Our ranking: No. 16 LSU
Coach: Ed Orgeron (6-2, entering second season; 22-29 overall)
2016 record: 8-4 overall, 5-3 Southeastern Conference; tied for second in East Division
Look back: Coach Les Miles survived a near-firing at the end of the 2015 season, but his stay of execution did not last long. Lackluster showings in September during a 16-14 loss to Wisconsin and 18-13 defeat at Auburn led to Miles’ ouster after just four games in 2016 to end more than 11 seasons with the Tigers.
Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron stepped in as Miles’ interim replacement. Orgeron’s high-energy style, not to mention some impressive results, won over players, fans and eventually LSU decision-makers.
The Tigers went 4-2 in the SEC under the Louisiana native. Two days after a 54-39 regular season-ending win against Texas A&M, LSU removed the interim tag from Orgeron’s title. Holding Heisman winner Lamar Jackson without a touchdown during a 29-9 rout of Louisville in the Citrus Bowl was further evidence Orgeron might be the right choice in Baton Rouge.
Offensive starters lost: 6
Defensive starters returning: 4
Defensive starters lost: 7
Key losses: S Jamal Adams, LB Kendell Beckwith, RB Leonard Fournette, C Ethan Pocic, LB Duke Riley, WR Malachi Dupre, WR Travin Dural
Top returnees: QB Danny Etling, WR D.J. Chark, RB Derrius Guice, CB Donte Jackson, Arden Key, LB
Strengths: All-American Leonard Fournette has moved onto the NFL, but the Tigers’ best player against could be its tailback — junior Derrius Guice. With Fournette injured the final four games, Guice rushed for 758 yards, highlighted by a pair of 250-yard efforts.
Guice will run behind an offensive line returning three starters, including left tackle K.J. Malone — son of NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone — and veteran Will Clapp, who moves from guard to center, replacing All-SEC pick Ethan Pocic.
The Tigers’ 2016 defense led the nation with just 16 touchdowns allowed, but lost several key contributors, including first team All-American S Jamal Adams and tackling machine Kendell Beckwith at linebacker. Plenty of top-notch talent remains, though, led by pass rusher extraordinaire Arden Key. The 6-foot-6 Key has 12 sacks last season and is considered a top-10 draft pick. Key will benefit from the return of DE Christian LaCouture, who missed last season with a knee injury, and senior NT Greg Gilmore.
The Tigers’ secondary surely will miss Adams, but athletes abound on the back end. Junior CB Donte Jackson is expected to be the unit’s next star, while senior S John Battle is a returning starter.
Weaknesses: QB Danny Etling was serviceable in his first season under center, but the Tigers’ offense needs more playmaking of the former Purdue transfer. LSU was last in the SEC with just 30 pass plays of 20 yards or longer. The evolution of senior D.J. Chark into a No. 1 receiver will be key after the loss of leading WR Malachi Dupre. Chark averaged 17.9 yards on 26 catches.
The linebacking corps might face more questions marks than any unit. Beckwith and Duke Riley, who had 91 and 93 tackles, respectively, will be hard to replace. Senior Donnie Alexander, who had 45 stops a season ago, will man the middle. All eyes are on the evolution promising sophomore Devin White. The Tigers’ secondary has big holes to fill, too, but LSU has recruited well there for years. Sophomore CB Saivon Smith and freshman S JaCoby Stevens have tremendous upside.
Outlook: Orgeron’s second shot as a head coach is off to a good start, but skeptics remain. Orgeron, after all, was 10-25 as head coach at Ole Miss from 2005-07. Oregon returns just nine starters and LSU plays just three SEC home games due to the Hurricane Matthew scheduling mess. But Oregon has top-notch coordinators — Matt Canada (offensive) and Dave Aranda (defense) — and the devotion of his players. If Orgeron proves to be a better head coach this time and Etling improves, the Tigers could challenge Alabama in the SEC West.