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College Football Preview 2021: 24. LSU Tigers

Derek Stingley Jr., LSU

24. LSU Tigers

Is LSU closer to 2018-2019 under Coach O, or the disastrous 2020 campaign? The real answer lies somewhere in-between

2020 Review
Defending a National Title in the world of college football is always difficult, but it becomes even more so during a pandemic year, with both your coaching staff and roster absolutely gutted. A step-back from LSU was almost a certainty but faltering to a 5-5 record was a wakeup call, even if the season did end on a relatively high note by upsetting SEC East Champion Florida. While the offense was unsurprisingly unable to meet 2019's highs, it was the defense that killed any chance of LSU contention. They allowed nearly 35 points per game and were absolutely shelled even by mediocre offenses, allowing 44 to Mississippi State, 45 to Missouri, and 48 to Auburn. With defensive coordinator Bo Pelini fired, the hope is that the "D" can show the necessary growth needed to once again contend for SEC Titles.

2021 Outlook
Offense: Even though LSU was gutted on the offensive side of the ball following their 2019 National Championship, their offensive numbers were nothing to feel ashamed about. They finished 39th in the nation in scoring offense and averaged a respectable 434 yards per game. They did so even after starting quarterback Myles Brennan was lost early in the season due to an abdominal injury.

Brennan is back for 2021 and will likely enter fall camp as the presumed starter, although he will have his work cut out for him fending off sophomore Max Johnson. Johnson emerged down the stretch as the team's best quarterback option and showed tremendous poise and grit in helping the Tigers upset Florida late in the year. Brennan still has quite an edge in experience and was putting up big numbers prior to his injury, but Johnson has the momentum following spring. The two remain locked in such an intense QB competition that T.J. Finley, who started five games in 2020, opted to transfer. Whoever ends up winning the job will have a new offensive coordinator to work with in Jake Peetz, as well as an abundance of talented options on the perimeter.

The Tigers primarily used a committee approach to their backfield in 2020, following the departure of first-rounder Clyde Edwards-Helaire. None of their backfield trio really stood out, although Tyrion Davis-Price put up the best numbers, with 446 yards and three scores. Davis-Price is sure to feature early and often once again in '21, as will fellow junior John Emery. We'll see if Emery can start showing the potential that made him a former big-name recruit; he's been solid in his collegiate career so far, but more was expected when he arrived in Baton Rouge. With Chris Curry off to Utah, two names to watch are freshmen Armoni Goodwin and Corey Kiner.

Opt-outs killed the LSU receiver group in 2020. Prior to the season, reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase decided to forego the season altogether. Then, a pair of top weapons, Terrace Marshall Jr. and tight end Arik Gilbert, both opted out in late November. That left Kayshon Boutte as the de-facto No. 1 receiver in the offense and the youngster did not disappoint. He finished with 735 yards and five touchdowns and now looks like he will enter 2021 as one of the league's top playmakers. Boutte put up impressive numbers with a bunch of turnover at quarterback; he could be absolutely potent with more stability at that position. Junior Jaray Jenkins and sophomore Koy Moore should be nice complementary pieces. Jenkins stepped forward as LSU's deep threat last fall and at 6'4" with a massive catch radius, he's a real problem for opposing defensive backs.

It will be fascinating to see how much Peetz chooses to utilize the tight end position in '21. Recent Tiger tight ends have resembled receivers more than true tight ends, including guys like Thaddeus Moss and Arik Gilbert. Gilbert is the name every Tiger fan is keeping a close eye on right now. He opted out, announced he was going to transfer to Florida, then changed his mind once again. Gilbert's status for 2021 remains completely unclear but there's some thought he may end up returning to LSU. As the highest rated tight end recruit in the history of 247 Sports, he'd be quite the prize for this offense.

LSU's offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the nation's best group in 2019, but it was hit hard by attrition heading into last fall. After some understandable early struggles, the group seemed to play much better by the season's conclusion. They have an experienced group of blockers set to return in 2021, as this could challenge as one of the SEC's better O-Lines. Right tackle Austin Deculus has made 34 starts in his LSU career and has All-League talent, while guards Chasen Hines and Ed Ingram are also program staples. A name to watch is redshirt freshman Marcus Dumervil, who is the nephew of former NFL Pro-Bowler Elvis Dumervil. He took a redshirt year in 2020 but has the frame of an NFL veteran.

This offensive group is ripe with potential, no matter what happens under center. The X-factor may indeed be Peetz, who arrives after serving a stint as Carolina Panthers QB Coach. Peetz has spent most of the past decade working in the NFL, but has never called plays before. He doesn't have to be Joe Brady 2.0 for this offense to succeed, but how quickly he acclimates to the role will have a major impact.

Defense: Head coach Ed Orgeron's decision to fire Bo Pelini after just one season of leading the Tiger defense was the least surprising news of the 2020 off-season. Pelini's defenses may have worked a decade ago in a college football vastly different from the one we see now, but it was no match for the athletes and schemes the SEC is putting out.

To replace Pelini, Coach O took a swing at Cincinnati's Marcus Freeman (who eventually ended up at Notre Dame) but instead landed on Daronte Jones. Jones was previously coaching defensive backs with the Minnesota Vikings, and his background with the position should pay dividends immediately.

The LSU defensive line should be a real strength, with just about every big name returning. Senior end Ali Gaye is perhaps the most crucial returnee, following a 2020 in which he managed 9.5 tackles for loss. Gaye got NFL attention but decided to come back, giving them a real difference-maker on the edge. Additionally, veterans Neil Farrell Jr. and Glen Logan will be back, ready to clog up holes in the rushing game. They continue a long tradition of Tiger interior D-Linemen that find ways to impact games, even beyond just rushing the passer.

The defensive end opposite of Gaye in this 4-3 scheme should be an interesting spot to watch. Andre Anthony is a proven veteran who recorded 5.5 sacks last season, but it will be hard for LSU to keep sophomore B.J. Ojulari off the field. Anthony is much more natural at end than Ojulari, who is more of a standup, outside linebacker than anything else. However, with Jones likely to stick with the base 4-3, Ojulari may be asked to stick his hand in the dirt and play end more often. He's unquestionably a breakout candidate, totaling four sacks as a young freshman in 2020.

Prior to last season, LSU got a much-needed linebacker transfer in the form of Jabril Cox, an FCS All-American with North Dakota State. Cox may have been the most important defender on the entire team during his lone year in SEC play, finishing third on the team in tackles, which picking off three passes. This year, LSU once again gets a big-name transfer at the position in former Clemson 'backer Mike Jones Jr. Jones started seven games for Clemson last fall and proved to be a reliable, playmaking defender. Expect him to pair really well with senior Micah Baskerville and Damone Clark, two guys who know their way around SEC football. This is a much more experienced group than the 2020 edition, which only spells good things for Orgeron and the Tiger staff.

There will be a bunch of teams fighting for recognition as the best secondary in the country entering 2021, including numerous SEC teams. LSU may end up beating them all out, stocked with a defensive backfield full of future NFL stars. That includes junior Derek Stingley Jr., who was already established himself as one of the best in college football. As a true freshman, Stingley picked off six passes and earned All-American honors. The hype was so extreme for him entering last fall that anything he would've done short of winning the Heisman would be a disappointment. His numbers were pedestrian, but that's primarily because he missed some time, and teams simply didn't want to throw his way. Fully healthy and wearing the iconic "No. 7" for the Tigers, I expect a big year from Stingley.

Starting at the other corner spot should be Elias Ricks, who had some growing pains early on but really grew into his role. He ended up as the team leader with four interceptions, and also recorded five pass deflections. There were rumors Ricks was considering a transfer over the off-season, but he appears set to be a key contributor heading into 2021. The safety spots are a slightly larger concern for the Tigers entering '21, as JaCoby Stevens is a huge loss. Senior Todd Harris and junior Jay Ward have played plenty of snaps, but must begin to develop consistency. Ward in particular could be pushed by either Major Burns or true freshman Sage Ryan. Both are formerly huge names in the recruiting ranks; Ryan was a five-star in the 2021 class, while Burns was a high four-star who transferred from Georgia.

Special Teams: Even though LSU's struggles during the 2020 season, special teams was generally a bright spot. Kicker Cade York is back after a productive year in which he went 18-21 on field goals and was All-SEC. Punter's a bigger question, with Zach Von Rosenberg moving on, meaning that Louisiana native Peyton Todd may start as a true frosh.

Bottom Line: It's been a long time, perhaps not ever, that we've seen a reigning National Champion struggle as much as LSU did in 2020. It wasn't just the losses, but the dysfunction and drama that seemed to cloud the whole locker room. Some of that might have been expected, but a lot of it had to do with poor hires and decisions from coach Orgeron. The pressure is now on for the lovable "Coach O" to put together a resurgent 2021, and the talent is in place to do so. The defense has the chance to be significantly better than what it was last fall and even if the QB competition, the offense should be serviceable. It may be difficult for the Bayou Bengals to rise back up the SEC West totem pole extremely quick but with all this talent, they can find a niche at an 8-9 squad. At the very least, names like Boutte, Stingley, and possibly even Arik Gilbert can provide enough fireworks to assuage the home folks.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (4-4 SEC)
Offensive MVP: WR Kayshon Boutte
Defensive MVP: CB Derek Stingley Jr.
Breakout Player of the Year: LB B.J. Ojulari
Impact Freshman: S Sage Ryan

Recruiting Breakdown
Even though there were struggles on the field, Orgeron and his staff responded with a great showing in the recruiting cycle, which should keep fans excited. The grand prize was five-star defensive tackle Maason Smith, an in-state prospect. Smith is good enough to play right away, even with how experienced and deep the Tigers are at D-Tackle. The staff also landed the quarterback of the future in Garrett Nussmeier, the No. 9 pro-style QB in the Class. Nussmeier is the son of Doug Nussmeier, a former college OC and the current Dallas Cowboys QB Coach, which should serve him well picking up a new system. A few other names that could see the field in short order are Sage Ryan, wide out Deion Smith and JUCO product Navonteque Strong. Strong had a bunch of SEC interest and was momentarily committed to Mississippi State before eventually flipping to LSU.

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