NCF Nation: John Chavis
Here are 10 situations in the SEC in which players need to send a message, loudly and clearly:
Quarterback Chad Kelly, Ole Miss: Kelly is a classic “something to prove” prospect this spring. Talent is not the question with Kelly, who transferred from East Mississippi Community College in January. The problem is volatility. Kelly left Clemson last year under horrible terms, and then was arrested in December in Buffalo, New York, and faced multiple charges including assault and resisting arrest. Ole Miss has a vacancy at quarterback after Bo Wallace’s departure, and Kelly will compete for the job with DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan. Kelly passed for 3,906 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions last fall. Now we’ll see whether he can keep his act together after Rebels coach Hugh Freeze gave him second and third chances.
Running back Keith Marshall, Georgia: Marshall was the more highly regarded prospect when he and Todd Gurley signed with the Bulldogs in 2012, and they formed a dangerous duo that fall. Marshall ran for 759 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman but has barely played since suffering a knee injury five games into the 2013 season. Gurley’s gone to the NFL, but Georgia has Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at the top of the running back depth chart now. Where does Marshall fit in? He’s been out of the picture for so long, it’s tough to say at this point.
Wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: Aggies fans expected superstardom when Kevin Sumlin’s staff signed Seals-Jones in 2013, but he missed almost all of his freshman season with a knee injury. Seals-Jones played in all 13 games last season, finishing with 465 yards and four touchdowns on 49 receptions. Those are fine numbers but nothing close to what A&M fans envisioned when he signed two years ago. He has plenty of time to develop into a star, however. Maybe he’ll take a step toward that level of production this year.
Gerald Dixon and South Carolina’s entire defensive line: No sense singling out Dixon here. South Carolina’s defensive front was horrible in 2014. The line’s ineffective play was the key reason why the Gamecocks tumbled from a spot as one of the SEC’s best defenses to one of the worst. Dixon and his fellow starters are on notice as the Gamecocks open spring practice. If they don’t play better, South Carolina’s coaches will have to give somebody else a chance. Last season wasn’t nearly good enough.
WR Nate Brown, Missouri: Missouri has to replace its top three receivers from last year, Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White, all of whom were seniors. The Tigers will turn to a new collection of wideouts this year, led by Brown. The sophomore made just five catches for 45 yards a season ago, but his size/speed combination makes him the safest bet to make an impact this fall.
LSU’s quarterbacks: Last season was a mess at the quarterback position for LSU. Somebody -- either junior Anthony Jennings or sophomore Brandon Harris -- needs to take this job and run with it. Jennings completed just 48.9 percent of his passes while starting 12 of 13 games, but Harris’ lone start at Auburn was a complete dud. He’s a talented player, but Harris has to prove to Les Miles and his staff that he won’t make catastrophic errors if they put him on the field. He hasn’t convinced them yet.
Running back Alvin Kamara, Tennessee: Kamara was one of the nation’s most highly recruited running backs when he signed with Alabama in 2013, but he disappeared on the Crimson Tide’s depth chart and was twice suspended during his year in Tuscaloosa. Kamara transferred to Hutchinson Community College last season and rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 touchdowns in nine games. Now he has a second chance to prove that he’s an SEC-caliber back, forming what could be a dangerous one-two punch with Jalen Hurd at Tennessee. If Kamara can keep his head on straight, he has an excellent opportunity to make an impact with the Volunteers.
Quarterback Maty Mauk, Missouri: Mauk wasn’t the quarterback in 2014 that many expected after an impressive freshman season. He was inconsistent and prone to poor decision making at times. He passed for 2,648 yards, 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, which is not horrible, and helped the Tigers claim their second straight SEC East title. But Mizzou desperately needs its quarterback to improve upon his 53.4 completion percentage and become a more consistent performer as a junior.
Texas A&M’s defense: Texas A&M hopes John Chavis is the key piece that was missing over the past two years, when the Aggies featured one of the SEC’s worst defenses. The former LSU and Tennessee defensive coordinator has gotten results wherever he’s been, but Chavis has his work cut out at A&M. The Aggies were 102nd nationally (450.8 ypg) in total defense and tied for 75th in scoring defense (28.1 ppg). Considering how effectively the Aggies typically score, trotting out a defense that is simply better than awful might help them become more competitive in the tough SEC West.
We'll dive into the season with 10 burning questions in the SEC this spring:
1. Who will stand out in all these quarterback battles?
OK, so the SEC is littered with quarterback battles this year:
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
So who will stand out this spring and propel themselves into a true starting role this fall? At Alabama, you have Jake Coker, who was supposed to be the starter last year but wasn't, and a trio of former high school standouts in Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Florida has a new coaching staff, and Jim McElwain will be very involved in the grooming of sophomore Treon Harris, who took over as the starter last November, and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Georgia has a three-man battle among Brice Ramsey -- the presumed favorite -- Faton Bauta, and redshirt freshman Jacob Park, who could slide by both. Can Anthony Jennings really grow this spring at LSU? Or will Brandon Harris finally look like the top prospect he was coming out of high school? Mercurial junior college transfer Chad Kelly is the favorite to start at Ole Miss, but sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan actually have some real SEC experience. Connor Mitch is another favorite at South Carolina, but there's a thick field of competitors gunning for that spot. And Vandy has to figure out one quarterback and keep it that way. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck all played last year, but incoming freshman Kyle Shurmur should join the fray this fall.
2. Which early enrollees are primed to make a splash?
The SEC welcomed 81 early enrollees this year, so someone is sure to stand out. Keep an eye on junior college running back Jovon Robinson at Auburn, who has a chance to make an immediate impact on the Plains and possibly take the starting job this spring. Georgia needs a lot of help along its defensive line, and freshman Jonathan Ledbetter could be a key addition up front. There's an opening at cornerback at LSU and Kevin Toliver II has a real chance to step into that spot right away. Arkansas needs to replace Darius Philon, and juco Jeremiah Ledbetter could be that person.
All three ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and scoring, but all got what appear to be upgrades in the coaching department. Will Muschamp took his superb defensive mind to Auburn after being fired as Florida's head coach, longtime LSU DC John Chavis moved to College Station, and Jon Hoke left the NFL to help the Gamecocks out. Muschamp and Chavis had better be good immediately because they are both well into the seven-figure salary club.
4. Can Florida find an identity on offense?
I feel like I've read this sentence before: The Gators haven't ranked higher than 93rd nationally in total offense the past four seasons, have had myriad quarterback issues and failed to have any sort of real consistency at receiver. First, Muschamp's Gators couldn't perfect ground-and-pound, then a failed spread offense experiment ultimately cost him his job. Now, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have the tall task of resurrecting Florida's offense. The defense should be fine, but this team isn't going anywhere (again) without an offense. It needs a quarterback, some help for playmaking receiver Demarcus Robinson and a pulse.
5. Who will step up at wide receiver for Alabama?
Now that Amari Cooper is gone, Alabama needs a go-to receiver, especially with a new quarterback taking over. The problem is Alabama is without its top three receivers from last year, and no one on this roster is proven. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent. Junior Chris Black and redshirt sophomore Robert Foster will get every opportunity to showcase their skills, but keep an eye on sophomore Cam Sims, who could be a special player.
6. Is Tennessee equipped to make a move in the SEC?
The recruiting classes have been great (back-to-back No. 5 finishes), a lot of perceived talent returns and the excitement level is through the roof in Knoxville. But it's time to put up, Vols. You have your quarterback in Josh Dobbs, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd has All-SEC written all over him, the receiving corps is loaded, both lines return a lot of valuable pieces -- including monster pass-rusher Derek Barnett -- and there are gems at linebacker and in the secondary. Now, the wins have to come, and that starts with a strong spring.
7. Can Missouri make it three in a row in the East despite losing so many key players?
Well, these Tigers sure haven't been afraid of the big, bad SEC. Three years in, and Mizzou has two SEC East titles. But Year 4 brings plenty of questions. Stud defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden are gone, and their replacements aren't on the same level. The receiving corps is unproven, there's no left tackle and quarterback Maty Mauk has to be much better. The Tigers proved everyone wrong the Past two years, but you can't blame anyone for doubting this team now. There are, however, some key pieces returning, such as center Evan Boehm and running back Russell Hansbrough.
8. Are any teams in the SEC really pegged for a national championship run?
The SEC has a handful of contenders, but none of them are polished to this point. Two favorites to watch? How about Auburn and Georgia? The Bulldogs still need to find a quarterback but might be the most complete SEC otherwise. Running back Nick Chubb seems willing to carry the offense, while the defense should fill its current holes nicely this spring. Auburn lost Nick Marshall at quarterback, but Jeremy Johnson should be fine, and this might be an even more dangerous offense with more of a passing identity. Muschamp's return can only mean good things for the defense, right? Don't sleep on Alabama, and take notice of Ole Miss and its 2013 class that probably has one final shot.
9. Can Brandon Allen finally take the next step at Arkansas?
We all know Arkansas can run the ball, but if the Hogs are going to contend in the West, they have to be able to throw. Bret Bielema knows that and so does Allen, whose 56 percent pass completions from last season has to improve. Allen wasn't consistent enough, averaging just 175.8 yards per game. He doesn't need to be Peyton Manning, but he has to take the next step in his development or Arkansas won't be able to take that next step under Bielema.
10. Can the Mississippi schools keep the momentum going?
Last year was historic for Mississippi State and Ole Miss. At one point, both were ranked third nationally, and the Bulldogs spent time at No. 1. Ole Miss is finally starting to get the depth it needs to be a contender, and the meat of that 2013 class appears to be in its final act. Mississippi State returns the league's top quarterback in Dak Prescott, and has a good foundation on both sides, even if some leaders from last year are gone. Still, Ole Miss needs a QB and Mississippi State has a few holes that need plugging. It's always an uphill battle for these two schools, but in order to really be taken seriously, they have to really compete year in and year out.
Before anyone runs a route in practice or sets up for blocking drills, debates will rage about which schools made the best hires. We will also debate who enters 2015 with the biggest target on his back and the most pressure to deal with.
That's what we will focus on right now: pressure. Honestly, with so much movement, you could have a field day with who you think has the smallest margin for error in his new home. Take Will Muschamp and John Chavis for instance. Both are considered defensive wizards, but their moves this offseason come with hefty expectations. Muschamp moved from being the head coach at Florida to trying to repair an Auburn defense that has been awful the past two seasons. Chavis left LSU for Texas A&M with the responsibility to turn around yet another cringe-worthy defense.
You also have head coach Derek Mason taking over defensive responsibilities at Vanderbilt, and Doug Nussmeier pegged as what feels like the 10th coach in the past five years to resurrect Florida's offense. And what about the interesting hire of Mike DeBord at Tennessee? He hasn't coached any football since 2012, and has to keep an upstart offense going.
All of these guys will feel some sort of heat if they don't excite fans or get the ball rolling early. But the coordinator feeling the most pressure in Year 1 at his new digs is Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Yes, the man picked to replace the enigmatic -- but very successful -- Mike Bobo can't afford to slip one bit in his first year in Athens. Though he has to figure out who his quarterback will be, Schottenheimer, who served as the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator the past three seasons, has the benefit of returning four experienced offensive line starters, a solid receiving corps led by vets Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, and possibly the nation's best running back in sophomore Nick Chubb. He has weapons at his disposal, but he still has to get them in the right position.
With so many questions in the SEC Eastern Division (again), Georgia is the early and maybe obvious favorite to take the division. This team has enough depth and talent coming back on both sides of the ball to win more than just the SEC East, but we've certainly seen this movie before when it comes to Georgia. Getting out of its own way has been a major issue for Georgia, but excuses won't really fly this season ... not with how last season ended.
With the way defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt burst onto the scene with a very successful first year in Athens, fans won't approve of a drop-off from Schottenheimer, who wasn't exactly the "wow hire" fans were looking for. The Rams' offense, which did endure some tough injuries, ranked 28th in the NFL in total offense last season, and his bouncing around the NFL has been met with mixed reviews.
But Georgia's offensive philosophy won't change under Schottenheimer. Though Bobo endured a lot of criticism from fans, his offenses were some of the best in the SEC for much of his Georgia tenure. The Bulldogs' offense has ranked among the top four of the SEC the past four seasons, and Bobo's final season ended with Georgia ranking fourth in the league, averaging 457.8 yards per game and a conference-high 6.79 yards per play.
With Chubb, who ran for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, Schottenheimer's first option will -- and should -- be to hand the ball off, as he helps groom a new quarterback. Though this offense should be Chubb-centric, Schottenheimer must help create a more explosive passing game this season. Georgia's passing fell off during the transition from Aaron Murray to Hutson Mason, and the Dawgs just can't endure another average year through the air. There needs to be a legitimate threat of the deep ball.
Georgia's offense, while predicated on running the ball, is very balanced, and Schottenheimer can't stray away from that mindset. Not in a year in which the Bulldogs should be on top of the East and maybe making a playoff run.
The pieces are in place for Schottenheimer to make a smooth transition, but there will be very little leeway from a fan base thirsty for a championship and still trying to feel out its new coordinator.
College football is a game driven by offense, seemingly as much as it ever has been. And yet, in our review of the best Power 5 coordinator hires in this cycle, eight of the top 10 coaches in new places are defensive coordinators.
Maybe that's because when offensive coordinators move, they become head coaches? Or maybe it's because the balance of the sport could eventually swing back toward defense? Or both?
Position to improve: Linebacker.
Why it was a problem: Depth was perhaps the biggest reason for the struggles because the Aggies ran thin on linebackers with actual SEC playing experience. One preseason dismissal (Darian Claiborne) and two early-season injuries (to A.J. Hilliard, for the season, and Shaan Washington, for the first three games) cut into the team's depth. During the first half of the 2014 campaign, the Aggies found themselves being ineffective at the position as well. After a 59-0 loss to Alabama, Texas A&M injected some youth into the lineup, giving starts to true freshmen Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker, both of whom looked promising in their time as starters. Overall, the Aggies still need all the experience they can get at the position. Texas A&M was last in the SEC in rushing defense in 2014 and linebacker play is a part of that.
How it can be fixed: Recruiting is one quick way to fix it and fortunately for the Aggies, they already have two linebacker recruits on campus. Junior college linebacker Claude George, the nation's fourth-ranked junior college outside linebacker, enrolled for the spring semester as did Cedar Hill (Texas) High School outside linebacker Richard Moore. Getting Hilliard back healthy next season will be huge: the TCU transfer was vying for a starting spot and has the ability to play all three positions in the Aggies' 4-3 alignment. Washington, who had a solid season, also returns. The Aggies have three more linebacker recruits in their 2015 class: three-star prospects Landis Durham, Riley Garner and Dwaine Thomas.
Early 2015 outlook: With a healthy returning quartet of Alaka, Hilliard, Walker and Washington, the Aggies have a group of players who have seen the field and are talented. Alaka's late season stretch was solid, including a good performance in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl where he won defensive MVP. Jordan Mastrogiovanni, who started the season at middle linebacker but struggled, also provides some experience and depth. Sprinkle in the early-enrollees, George and Moore, and the Aggies have a group of talented playmakers. The biggest asset here though comes from the sideline, not on the field: new Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis. In his more than two decades as an SEC defensive coordinator, Chavis oversaw the linebackers at Tennessee and LSU. It stands to reason his presence can help upgrade linebacker play in Aggieland.
Few recruiting battles are more intriguing than the ones going on in Texas for high-profile players such as Daylon Mack, Soso Jamabo and Chris Warren III. What schools they pick could tilt recruiting supremacy in the Lone Star State moving forward
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Four of the seven SEC West teams will have new defensive coordinators next season, which is fitting, given the carnage we saw in that division during the bowl season.
It's a carnage particularly glaring on the defensive side and yet another reminder that times are changing -- or, more precisely, have changed -- in college football.
Remember when the SEC was known for its defense?
Well, there is no defending how the five Western Division teams that lost in bowl games played, defensively, last week.
The numbers were abysmal, the kind of cataclysmic meltdown that only lends credence to the biggest criticism of SEC defenses over the past few years: They rack up most of their numbers against offenses within the league that aren't very explosive.
Now, before we go any further, not everybody in the West suddenly forgot how to play defense during the postseason.
Arkansas crushed Texas 31-7 in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl and made the Longhorns look even worse than they really were offensively, which took some doing. The Hogs held the Longhorns to 59 total yards on 43 offensive plays, which marks the fewest yards by any FBS team this season.
It wasn't just that Texas was that bad, either. First-year Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith did an amazing job of transforming the Hogs' defense all season. They held opponents to 17 or fewer points in eight of their 13 games, and six of the eight were against bowl teams.
With only the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T remaining, Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in both scoring defense and total defense and 12th in rushing defense. The only other SEC team in the top 12 in all three categories is Alabama.
Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all gave up more than 30 points each in their games. The Aggies were able to escape with a 45-37 win against West Virginia, though their biggest win might have been prying away defensive coordinator John Chavis from LSU a few days later.
It wasn't a memorable final game for Chavis' LSU defense. The Tigers gave up 263 rushing yards to Notre Dame in a 31-28 loss and were especially vulnerable on third down. The Irish converted 11 of 17 third-down opportunities and drove 71 yards in 14 plays for the winning field goal.
As it was, LSU's defensive performance might have been the best one of the bunch among the five West teams that lost bowl games, which underscores what a shoddy three days of defense it was for those five teams.
The final damage: Averages of 39.6 points allowed, 501.4 total yards allowed and 314.6 rushing yards allowed, not to mention a combined defensive third-down percentage of 55.4 percent.
The rushing totals were most incriminating. Mississippi State was gashed for 452 yards on the ground by Georgia Tech's option attack and gave up 49 points.
Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin did a number on Auburn, to the tune of 400 rushing yards, and Alabama allowed 281 rushing yards -- including a back-breaking 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter -- in its 42-35 playoff loss to Ohio State.
That's two bowl games in a row in which Alabama has laid an egg defensively. The Tide gave up a combined 87 points and 966 yards in losses to Oklahoma a year ago in the Sugar Bowl and Ohio State this year in the playoff.
Does that mean Alabama has lost it defensively? Of course not. The Tide are always going to be a force defensively as long as Nick Saban is around.
But it is fair to say they haven't been nearly as dominant defensively on some of the biggest stages as they were during their national championship seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
In their 55-44 win against Auburn this season, they gave up a school-record 630 total yards. In the 34-28 loss to Auburn last season, they gave up 296 rushing yards, and earlier in that year, they allowed 628 total yards to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in a wild 49-42 win over the Aggies.
Spotty play at cornerback has been a recurring problem for the Tide the past two seasons. They've had trouble covering people, which has been magnified by their inability to consistently get to the quarterback.
Nobody's writing off the Tide defensively. Teams all over the country would gladly take their numbers -- and certainly their talent. But mobile quarterbacks have tormented them, and the way they've finished seasons defensively each of the past two seasons has been a concern.
Last impressions are what they remember in college football, and that also goes for Alabama's brethren in the West.
Reputations are earned. Right now, the entire SEC -- specifically the West -- has some work to do in earning back its reputation on the defensive side of the ball.
With 30 days to national signing day, there are still plenty of headlines left to be made in the 2015 class. One of the biggest will be how Jim Harbaugh does in recruiting’s home stretch.
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LSU dealt with a massive exodus of 11 underclassmen after the 2012 season, followed by seven more players with eligibility remaining -- including rookie NFL stars Odell Beckham, Jeremy Hill and Jarvis Landry -- jumping ship at the end of the 2013 campaign.
At least a half-dozen Tigers have mulled an early exit this year, but the story for now is how it appears that LSU’s early NFL entries won’t represent the only turnover within the program. Coach Les Miles might be on the verge of losing one of his most valuable assistant coaches -- longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis, who is mulling an offer from Texas A&M -- and might have to battle to retain other staffers.
But at that point, he hadn’t heard it straight from Chavis’ mouth -- and Chavis wouldn’t address the subject in postgame interviews.
“I’m here to talk about the game and the game only,” Chavis told reporters who pressed him about the Aggies job.
Once again, Miles will probably have holes to fill in an offseason, putting a damper on some of the optimism his program might otherwise have carried into 2015. The Notre Dame loss – which dropped LSU to 8-5, matching the Tigers’ worst record since becoming the Tigers’ coach in 2005 – notwithstanding, LSU still could be poised for a return to championship contention next fall.
It all depends on how successful Miles’ sales jobs will be between now and national signing day. The questions start with his coaching personnel, continue with the potential draft hit the Tigers will absorb and conclude when recruits officially sign their national letters of intent on Feb. 4.
To date, the Tigers have only 16 commitments for the upcoming signing class – including just five ESPN 300 honorees – but Miles’ more important recruiting job might be convincing some folks to stay. Even if it’s not Chavis, retaining more junior talent than he has in recent seasons would make a huge difference next fall.
If draft-eligible Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins were to leave, LSU would return only one starting offensive lineman. Similarly, safety Jalen Mills and cornerback Jalen Collins, linebacker Kwon Alexander and defensive end Danielle Hunter would also leave a void if they opted to forgo their senior seasons.
“I just hope they make the best decision for themselves,” sophomore middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “I’m with them either way. I look at Kwon like an older brother, I look at Lamar [Louis, a junior linebacker] like an older brother. I’m going to be with them either way.”
Most of LSU’s draft-eligible underclassmen are not viewed as elite 2015 draft prospects, so it’s entirely possible that LSU won’t face as much carnage this offseason.
Senior offensive tackle La'el Collins, who was the lone junior star from last season who opted to return, said during bowl practice that he discussed the impending decisions with both Hawkins and Vadal Alexander.
Collins apparently improved his draft stock by returning for another season in college – ESPN Scouts Inc. lists him as the No. 26 overall prospect for the upcoming draft – but he said his decision shouldn’t necessarily convince his younger teammates one way or another. He said they should evaluate how much another season might help them and trust their guts.
“I tell them, ‘Hey these are some of the things that I looked at when I decided to come back. These are some of the things that I thought about,’ ” Collins said. “And I just give the information that I had and the people that helped me out with it. I just tell them, ‘If you have any doubts about leaving, I would stay.’ If you have any doubts about making any decision in life, then you probably shouldn’t make that decision.”
Collins said choosing whether to stay at LSU last year was “definitely the hardest decision of my life,” and multiple Tigers will face a similar dilemma in the coming days and weeks -- including some coaches.
Miles has repeatedly mentioned in recent weeks that his 2015 club could have championship potential if some key veterans choose to stay. But if the Tigers are once again hit hard by coaching turnover and NFL departures, LSU making a big jump next fall becomes a much more daunting task.
The Tigers' coach has had disappointing years in Baton Rouge -- an 8-5 campaign in 2008 stands out -- but even in Miles' worst fall, when the Tigers posted their only losing record in SEC play under his leadership, they still finished third in the Western Division. If Arkansas beats Missouri this week and LSU loses to Texas A&M, Miles' Tigers will essentially finish last in the West at 3-5 in the division.
Let's not chalk up the Thanksgiving night visit to A&M as an automatic loss, however. The Aggies are in no better shape than the Tigers with an identical 7-4 overall record and 3-4 mark in SEC play. In fact, LSU opened as a narrow favorite to win Thursday's game.
Win or lose, LSU will still be at a crossroads as it nears the conclusion of the 2014 season. Winning in College Station would be a nice way to conclude the regular season, and it would prevent the Tigers from posting a losing conference record and plummeting into the division cellar, but Miles and his staff still have plenty to sort out between now and next season's opener against McNeese State.
For starters, is what they're attempting to accomplish on offense sustainable? Is relying almost exclusively on the running game and asking from their quarterbacks only that they not commit turnovers still a strategy that can win championships? Or was this just a one-year regression to past habits based on LSU's inexperience at quarterback, with more aggressive tactics returning once Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris establishes that he can be a reliable playmaker in the SEC?
This offensive quandary feels much like the 2008 season, as well. That year, the Tigers got inconsistent play from a number of young quarterbacks -- particularly Jarrett Lee, who seemingly developed a complex over the number of his interceptions that defenders returned for touchdowns -- and eventually settled on true freshman Jordan Jefferson as the starter. For most of the ensuing six seasons, LSU has employed a run-heavy, quarterback-light offensive philosophy that frequently frustrates Tigers fans.
It's difficult to argue with the overall results, however. By 2010, an emerging defense had helped LSU climb back toward the top of the heap, and the Tigers enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history the following season. Jefferson and Lee were the starters throughout that period and neither of them played like an all-conference quarterback. Perhaps next year either Jennings or Harris will follow their lead, teaming with what should be another strong John Chavis defense to launch LSU on a similar ascent.
But what if they don't? LSU might be facing a near-total rebuild on its offensive line, and that's hardly an encouraging sign if the Tigers intend to hammer the run 70 percent of the time again next fall. And depending on which underclassmen jump to the NFL, LSU could have other gaping holes to fill -- much like it has in each of the past few years, when the Tigers failed to create the same magic as the 2011 SEC championship club.
It all boils down to the quarterback position. It's difficult to imagine LSU opening up its offense if its coaches aren't confident leaning on the quarterback, and it's apparent that Jennings and Harris don't have their full trust, yet. That makes this an enormous offseason for the position.
If Jennings or Harris or even a mystery third option fails to seize the starting job between now and next August, expect to see more of the same from the Tigers' offense next season. That isn't necessarily a death sentence in the SEC West, particularly since LSU's defense should be tough, but this won't be the West of 2011, either.
Texas A&M's pass-heavy offense is in the division now. Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are all more aggressive on offense. Heck, even Alabama has opened things up under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Becoming a consistent winner in the division these days almost requires more aggression on offense than once was necessary in the West.
That will be the test for Miles and his staff next season. They felt that grinding it out on offense was the best strategy because of their experience on the offensive line and their lack thereof everywhere else. It kept them in most games, but the Tigers' record indicates this strategy wasn't effective enough.
LSU rebounded from similar circumstances after 2008 without overhauling their offensive philosophy, and Miles doesn't seem like the type to completely change course now. Developing the young skill talent at running back and receiver is important -- and there is plenty of reason to believe that youngsters such as Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn will be even better next season -- but developing a quarterback has to be the top priority.
Miles' tenure proves LSU doesn't need an all-star quarterback to win, but he can't continue to be a liability, either.
The Tigers were the thorn in the Aggies' side the last two seasons and Les Miles' bunch is the one team that one could say truly has Texas A&M's number so far. The Aggies' next opportunity to flip the script comes Thanksgiving night when they host LSU at Kyle Field.
The reasons LSU ruled the Aggies are numerous, but it starts with the Tigers' defense. LSU had answers for whatever the Aggies threw at them, including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. In 2012, LSU held Texas A&M to its second-fewest offensive yards in a game (410) that season. Only Florida, who squared off against the Aggies' in Manziel's college debut, were better. But the Tigers had three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and sacked Manziel three times in a 24-19 victory.
In 2013, a physically beat-up Manziel led the Aggies into Death Valley and the offense sputtered, posting a season-low 299 yards and only 10 points in a 24-point loss.
"We talked about that a little bit," Texas A&M center Ben Compton said. "It's been bugging us the past couple years that they've gotten the best of us the last two years. They played hard and kicked our butt the last two years. We hope to be able to change some of that."
Texas A&M featured one of the nation's top offenses the last two seasons and the Aggies led the SEC in scoring offense and yards per game both seasons. So what did LSU do to quiet the A&M attack? Look no further than the talent on the roster and its utilization by "The Chief," LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis.
"I think it's just our talent and the 'Mustang' package that Chief has come with over at LSU," Tigers' defensive back Jalen Mills said. "It's been run ever since, and that helps a lot."
LSU's Mustang package is basically a dime formation with three defensive linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs. The Tigers use the defense against teams that spread it out like Texas A&M and given LSU's defensive talent and speed, Chavis' bunch has experienced much success with it.
This season, LSU leads the SEC in pass-efficiency defense (97.57) and passing yards allowed (164). They're second nationally in the former category, sixth in the latter. That bodes well against a Texas A&M team that is 10th in passing yards per game (first in the SEC) and is 13th nationally in pass attempts (452).
"They've been very effective," Sumlin said of the LSU defense. "They've been athletic, had some different people on the field, they've done a nice job. [Chavis] has done a nice job this year too.
"John Chavis' record stands for itself defensively and he's as good as there is in the country."
The challenge will be different this year for LSU. The Tigers were charged with corralling Manziel, but since he's gone, the Aggies now have a true freshman behind center: Kyle Allen. The four-star recruit will make his fourth career start on Thursday and the Tigers know to expect a more patient pocket passer than the player they faced the last two years.
"He's not Johnny Manziel with all the scrambling," Mills said. "He's a dual-threat guy, but he's not doing as much running around as Johnny did. You really see him sitting in there and trying to fling it, so with that, you have to play a little more coverage and just play all the routes down the field."
The Tigers aren't underestimating Allen, though.
"You say a true freshman, when we talked about Johnny Manziel, he was considered a freshman and he came in and won the Heisman," Mills said. "So you can't go in a game thinking a guy, 'Oh he's a freshman' and you have to try to wait on his mistakes. You have to go in and play your football."
In order to win, the Aggies will have to solve Chavis, the Mustang package and perform better offensively than they did the last two seasons. They're aware of it.
"Great defense," Texas A&M senior receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "I've watched them play a few times and I know they have one of the top passing defenses and they have a great secondary. All those guys are pretty athletic, pretty physical... . We know we're going to have a task. They have a good front and we're going to have to run fast routes, do what we do as an offense, tempo-style."
LSU’s new starting middle linebacker knows LSU-Alabama is the SEC’s version of a toughman competition, and that’s exactly the style of football he likes to play.
“I know it’s going to be hard-nosed football,” said Beckwith, whose team will host Alabama on Saturday. “I know they’re going to try to come downhill on us and we’re just going to have to do a good job of stopping the run.”
Perhaps no two programs in the conference are a better match than No. 6 Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) and No. 19 LSU (7-2, 3-2), which is why their annual showdown has become one of the conference’s premier rivalries.
They recruit at similarly high levels. They turn out tons of professional talent. They’re led by stars in the coaching profession. And they’re both known for their physicality -- particularly along the line of scrimmage.
Teams that are weak up front typically don’t have much of a chance.
“I think it’ll be pretty physical and pretty loud and probably like a repeat of the Ole Miss game -- maybe a little more exciting,” said Beckwith, who was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week last week after his 10-tackle performance helped LSU beat Ole Miss 10-7 and hand the Rebels their first loss of the season.
That was easily LSU’s best win of the season following a rocky start in which the Tigers did not perform up to their expectations on the offensive and defensive lines. Mississippi State and Auburn both posted huge yardage totals against John Chavis’ defense, and LSU's trademark power running game failed to keep the Tigers in either of those losses.
They have turned things around of late, however, improving on a weekly basis on defense and averaging 254 rushing yards per game during their current three-game winning streak.
Running effectively against defenses from Florida and Ole Miss was a challenge, and the Tigers were successful. But facing Alabama’s defense is an entirely different animal, as the Crimson Tide enter as the SEC’s leading run defense -- and rank second nationally -- by allowing just 78.1 rushing yards per game.
“They’re big up front, so our O-line has just got to be able to handle those guys up front and get moving on those guys,” LSU running back Kenny Hilliard said. “If they do that, they’ll create some running lanes for our backs and we’ll be able to get in there and hit the crease and get vertical.”
When the Tigers were struggling a month ago, that seemed like a laughable proposition. Now it’s not nearly as funny. LSU was clearly the more physical team against Ole Miss -- which handed Alabama its only loss of the season on Oct. 4 -- and could have won by a wider margin if not for four turnovers and a missed 28-yard field goal.
For the first time this season, LSU looks like a team that can give Alabama a run for its money.
Nick Saban’s Tide will still enter Tiger Stadium as the favorite, just as they have been every time these teams have met after 2007, Saban’s first season at Alabama. Their visits to Baton Rouge under Saban have all been instant classics, and Alabama has won two of the three.
Saban’s return to LSU -- where he coached from 2000 to 2004 -- came in 2008, with Alabama winning 27-21 in overtime. Les Miles’ Tigers returned the favor in 2010, fooling everyone in the stadium with a fourth-down reverse to tight end DeAngelo Peterson to set up the go-ahead touchdown in a 24-21 win. In 2012, AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon combined to break LSU fans’ hearts on a 28-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds to play, lifting the Tide to a 21-17 win.
LSU and Alabama's performances of late offer every reason to believe this should be another enormously physical and competitive game, which is why it’s no coincidence both teams took this past weekend off in order to rest up for Saturday’s rematch. They both know exactly what to expect Saturday: probably the most intense game they will play all season.
“It was live. It was crazy,” said LSU receiver Travin Dural, who caught his first career touchdown pass against Alabama last season in Tuscaloosa. “Their defense was flying all over and they were big and fast and physical and they didn’t make a lot of mistakes.”
LSU’s defense has played cleaner games lately as well, and its timing couldn’t be better. For the Tigers to pull off an upset Saturday, it will require their most efficient, physically imposing outing of the season.
Behind two solid games from quarterback Bo Wallace, the Rebels are averaging 31 points and 494 yards of total offense against John Chavis' LSU defense under Freeze.
"We're coming out here to try to prevent that," said LSU safety Rickey Jefferson, whose No. 24 Tigers (6-2, 2-2 SEC) enter Saturday's game against No. 3 Ole Miss (7-0, 4-0) as the underdogs. "Every game we never plan to fail, so when they do do things like that, it's kind of shocking. That means we have to go back in the lab and do some more work, which we did even after this win [against Kentucky last Saturday]."
Wallace is averaging 328 passing yards in two starts against LSU -- games where he tossed two touchdowns and three interceptions -- plus he has run 22 times for 72 yards and two more scores. His dual-threat ability probably concerns LSU fans who saw Mississippi State's Dak Prescott and Auburn's Nick Marshall gash Chavis' defense, but the Tigers have fared better against versatile quarterbacks in recent games.
Florida's Jeff Driskel had an up-and-down game against LSU and Kentucky's Patrick Towles -- who doesn't get enough credit for his running ability -- failed to produce much of anything on the ground.
"One thing we adapted to is keeping the pocket contained because all these dual-threat quarterbacks, they're going to try to run up the middle on QB draw or something like that," defensive end Danielle Hunter said. "So it's all about containing the pocket and compressing the pocket, staying in our gaps."
Wallace still runs on occasion -- he has 67 attempts for 122 yards and a pair of touchdowns this season -- but Ole Miss mostly relies on its senior quarterback to produce in the passing game these days. He's averaging 271.3 passing yards per game and has been uncharacteristically turnover-free for the most part, tossing 17 touchdowns against six interceptions.
As in past seasons, the Rebels have other players who rotate in to handle specialty packages at quarterback, like former LSU signee Jeremy Liggins, a 300-pound tight end who occasionally takes snaps in short-yardage situations.
"That definitely gives us tendencies. For like last game, whenever the quarterback motioned out, you know it's going to be some kind of run or reverse," Hunter said of Kentucky, which utilizes a "Wildcat" package with Jojo Kemp and others taking direct snaps. "So this game, we're expecting the bigger quarterback, [Liggins], whenever he goes in it's going to be some kind of short-yardage or some kind of power play."
Another key factor on Saturday will be third-down conversions, said LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White. The Rebels sustained several long drives by going 11-for-18 on third down on the way to running 84 plays and totaling 525 yards against the Tigers in a 27-24 upset win.
"[Wallace] was picking us apart on third down. He was making excellent reads and pretty much picking our defense apart," White said. "I feel like he was making great decisions with where he was going with the ball and he was very confident in his receivers and they were making big-time plays for him. We'll try to limit that this year."
LSU has done a better job of limiting what opposing offenses hoped to accomplish in recent weeks after Mississippi State and Auburn both embarrassed the Tigers' defense. Ole Miss doesn't bring the SEC's scariest offense into Tiger Stadium -- the Rebels rank eighth in the SEC in both scoring (35.4 ppg) and total offense (433.3 ypg) -- but the Rebels' defense has been so good that Chavis' bunch probably can't afford to be as generous against Ole Miss as it has been in the last two seasons.
Reviewing film of last season's loss in Oxford has made that point abundantly clear.
"We watched a lot of film. We watched the whole game last year probably twice," Jefferson said. "I would think that the thing that we have to do to come out here and get these guys would be to execute and do everything that Coach Chief [Chavis] tells us and don't be out of place, make tackles, break on balls and hustle and give enthusiasm the whole game. It's going to be live."
"If you look at it, without the game plan that we had, Nick Marshall could have ran for a lot more yards if we didn't have certain things put into the scheme and whatnot. Besides a couple long runs by Artis-Payne, I think we did OK against him, too. But we're going to remain confident as a defense. We know we can stop the run."
Knowing they can do it and actually doing it are two different things. Thus far, the Tigers (4-2, 0-2 SEC) absolutely have not stopped the run -- which will be their No. 1 objective when they visit Florida (3-1, 2-1) on Saturday.
Chavis' defenses have long been known for their stinginess against running teams, relying on typically powerful defensive fronts to shut down opposing ground games. This season, however, LSU's turnover on the interior defensive line and players manning new roles at linebacker have left the Tigers vulnerable in the middle at times.
There were times when LSU linebackers were too slow to read and react properly, Louis said, and that led to big plays for opponents.
"When you're outside and you're reading the line and reading the backfield, you have to read it real fast," Louis said. "You don't want to leave a receiver wide open, but at the same time, you don't want to leave a gash in the line. That's something that weighs heavily a lot on outside backers and that's one of the downfalls of the outside backers."
Both Mississippi State and Auburn exploited those weaknesses with runs straight up the middle. For instance, Auburn rushed for 199 yards between the tackles -- 163 of which came before contact with a defender -- and broke eight runs of 10 yards or more.
It was the fourth time in six games that LSU surrendered at least 100 yards between the tackles. The Tigers' defense had only two such games in the entire 2013 season.
"I wouldn't say it's not embarrassing. Embarrassing is a word that comes to mind when you think about the run game and stopping the run," Louis said. "But like I said before, we still as a defense, we know what we can do. We've just got to play the calls that we're given. We trust Chief [Chavis] to give us the right game plan, give us the right call."
With a game against Florida and its somewhat-similar running game approaching, the question is whether the Tigers will improve. The Auburn game got out of hand early, but they made strides defending the run as the night progressed.
And let's be clear, while it is also a run-centric spread offense, Florida's is nowhere near as explosive as those of Mississippi State and Auburn. And the only similarity Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel has to State's Dak Prescott or Auburn's Marshall is that he's also a somewhat-mobile quarterback.
"I heard he can run the ball pretty well," LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. "We've just got to do a good job containing him and taking away all the running lanes."
Saturday's visit to The Swamp is a much more manageable challenge for the Tigers' defense, so long as it proves it can handle running backs Matt Jones (372 rushing yards, 93.0 per game) and Kelvin Taylor (144 yards, 36.0 ypg).
Faring better against against Florida will require more consistent play up front from the defensive line and then the Tigers must do a better job of making the tackle once they arrive at the ballcarrier.
"We were in position to make plays on defense and we didn't make them," safety Ronald Martin admitted.
Then it comes down to the mental part of playing defense that Louis described. Spread offenses work in part because they force defensive players to diagnose what is happening in front of them, rather than relying on brute force to overpower an opponent. The Tigers have been caught out of position a lot in their first two SEC games, and that can't happen if they are to handle Florida's running game better than they did Auburn's and State's.
"We've got to adjust to all these spread teams that we have now. I think that's what's transitioning from maybe the mid-2000 LSU teams until now," Louis said. "Long ago, if you could just play hard-nosed football and plug the holes, you're a great defense. But now you've got to account for the run and worry about the pass at the same time and all these teams being spread offenses, it's a little bit more tricky.
"I think that's what is [happening when] people are like, 'The dominant defenses are changing.' No, you still have the same players with the same capability. You just have a lot more mental aspect of the game is getting installed."