BATON ROUGE, La. -- Asked to pinpoint the reason for his offense's turnaround after a disappointing 2014, LSU coach Les Miles pointed in an obvious direction.
"I think we're throwing the ball better," Miles said after No. 4 LSU (7-0) generated 497 yards of total offense, led by a career-high 286 passing yards from sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris, in last Saturday's 48-20 win against Western Kentucky. "I think Brandon Harris can really throw it and I think our receivers are guys that can get open and compete with a real quality secondary."
Indeed, for the first time since Zach Mettenberger, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill starred on LSU's 2013 club, the Tigers have demonstrated an ability to be balanced on offense. That is entirely because of rapid development at the quarterback and wideout positions.
Early in the season, with Harris entering his first year as the starter, LSU rode star running back Leonard Fournette as far as he could carry the offense. With Fournette posting 200 rushing yards per game each week, the Tigers didn't ask much of Harris and the passing game. In the first four games, he never attempted more than 17 passes and threw for more than 80 yards in a game just once.
However, with defenses increasingly keying on Fournette and the Tigers' ground attack, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has leaned more heavily on Harris in recent weeks. In the Tigers' last three games -- wins against South Carolina, Florida and Western Kentucky -- Harris has completed 63 percent of his passes, tossed seven touchdowns versus no interceptions, and passed for 200-plus yards each game.
Suddenly an underwhelming segment of the LSU offense looks like a legitimate weapon, although Harris has repeatedly expressed his annoyance at ever being doubted in the first place.
"It's nothing but motivation to me, and I can't stand it," Harris said after the Florida game. "I play with a chip on my shoulder every single week. I say this real humbly. This team knows how talented we are passing the ball. Everybody knows what I can do throwing the football."
Harris is correct pointing out that his teammates always have expressed confidence in his passing ability. But those who aren't in attendance at the Tigers' practice sessions had every reason to wonder what would happen if Cameron ever took the training wheels off his passing game.
The Anthony Jennings-led pass attack in 2014 was below-average and it wasn't like LSU had been aggressive with its aerial attack early this fall. Even when Harris put the ball in the air, his receivers were frequently unable to hold onto the ball -- an early problem that has disappeared in recent weeks, with Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre averaging 102 and 91.6 receiving yards per game in the last three outings.
"A couple weeks ago, we didn't help him out against Eastern Michigan," Dural said of a game where the Tigers dropped multiple Harris passes. "We grew from there and we're helping him out and he's putting the ball exactly where we need it."
Not only has Harris yet to throw an interception, he has also been phenomenal on key passing downs. He is fifth among FBS quarterbacks in third-down Total Quarterback Rating (95.0), completing 56.3 percent of his passes (27-for-48) for 507 yards, six touchdowns and eight completions of 20-plus yards.
He was 7-for-10 for 102 yards on third down against Florida, including touchdown passes of 50 and 9 yards to Dupre. Then last week against Western Kentucky, Harris went 4-for-8 for 114 yards on third down, with touchdown passes of 61 yards to Tyron Johnson and 17 yards to Dural.
"He saved us, saved this team," center Ethan Pocic said of Harris' touchdown pass to Dural. "It was third down, it was a big play."
The Tigers know those are the kinds of plays they must generate if they are to pull off an upset in their next game, at No. 7 Alabama (7-1). The Crimson Tide boasts one of the nation's toughest defenses against the run -- they're fourth in the FBS, allowing 78.5 ypg -- so Cameron will need Harris and the passing game to effectively complement Fournette's running.
For the first time in nearly two years, LSU is proving it can do that, largely thanks to a young quarterback who is coming into his own.
"It's really hard to defend the offense," senior right tackle Vadal Alexander said. "We have such a talented running back and group of backs, but on top of that you have a threat as a run-and-throw threat as Brandon is, on top of what we would like to think is a very talented offensive line, tight ends and fullback.
"So when you have to defend all those things, it's hard to kind of know what to defend, one thing over another. So as long as we keep that balance, we can really do some great things."
JENNINGS' BEST PASSING GAMES IN 2014
Wisconsin: 9-21, 239 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Sam Houston State: 7-13, 188 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
Mississippi State: 13-26, 157 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
HARRIS' BEST PASSING GAMES IN 2015
Western Kentucky: 11-20, 286 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
South Carolina: 18-28, 228 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Florida 13-19, 202 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT