By Zachary Junda
Has there ever been less certain college football season than the one that lay ahead?
The 2014 campaign to come is full of ambiguity, at both the national and conference level. For the first time ever, college football’s champion will be determined in a playoff, and no one knows how the new system will unfold.
Meanwhile, the SEC is as wide open as it has ever been, with perennial powers Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M, and South Carolina all breaking in new starters at quarterback.
With so much gray area to cover, we’re taking a look at the seven biggest questions facing the Tigers’ offense and defense. The former is up this week; stay tuned for the latter next week.
1) With Zach Mettenberger gone, who steps up and takes over the signal calling duties: Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris?
The common opinion here is that Jennings will start the season, but if Jennings underperforms the Harris can unseat the sophomore. While more experienced, Jennings didn’t do much to cement his status as the quarterback for the future in his lone start in the Outback Bowl. His less than stellar start against Iowa was particularly disappointing for irrational LSU fans who wanted him to be a Heisman finalist after his miraculous 99-yard game winning drive against Arkansas. Meanwhile, all we’ve heard is that Brandon Harris is really, really talented. In the “ever important” Spring Game, Harris showed that he has a tremendous arm, great mobility and an even better head on his shoulders. This is a guy that draws raves from quarterback gurus like George Whitfield for both his arm talent and his character. First year starting quarterbacks are thought to be detriment to a team, but why have three of the last four national champions been quarterbacked by a first-time starter? For now though, I’ll say that Jennings will be LSU’s starting quarterback. But don’t be surprised if Les goes to the bullpen and calls Harris’ number. Just please don’t recreate the Jordan Jefferson-Jarret Lee quarterback carousel from hell.
2) How long before Leonard Fournette becomes the man of LSU’s backfield? Is he really as good as advertised?
This is tough to answer simply because of how frequently Les rotates running backs. I won’t say that Fournette won’t get the lion’s share of the carries until 2015 simply because of Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee’s presences. In recent years Les has shown he’ll play the best player, regardless of what year he is. If Fournette is, you know, human after all and actually has to take a few games to get used to playing major college football, then I would say October 18, home against Kentucky, is the earliest date to expect him to start assuming the role of the lead back. Unless Fournette turns into Jim Brown reincarnated there’s no chance of him starting at Auburn or at Florida. Forget it. Now if he is better than advertised, and balls out like Jeremy Hill did in 2012, then why wouldn’t he start getting the majority of the touches as early as September 27 against New Mexico State?
As for whether or not Fournette will be as good as advertised, I feel like he can’t be this good…and yet I know he can’t not be as good as they say he is, if that makes sense. The recruiting scene has gotten so overblown lately that every single Top 300 recruit is made out to be a future Heisman winner and guaranteed All-American. And maybe it’s the unknown that excites college football fans so much, but we get suckered into believing the hype behind every last one of these kids. But everything I’ve heard and read about Leonard Fournette makes me believe that he really is going to be something special. I feel pathetic for getting this excited about an 18-year-old deciding to play football at my school, but my goodness he doesn’t seem like your typical 18-year-old. Normal 18-year-olds don’t get labeled the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. Fournette is. Normal 18-year-olds aren’t thought of good enough to go to the NFL straight out of high school. Fournette is. Mike Detillier, one of the most respected football voices in Louisiana, has said that Fournette is one of three high school prospects he’s ever seen from the state of Louisiana that he’d “bet the house on.” The other two? Ed Reed and Peyton Manning. Lil Wayne said it best: “Leonard Fournette is the truth.”
3) Who are the poor souls that have to fill in for Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., one of the best wide receiver tandems in LSU history? Am I crazy for thinking Malachi Dupre starts from the get go?
LSU’s first official depth chart lists Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie as the top two receivers. If this is true, then LSU’s top two receiver targets have a career eight receptions, 155 yards and two touchdowns between them. Not exactly inspiring stuff huh? But that’s the 1B of LSU’s offensive dilemma for 2014. Of this inexperienced wide receiver bunch, who the heck is LSU’s inexperienced quarterback going to throw the ball to? By all accounts Dural seems to have at least one of the two starting receiver slots locked down. After him it gets tricky. Honestly seeing Leslie slated as a starter is a shock. Granted depth charts released before fall practice begins aren’t ever close to being set in stone, but this one’s still a surprise. Maybe it’s because, at 6-foot-4, he’s the tallest receiver on the roster and that gives him the edge. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s the lone senior and that gives him the first crack at starting (then again he was a JUCO transfer so he’s only been in the program for two years.)
Either way the wideout position is going to be a fluid one and arguably LSU’s weakest spot. Every single receiver on the roster has two years of experience or less. That’s not encouraging, but the roster does feature talented prospects, particularly in Malachi Dupre. Dupre’s the No. 1 ranked receiver coming out of high school and he looks the part. At 6-foot-3, he, along with redshirt freshman Kevin Spears, is the second tallest wide receiver. Dupre also shows dedication to his craft; he’s worked with New Orleans Saints’ cornerback Keenan Lewis, and Lewis went as far as to say that Dupre reminds him of Chicago’s Brandon Marshall. There will be ample opportunities for Dupre, really anyone of these new faces, to rise up and earn that spot. It’s just a matter of who.
4) Are we finally going to see an LSU tight end be used in the passing game instead of essentially serving as a sixth offensive lineman?
Ehh…probably not. Maybe DeSean Smith or Jacory Washington could emerge as a legitimate pass catching threat but that’s about it. Now, a tight end might actually emerge in the passing game this year with the current quarterback situation. Having a check down option is a young quarterback’s best friend, but don’t expect any of LSU’s tight ends to emerge as a Mackey Award finalist this year.
5) Speaking of offensive linemen, is it a good thing or a bad thing that the O-Line is probably the best unit on this entire LSU team?
Of course it’s a good thing! Especially with a young quarterback under center. LSU’s bringing back four starters from last year’s team, with right guard being the lone spot to be filled after Trai Turner departed for the NFL. Going off the initial depth chart LSU’s looking at a battle between Fehoko Faniaka and Evan Washington. This year’s offensive line is the strength of the team and is one of the better units in the SEC. La’el Collins and Gerald Hawkins are probably the best tackle tandem in the conference, Vadal Alexander is a three year starter, and Elliot Porter is back as the center. Talent wise, this group might be the best since Miles has been here.
6) Right now who’s the best player on the offense? Who’ll be the best player come bowl season?
Right now it’s La’el Collins. Come bowl season it has to be Leonard Fournette.
7) What’s a realistic expectation for the 2014 LSU offense?
Growing pains. Lots and lots of growing pains with some flashes of promise. Talent is abound on the offensive side, but collectively they won’t be ready to make a run in 2014. Call me skeptical, but I’m not loving the idea of LSU breaking in a brand new quarterback and giving him brand new receivers and non-receiving threats for tight ends to throw the ball to. You don’t have your driver’s license test in a Ferrari, and Les Miles and Cam Cameron aren’t going to give Jennings or Harris the full playbook to work with against Wisconsin August 30. The 2015 season could be an entirely different story, but for this upcoming year it might be best to assume the worst.