With a boatload of returning starters, a top-rated recruiting class coming aboard and three new assistant coaches on staff -- including highly regarded former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda -- Les Miles’ November drama seems like a distant memory.
Miles will lead LSU into his 12th spring practice on Monday, with the Tigers once again harboring SEC championship and College Football Playoff hopes. Here is how things look in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as Miles’ team prepares to take the field for the first time:
2015 record: 9-3 (5-3), beat Texas Tech in AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
Final AP rank: No. 16
2016 Way-too-early rank: No. 6
2016 FPI rank: No. 1
Spring game date: April 16
1. How will the defense change under new coordinator Aranda? It will be interesting to see how well LSU’s personnel -- initially recruited to play in a base 4-3 defense -- matches up with what Aranda wants to do. He has a well-deserved reputation for creating mismatches -- using a base 3-4 -- that allow his linebackers to make big plays, but he needs to determine where everyone fits. Numerous Tigers will likely handle new responsibilities as Aranda installs his scheme, and that creates some questions.
Who occupies space in the middle of the defensive line? The Tigers don’t have jumbo interior linemen like Terrence Cody or John Jenkins who play nose in a traditional 3-4. Who slides outside from defensive end to linebacker? Arden Key and Lewis Neal, among others, could develop into terrifying edge-rushers. Who lines up at inside linebacker alongside Kendell Beckwith? And what will Aranda do with returning linebackers Duke Riley, Donnie Alexander and Devin Voorhies?
Aranda was an instant success at Wisconsin with a defensive roster that featured nowhere near as many players who were four- and five-star prospects coming out of high school. He will be able to get creative with this group, and that could make game planning difficult for SEC offensive coordinators this fall.
2. Will Cam Cameron open up the offense? Miles has said LSU will modernize its offense this season, but it’s not as simple as just saying that will happen.
For starters, the Tigers still have Leonard Fournette on the roster. If Miles ever had a good excuse to keep using an old-school power-running game, it’s that he has arguably the best player in college football in his backfield.
In addition, offensive coordinator Cameron needs a consistent quarterback (more on that in a moment) if he is to make better use of his receiving weapons on the outside. Cameron put then-sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris in the shotgun more and incorporated some spread-offense principles into LSU’s scheme last season -- taking advantage of Harris’ dual-threat abilities -- but things did not always run smoothly. Perhaps a second season as the starter will help Harris develop into a dependable playmaker and the Tigers will be able to move away from relying so heavily on the run.
We’re making the assumption here that Miles and Cameron even want to do that. The spring game will tell us a bit, but we likely will not learn how serious they are about achieving offensive balance until the Sept. 3 opener against Wisconsin.
3. How much competition is there at quarterback? Conventional wisdom says Harris will be LSU’s quarterback again in 2016, following an up-and-down first season as a starter. But will that actually be the case?
Harris clearly possesses the talent to get the job done. He has impressive mobility and a big league arm, but also regressed toward the end of the 2015 regular season. Miles and Cameron stuck with Harris then, even during that November slump, but they will have more available options this spring.
Purdue transfer Danny Etling is eligible to play this season after sitting out 2015, and some program insiders believe he can legitimately push Harris for the starting job. Senior Anthony Jennings, who has started 13 games at LSU, is also on the roster along with redshirt freshman Justin McMillan.
Whoever wins the job, LSU desperately needs more consistent quarterback play than it has gotten in the past two seasons. There are few questions about this roster, but quarterback will remain a source of queasiness among Tigers fans until someone establishes himself as a reliable performer over a long stretch of time. LSU has rarely enjoyed that luxury since its last championship season in 2007.