By Andrew Alexander, DIG Sports Editor
Saturday’s season opening matchup between LSU and McNeese State marks the beginning of what many Tiger faithful hope is the dawn of a new era of a balanced (and maybe high-powered) LSU offense. Coaches, players and fans are all eager to wash to taste of an 8-5 campaign in 2014 and a season ending loss to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl.
With a bevy of returning starters on both sides of the ball and several uber-talented sophomores ready to come into their own, there’s plenty of reason for Tiger fans to be overly optimistic for 2015. After all, it has been four years since LSU last played for the national championship (see 2003, 2007, 2011).
Before the purple and gold fanatics get too far ahead of themselves, let’s take a look at the five burning questions LSU football faces this upcoming season.
Will LSU find consistent quarterback play this season?
The most clichéd preseason question is nonetheless still the most important one. LSU coach Les Miles confirmed on Monday night that sophomore Brandon Harris will start at quarterback in the season opener against McNeese State. Tiger fans certainly remember Harris’ lone dreadful start at Auburn last season, a 3-for-14, 58-yard performance that resulted in a 41-7 beat down in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Purple and gold optimists choose to remember the near-epic comeback Harris almost led against Mississippi State, the tackle-shedding 46-yard touchdown run against Sam Houston State and the five touchdown offensive explosion against New Mexico State. Harris will likely dazzle in the season opener against an FCS opponent. The real test comes when SEC play starts week two in Starkville versus Mississippi State.
LSU does not need a Heisman Trophy contender under center to have a great season. Instead, the Tigers need a quarterback who exudes confidence, is calm under pressure and does not mind handing the ball off to a running back over 30 times a game.
Is Leonard Fournette a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender?
Fournette’s 2015 Heisman campaign began the moment he flashed the pose following his first collegiate touchdown. The much-hyped freshman running back put the college football world on notice during a rent-a-win game in early September. Flashing the Heisman pose was the first of several signature moments from Fournette’s first year at LSU. From his breakout 140-yard, two-touchdown performance at Florida to his Hershel Walker-esque moment running over Texas A&M safety Howard Matthews to his three-touchdown explosion against Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl, Fournette’s freshman season was a preview of spectacular feats to come.
Since 2000 only Mark Ingram (2009) and Reggie Bush has won the Heisman as a running back. Fournette possesses the ability to break the five-year quarterback-winning streak because he’s a touchdown threat every time he touches the ball. Fournette’s best bet for Heisman success is to maximize his opportunities in the first half of the season and accumulate enough stats to somehow convince Miles to deviate from his running back by committee strategy by the second half of the season. Miles doesn’t need to run Fournette thirty times a game with a healthy and talented stable of running backs behind him, but it sure would be fun to watch if Miles did from time to time. Sprinkle in a few more memorable moments and a big return touchdown or two, and Fournette’s got the making of a Heisman-winning season. Will he win the Heisman, likely not, but it’s going to be a wild ride to find out for sure.
What happens if linebacker Kendell Beckwith gets injured?
Junior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith is the most invaluable player on LSU’s team in 2015. After taking over as the starting middle linebacker against Florida last season, Beckwith was an integral reason why LSU’s defense radically improved over the course of the season, finishing first in the SEC in total defense. As a sophomore, Beckwith finished last season ranked second on the team with 77 tackles.
With the departure of former five-star recruit Clifton Garrett this summer, the Tigers lack a reliable, talented backup at the MLB position. Beckwith is a physically imposing beast who is going to punish opposing offenses this season. Depth is a question mark throughout LSU’s defensive front seven, but an injury to Beckwith would be the ultimate doomsday scenario for LSU’s defense.
Will this be the year LSU finally utilizes the tight ends on offense?
No. Next question.
LSU tight ends caught 12 passes last season. Will that unit catch more in 2015? Perhaps, but LSU returns the entire receiving corps and possesses running backs who are very adept at catching passes out of the backfield. It’s not that LSU doesn’t want to use tight ends in 2015, especially with potentially improved quarterback play, but the reality is there may not be enough touches to go around.
Will LSU contend for the SEC title and reach the College Football Playoff?
If LSU makes it past Alabama with zero or one loss, yes. One of the biggest knocks on LSU in the past three seasons has been their collective lack of motivation after falling out of contention in the SEC, following a loss to Alabama. This has resulted in several losses to inferior opponents both in the late regular season and bowl games.
This year might be different. LSU has the possibility of heading into Tuscaloosa at 8-0 if the Tigers can knock off Auburn in week three and take care of business the other seven weeks. No LSU losses heading into Alabama means ludicrous amounts of hype for another classic Bama-LSU tilt. The Tide could be battered and bruised by November 7 because they play Wisconsin, Ole Miss, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Tennessee in the first eight weeks of the season.
Should LSU emerge from the Alabama game unscathed, the Tigers will have all the confidence they’ll need to finish the season in the strongest way possible: with a trip to Atlanta and a spot in the College Football Playoff. From there, anything can happen. Just ask Ohio State.