SEC Previews: LSU Tigers

Make no mistake, the defending champions are going to be very good in 2020. Will they make a historically dominant run to a 15-0 record (or whatever the equivalent is in the abbreviated season)? Probably not. But the Tigers aren’t going away just because Joe Burrow is gone. There are questions to be answered, but I expect LSU to be challenging for the SEC  crown once more. 

Top Returners: Ja’Marr Chase, Derek Stingley

Maybe you thought my introduction was bold for a team that lost a legendary quarterback, one of their top receivers, and their running back, not to mention the passing coordinator that revolutionized their offense. But if you want two reasons for why I’m still high on the Tigers, look at the two names above. Both Chase  and Stingley may be the best players in the country at their position. Chase is coming off an  84-reception, 20-touchdown season in which  he became LSU’s #1 receiver over first-round draft pick Justin Jefferson. Mentioned earlier this year as a darkhorse Heisman candidate (as good a chance as any receiver will ever get), Chase  is most  definitely among the elite  players  in the country, if not  the flat-out best  receiver to grace the gridiron this fall.

Meanwhile, Stingley is a clear contender  to be the SEC  Defensive  Player of  the Year. There’s been talk about the rising sophomore playing both ways in his junior season, although that timeline may be fast tracked if there’s a 2020 season. With quarantine rules in effect, having two-way players may be a game-changing asset on rosters. Stingley notched 38 tackles and 6 interceptions in his true freshman season, breaking up 15 passes and recovering a fumble as well. He was quite possibly the best player on a championship defense that included first-round pick Patrick Queen and second-round pick Grant Delpit. As a freshman. If I’m an LSU fan, I’m really excited about getting two more years of Derek Stingley. 

  

Video courtesy of Brian Mallett of Endicott College. Check out his work and prices @Bmalmedia on Instagram, or visit his Youtube page

Biggest Concerns: Replacing the Big Guns 

This one is clear enough. Joe Burrow is gone. Clyde Edwards-Hillaire is gone. Justin Jefferson is gone. On the defense, Delpit, Queen, Kristian Fulton, and K’Lavon Chaison are all gone. That’s seven players that went in the top two rounds, and it’s no doubt a lot of talent for LSU to replace. They’ve got returners and new guys ready to step up, but that’s quite the gut-punch to recover from. 

X-Factors: Myles Brennan

This season comes down to Brennan. He’s the man in Baton Rouge after backing up Joe Burrow the past two seasons. Can the understudy step up and earn a standing ovation? Brennan is 42-70 for 600 yards over his three years a backup, tossing two touchdowns and three interceptions. Under head coach Ed Orgeron, throwing to Ja’Marr Chase, and operating within LSU’s new spread offense, Brennan will have every opportunity to make good on the potential and talent that enticed LSU to offer the Mississippi product. Whether he does may determine LSU’s ceiling in 2020. \

SEC Record Prediction: 7-1
This record prediction came before the recent schedule adjustments, but ultimately, I believe LSU is on the shortlist of SEC contenders in 2020. My preview of Texas A&M already mentioned this so I’ll go ahead and anger any LSU fans who didn’t see it. I’ve got LSU taking down Alabama at home, but a bid at a second consecutive undefeated season falls short at Kyle Allen Field in their clash with the Aggies. After a 7-overtime loss to Texas A&M in their last road game clash with the Aggies, LSU dominated the match-up at Death Valley last year. Can the Aggies run it back on their home field? I’m giving it a tentative yes. LSU still finishes 7-1, still very much in contention for the CFP and New Year’s 6.

Heisman Watchlist: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

Rarely, if ever, do wide receivers receive serious Heisman Trophy consideration. Since Michigan’s Desmond Howard won it in 1991, only three receivers finished in the top-3 in the voting, with Amari Cooper being the most recent in 2014. Virtually every big season by a receiver is complemented by a massive campaign from the man slinging him passes – quarterbacks can’t win the Heisman Trophy without their receivers, but the receivers rarely receive credit. Take last season’s LSU team for example; let’s skip all the standard ‘Joe Burrow had the greatest season ever’ because we know that, and it’s a boring and old way to waste words in this story. Rather, I wanted to look at Joe Burrow’s game versus Oklahoma. Burrow was incredible in firing seven first half touchdowns, but on nearly every toss, his target did a majority of the hard work.

On three of his TD passes, Burrow found a receiver with at least two yards of separation, twice hitting LSU receivers without an Oklahoma defender within six yards. On another two, Justin Jefferson had his man beat by a step or two, and Burrow actually threw behind him, forcing tougher catches than necessary, and on the two scoring passes not mentioned yet, Burrow hit his receivers on short crossing patterns. Now Burrow deserves plenty of credit for extending plays with his legs, making the throws, and all the standard tangible attributes QBs get praise for, but virtually no talk or conversation after the game discussed how insanely easy the LSU receivers made it for Burrow. Throwing it back a few weeks earlier, to Burrow’s viral ‘Heisman’ play against Georgia, and you’ll see him find Jefferson, open by about 8-10 feet. None of this is to say Burrow didn’t deserve the Heisman and didn’t have a great season, but the lack of credit receivers get is astounding. 

And if there was ever a receiver to be in a position to get more attention than the quarterback, it is LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase. Chase was one of the bevy of LSU pass-catchers making Burrow’s life easy last season, and this year he has a far more unproven quarterback in Myles Brennan throwing to him. Chase didn’t do too much in the Oklahoma game, but he was the receiving star in the National Championship, catching nine passes for 221 yards and 2 touchdowns against Clemson. His 1,748 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season led the nation, and earned the sophomore star the Biletnikoff Award, presented to the most outstanding receiver. With fellow stud Justin Jefferson graduated to the NFL, Chase will be the top target for Brennan in 2020, and his highlight reel alone has got to make LSU fans excited.

Ja’Marr Chase is always open – check out this highlight mix from Bryan Mallett (@Bmalmedia on Instagram)

With Chase’s explosiveness, he doesn’t even need Brennan to light up the SEC. Last season, Chase caught a pass for at least 40 yards in eight games, and at least 20 yards in 13 of LSU’s 15 contests. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron is unlikely to ask Brennan to be the hero for LSU, given his lack of experience as a starter, but expect him to be dialing up plays for his new signal-caller to hit Chase deep once or twice a game. Chase can get open against virtually anyone, and his hands are some of the best in the nation. A projected top-10 pick in the 2021 draft, Chase is undoubtedly going to be a focal point of the offense in the Bayou. LSU is hoping to avoid being a one-hit wonder, and they’ll lean on Chase to be even more explosive and precise than he was this past year. 

Top Games For Heisman Moments

@ Florida, October 10

Going into this game, LSU *should* be 5-0. Their only real test is a home game vs. Texas, and although Texas may actually be good this season, they will be underdogs in Death Valley, and they don’t really boast the defense that can take advantage of an inexperienced LSU offense. However, this October 10 contest in Gainesville will be a brutal test for the Tigers. In a hostile environment – their first true road game of the season – LSU will look to Chase to help Myles Brennan navigate the difficulty of playing away from home in the SEC. Florida will be the stiffest defense Brennan and the Tigers have to face in the first two months of the season, so if (and when Chase gets open) the headlines should be about his performance if LSU gets the victory. 

Game To Ruin Heisman Hopes

Vs. Texas, September 12

I’m worried that this game becomes a battle of Texas’s offense against LSU’s defense, and Orgeron may look to the ground game, to take the pressure off of Brennan in his first real test as a starter. As said before, I anticipate LSU winning this game, but the potential of an early-season trap game, and my gut feeling that Chase won’t be the go-to guy on the offense makes it tough for LSU’s star wide receiver to put up big numbers in a big win, which will be critical if he’s to be a legitimate Heisman candidate as a receiver.

Heisman Watchlist Feature: Derek Stingley, CB, LSU

The Heisman Trophy has been won by a quarterback in four consecutive seasons, and in nine of the past ten. A quarterback or running back has taken home the hardware every year since 1997, when Charles Woodson, a cornerback and punt returner for Michigan brought the trophy to Ann Arbor. So although including a defensive player on our Heisman watchlist may seem like a long shot, if there’s a star on the other side of the ball to break the defensive drought, it might be LSU sophomore Derek Stingley. Stingley is probably the best athlete on LSU, and there’s even been talk about him being utilized as a two-way player in 2021. But as of now, Stingley resides as the most dangerous returner on LSU’s championship defense, and likely the Tigers’ best chance of keeping the Heisman Trophy in the Bayou. 

Having graduated Patrick Queen and Grant Delpit, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron is well aware that Stingely is the best piece on his 2020 defense, and without all-world Joe Burrow under center, he will need the Baton Rouge product to step up while Myles Brennan adjusts to the brutal life of a SEC quarterback. Orgeron is prepared to utilize Stingley in multiple roles, mixing him into some blitz packages as well as his traditional man-coverage role in LSU’s secondary. The ability to be a jack-of-all-trades defender increases Stingley’s Heisman potential, as edge rushers and linebackers more visibly impact games on every play, and thus they get more Heisman votes. Ohio State edge rusher Chase Young and Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith were the only two defensive players to finish in the top ten of Heisman voting in the previous three seasons. Stingley’s versatile skill-set draws natural comparisons to Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o in 2012, who finished second in Heisman voting, second only to the legendary season of Johnny Manziel. The Irish star finished that year with 113 tackles, 7 interceptions, and 1.5 sacks. Stingley finished last year with six picks and 38 tackles. As the best playmaker for the Tigers in 2020, he should get a chance to boost those numbers significantly. 

Last season, Stingley faced 94 targets, the second most by a cornerback in the nation, but he allowed just a 38.3% catch rate, a top-5 mark in college football. He played his best football towards the end of the season, intercepting Jake Fromm twice in the SEC title game, and recording four tackles and a fumble recovery in the Playoff. Playing in the SEC, Stingley will have some natural chances for Heisman moments – and if he can be the driving force in leading the Tigers back to SEC supremacy, expect him to be up in the Heisman conversation. 

Top Heisman Moment Opportunity
November 21, at Auburn
Finding a Heisman moment is a difficult balance between finding a big game on the schedule and one that brings chances for the candidate to put up big numbers. I think this contest at Auburn is a great chance, as it matches LSU against possibly the best SEC quarterback in Bo Nix, and with Auburn’s balanced offense playing at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Stingley will have a chance to be at his versatile best and stop the Tigers in a critical late season SEC West contest.

Game most likely to trip him up
September 26, vs. Ole Miss
Last year, Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee led the Rebels to 37 points against LSU defense. It wasn’t enough to take down Joe Burrow, but it was an extremely impressive performance from the freshman. Ole Miss is not a good team, but Plumlee leads a productive offense for the Rebels, and they could pose some serious issues early in the season for LSU’s defense. It’s a high-risk, low-reward game for Stingley, as a strong performance against a below-average SEC team does little to boost his Heisman chances, but if he struggles against the dynamic Plumlee, it will destroy his limited chances of breaking the stranglehold quarterbacks have on the Heisman Trophy.