason for their ten wins. Don't be surprised if Aranda, who already has gotten plenty of head coaching buzz, continues to get pressured to take a big-time Power Five job after another stellar year.

Special Teams: The Tigers must replace star kicker Cole Tracy, who was 29 for 33 on field goals this past season. The hope is that while young, true freshman Cade York can learn the ropes quickly in Tiger Town. The return game has serious potential, with Derek Stingley possibly getting a chance to show what he can do on punt returns.

Bottom Line: A ten win campaign punctuated by a strong bowl victory over UCF in the Fiesta Bowl showed that LSU was ready to be a major factor in the SEC under Ed Orgeron. The ultimate question for the Tigers entering 2019: are they ready to overtake Alabama? LSU has been unable to beat their fierce rivals since 2011 and didn't even score a point on the Tide last fall. Yet, they return a defense with the potential to be truly special and if the offense can take a few steps forward, it could be the best it has been in near a decade. Will that be enough? Perhaps, but LSU also has to deal with a schedule that includes a road trip to Texas in the non-conference, as well as dates with Florida and Texas A&M. With that in mind, this team still looks like they are on the outside looking in for both the SEC West Title and Playoff chase.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-2 (7-1 SEC)
Offensive MVP: QB Joe Burrow
Defensive MVP: S Grant Delpit
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Ja'Marr Chase
Impact Freshman: CB Derek Stingley Jr.

Five-Year Trend
2014: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
2015: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)
2016: 8-4 (5-3 SEC)
2017: 9-4 (6-2 SEC)
2018: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)

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