The State of LSU
This past November, three days before LSU faced Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Les Miles turned 60. Sixty can, of course, be just a ceremonial number - Steve Spurrier started coaching at South Carolina when he was a fresh-faced sixty-year old, and now he's the winningest coach in South Carolina history. Still, with Miles going strong down in Louisiana, and chasing his own title as the winningest coach of a program, it'd be easy to look ahead and feel like LSU's head coaching job will be his last. The man who originated in Big Ten country, and was a key piece in the SEC's emerging dominance, is already home.
Gerry DiNardo had a couple 9-win seasons in 1996-97, but LSU's resurgence began in earnest under Nick Saban. The ex-Michigan State coach brought the Fighting Tigers their first 10-win season since 1987 and only their sixth in LSU history (9 wins was often the ceiling in Baton Rouge), before replicating the feat in 2003 with a 13-1, championship campaign. The 2003 champions were a suffocating rushing attack, gaining 2600 yards on the ground against 938 for their opponents. Jimbo Fisher coordinated a balanced offense - the least run-oriented of any Saban-led championship team - and Will Muschamp coached a unit that led the country in scoring defense, at 11.0 points per game.
But it wasn't until Miles arrived in 2005 that the LSU Tigers (who first played in 1893) were able to reach back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in their history. No coach there has been more successful than Miles: his .798 winning percentage is the highest of any with more than 20 games experience, and his .953 winning percentage against teams outside the SEC is unparalleled. Miles' defenses feature terrific secondaries, but his signature is an athletic defensive front that can mangle the line of scrimmage. Six times in his nine years, the Tigers have ranked in the top 20 in the country in sacks, going 68-12 in those seasons and only 27-12 otherwise. Almost exclusively under coordinators Bo Pelini and John Chavis, they have allowed just 17.3 points per game.
It's a defense, though, that's been trending downwards since the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu two seasons ago, going from 11.3 points allowed in 2011 to 17.5 to 22.0 this past year. And with the departures of their two top wideouts, running back, and star quarterback, the team that had peaked on the offensive side now faces a bit of an identity shortage. What team will this be in 2014? Are they still the elite class of the SEC?
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Fixing the defense will be a number-one priority. Anthony Johnson ("The Freak") and Ego Ferguson both left via the draft, leaving behind criticism that they took too many plays off. The line is now an inexperienced, but deep, assortment of talents: Danielle Hunter, who's probably the most sure bet; Jermauria Rasco at DE, though he was inconsistent also last year; Frank Herron, who's said to have some of the most upside of anyone on the interior but has never played a college snap due to a meniscus injury; and a few others. It's a similar situation at linebacker and safety - some potential breakout players, little experience, and untested options. You'd be hard-pressed to find a defense with more question marks that's somehow in a pretty good place.
It's a similar situation on offense. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are competing for the starting quarterback spot; Harris is a true freshman, and Jennings went 7/19 for 82 yards against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. He's been called a running QB, but he only ran once for 2 yards (and was sacked four times, to give him a pretty -31 rushing output). At receiver, it's even uglier, given that the leading returner is Travin Dural, who had 145 yards last season on 20.7 ypc.
If you accept that this will be a running team, though, things look up: the offensive line returns mostly intact, and a new offensive line coach has been brought in after Greg Studrawa managed to put only one lineman into the NFL Draft since 2005. The running back position is deep and talented: Leonard Fournette, out of New Orleans, Kenny Hilliard (310/4.6 last year and 464/5.7 in '12), and Terrence Magee, a 5'9", 214 lb. back who's got speed and the physicality to bowl linebackers over (626 yards last year). At wide receiver, incoming freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn should get early playing time, which means if Cam Cameron can utilize Jennings' running skill set, there are weapons around him to ease his transition into some effective play-making. He'll need to do something - given that Hayden Rettig has decided to transfer, Jennings and Harris are the only two QBs left on the roster.
But that's just how it is now at LSU. Twenty-nine players have been drafted from LSU over the last four seasons, yet somehow LSU is always (barely) keeping up with the talent drain. There's a feeling of the reset button being hit about this roster - if guys like cornerback Tre'Davious White or Malachi Dupre break out, they'll become the face of their side of the ball for at least two seasons. Whether LSU relies on its offense or its defense, and on the running game or the quarterback, is always in flux; but so far, despite the difficulty of maintaining excellence, its status is not.
Is This Still Sparta?
On average, Michigan State allowed 252 yards per game in 2013, and ranked first in the nation in pass efficiency against, third in scoring defense (13.2) behind Florida State and Louisville, and top ten in a host of other categories. It was a history- and program-enriching season for Michigan State, which has been playing football for 117 years in the great state of Michigan. So, with that said..... can they do it again?
The defense tends to operate with an all-hands-on-deck approach (unlike OSU's defense last year, which relied heavily on Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby), but there are star players in that starting line-up that have to make highlight plays for them to perform so well. We know about Shilique Calhoun; we know about Kurtis Drummond. But here are some other names to know that Pat Narduzzi will be prepping to get them ready for this season.
Taiwan Jones, Middle Linebacker
Not only was Max Bullough a great player, he was also a three-years starter at Mike, the quarterback of the front seven. Taiwan Jones moves over from starting 13 games at the Star linebacker position to take over the job. Physically, he's everything the Spartans would need - 6'3", 250 lbs. and can deliver thumping big hits - but his weakness has long been knowing what everyone else on an offense or defense are trying to do. If he makes mistakes this year, it will be between the ears and not due to physical readiness.
On either side of him will be Ed Davis, at Sam linebacker, and Darien Harris at Star. Both have some game experience, particularly Davis, who would sub for Denicos Allen in passing situations given his more suitable (6'3", 230) frame for guarding tight ends. Obviously, the fact that the Sam already has experience in pass coverage is very valuable. Darien Harris has less experience overall, and was the back-up Mike linebacker in the Rose Bowl behind Kyler Elsworth.
RJ Williamson or Demetrious Cox, Strong Safety
Williamson is the more experienced of the two, and while Demetrious Cox has some great athleticism, you can bet he won't be starting unless he brings a lot more than that. Williamson is a year older, and a junior; he also has fifteen pounds on Cox, which is important for how much he'll be in run support. I'd expect him to start.
Darian Hicks, Cornerback
Hicks played mostly on special teams last year, but Michigan State will be relying on him to replace Darqueze Dennard. Linemen like Calhoun have pledged to improve their pass-rush this season to take some of the pressure off their two new starters in the secondary, but Hicks will still have a steep learning curve. Dennard's real replacement is Trae Waynes, the other starting corner, who also happens to be an old two-star recruit. Waynes' experience goes back to a breakout performance in MSU's 17-16 bowl win over TCU that Pat Narduzzi still reminds him of. So while it's not unknown or even uncommon for a Michigan State cornerback to surprise (it is Mark Dantonio's specialty), this could be the weakest link on the defense in advance of Oregon, making Hicks a very important player.
Hitting the Links Misses Football
You know what happens at the end of this. Another iconic moment in the Michigan vs. Ohio State rivalry.
I stumbled on this doing research for Melvin Gordon. It starts out solid but gets better and better, and somewhere in between the time Chris Borland body-slams Taylor Martinez, and Gus Johnson says, "Get out my way - I'm going to Pasadena," I just had to recommend it. Seeing Montee Ball (202 yards), James White (109 yards), and Melvin Gordon (216 yards) running the field together.... great, great stuff.
This is from Roll 'Bama Roll - I'm linking to it because there are four or five interesting links there, including Lane Kiffin talking about staying dedicated to the run, a quick look at Florida and the last-minute search for a 2015 opponent.
I'm linking to this mainly for the video; "the Chief" takes questions about how the LSU defense looks after spring practice.
This was a pretty enjoyable run-through of the top names in college football, regardless of if it's a little silly. Brandon Scherff comes out just ahead of Nick Marshall, Tyler Lockett just beats out Braxton Miller, and every OSU D-lineman except Adolphus Washington makes the cut.
I'll say this: for Wisconsin to play at a disruptive level on offense in their season-opener against LSU, they need an upgrade in the form of Tanner McEvoy. Their running backs are good, their O-line is good, but LSU's weakness on defense going into this game won't be their athleticism - they were highly-touted recruits - it'll be their comfort schematically. If Wisconsin comes in and just runs the ball, that doesn't challenge the LSU defense.
The scary thing is, this team could be a little bit better than last year's. Here's something that's even more scary: MSU's golden era in the '50s and '60s coincided with a downturn for the Wolverines.
Tommy Armstrong is one of three quarterbacks in the West who didn't get 1,000 passing yards in 2013 (Mitch Leidner, either of Illinois' Reilly O'Toole or Wes Lunt). Of those, Leidner and Armstrong can run it a bit, with Leidner definitely a better runner. But all three will have something to prove in '14.
Kenyan Drake is the second-string running back to T.J. Yeldon, but he and Nick Saban have famously bumped heads. Many believe Drake will leave early for the NFL along with Yeldon as a result, which would mean Henry will probably be the star of the show for the Crimson Tide next year.
I'll be curious to see if 2014's class of freshmen turn out to be one of the better ones over the last decade. Fournette, Jabrill, Da'Shawn Hand, OT Cameron Robinson and Myles Garrett make one heck of a top five. Then again, blue-chip recruits like Curtis Grant of Ohio State and Cyrus Kouandjio at Alabama have disappointed a little, so it's not guaranteed all those players will live up to the hype.
A lot of Buckeyes, Wolverines, and Spartans make the list. The Buckeyes aren't doing as well in Ohio this year; though OSU fans would point out that there's less overall talent this year, as well.
We don't usually pay attention to Buckeyes' recruiting, but this has been a down year for them so far and it's worried some Buckeye fans. Joe Burrow broke a very long drought by committing this past week; he is a three-star local recruit.
This is pretty short, but it's an interesting chance to hear Smith talk about how he breaks it down for our D-line.
Heath switched this off-season from defensive end to tackle, gaining 30 pounds in the process (à la Jibreel Black).
I have no strong opinions on this either way, but I've never seen a play like it before so I figured I'd include it. I assume you've all seen Les Miles' more interesting highlights.