SEC: Terrence Magee

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jalen Mills wasn’t even sure what position he would play if he returned for his senior season at LSU.

But regardless of whether he plays cornerback or safety this fall, Mills had greater concerns when he decided the join the unusually large -- by LSU standards, anyway -- group of draft-eligible players who decided to turn down the NFL for at least another year.

He and the other returning Tigers want to be remembered for more than simply staying just long enough to earn a pro football paycheck.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoJalen Mills decided against entering the NFL draft so he could make a run at a national championship.
“We have a little group text message between us guys, just us, and that’s all we talk about. That’s the reason why we wanted to come back,” said Mills, already a three-year starter in LSU’s secondary. “Of course you want to get your degree, but for the most part, you want to win a national championship.”

Seated in the Tigers’ team meeting room, Mills looked up toward the collage of former Tigers greats such as Glenn Dorsey that borders the room’s massive film screen and pointed.

“You want to be those guys in the meeting room where you have these guys up there,” Mills said. “You want to be those guys that are always talked about. You want to be those guys in the record book, ‘This is the team that won the national championship, these are the guys who came back and made that happen.’ You want to be those guys, and I feel like that is really what put all these guys over the edge to come back.”

It says something about how hard LSU has been hit by early draft entry in the last couple of years that losing just three juniors to the NFL this year -- linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive end Danielle Hunter -- was cause for celebration.

Only three college programs (Florida State with five and USC and Florida with four apiece) lost more underclassmen than LSU, but this was nothing compared to the Tigers’ draft hit following the 2012 and 2013 seasons. A whopping 11 LSU underclassmen entered the draft after the 2012 season and seven more players with college eligibility remaining made the jump after last season.

Perhaps that makes Mills’ championship goal more realistic since the 2015 Tigers will have fewer glaring holes to fill. In fact, he might be a candidate to fill one of those holes since Collins and fellow cornerback Rashard Robinson have both left the program. Mills spent nearly all of his first two college seasons at cornerback before shifting to safety to address depth concerns.

“When the safety numbers are low and the corner numbers are high, I moved to safety. And now the corner numbers are low and the safety numbers are high, [so] it’s a possibility I could move to corner,” Mills said. “I haven’t really met with the defensive staff yet. I’m pretty sure something is going to happen pretty soon with spring ball right around the corner.”

Several factors could impact that outcome. How will Dwayne Thomas bounce back from a torn ACL? And who will the Tigers land on the recruiting trail? They are still in the running for some coveted defensive back recruits, and ESPN’s No. 10 overall prospect Kevin Toliver II (Jacksonville, Fla./Trinity Christian) is already on campus and will practice at cornerback in the spring.

Mills said he was encouraged by Toliver’s response when he approached him shortly after LSU’s spring semester classes started and invited him to participate in drillwork with several veteran DBs.

“I told him, ‘Hey man, I know you like that room, I know you like that bed, but it’s time. You’re not in high school no more,’” Mills said. “And he kind of told me, ‘All right, just give me a call when you guys want to do drills or whatever.’ So we’re going to get him rolling.”

Otherwise, the Tigers’ most important holes to fill are at offensive tackle – Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander expect to fill those spots and defensive end, where starters Hunter and Jermauria Rasco are both gone.

In December, Hunter pointed at Tashawn Bower and Sione Teuhema as possible replacements.

“There’s a couple of guys down there,” Hunter said. “You’ve got Sione, you’ve got Tashawn. Those guys are guys that we look up to, guys that we can see coming to be the next great pass-rusher here at LSU.”

Lastly, LSU will once again feature youth in the backfield. Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams distinguished themselves last season as freshmen, and the Tigers will rely on first-year players once again at both fullback and tailback.

Senior tailbacks Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are both gone, as are fullbacks Connor Neighbors and Melvin Jones, so this will be an important class to address backfield depth.

The good news is that versatile David Ducre (Mandeville, La./Lakeshore) is already on campus, plus the Tigers have verbal commitments from homegrown ESPN 300 backs Derrius Guice (Baton Rouge, La./Catholic) and Nick Brossette (Baton Rouge, La./University Laboratory).

Of course with last year’s No. 1 overall prospect Fournette already on campus, those freshmen will not face immense pressure to produce immediately. He seems prepared to take another step forward after setting a freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards in 2014.

“That dude there is ridiculous,” Hawkins said. “I just can’t wait to block for him. All our running backs, but especially him. There’s just something special about him. He’s going to pretty much shock the world this year.”

Draft could impact LSU offense in 2015

December, 18, 2014
12/18/14
12:00
PM ET
Connor Neighbors will be long gone by then, but LSU’s senior fullback believes the Tigers have championship potential in 2015 -- as long as the roster doesn’t take too hard of a hit from the NFL draft.

“There’s a bunch of personalities on this team that I don’t think any other team has,” Neighbors said. “So if the people that are eligible to stay, if they do stay, this team could be probably the best next year. Obviously they’ve got to improve in some areas, but what team doesn’t?”

The Tigers’ title possibilities might hinge on keeping more draft-eligible players on campus than they have in recent seasons. LSU lost a whopping 17 of them to the draft in the last two years, and the on-field product has suffered as a result.

Today we’ll take a position-by-position look at LSU’s roster positioning and which players have decisions to weigh, starting first with the offense and then with the defense:

[+] EnlargeJerald Hawkins
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertKeeping Jerald Hawkins would go a long way in stabilizing LSU's offensive line next season.
QUARTERBACK

Key departing seniors: None

Key draft-eligible players: None

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore Anthony Jennings (104-213, 1,460 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs), Freshman Brandon Harris (25-42, 452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs)

Comment: LSU doesn’t figure to lose one of its quarterbacks, but it will remain the most scrutinized position on the offense. Jennings started most of the season and was not consistent enough, while Harris struggled in his one start and has barely seen the field since then. LSU coach Les Miles said this week that Harris “is being groomed” to compete for the starting spot in the future, so expect the Jennings-Harris battle to resume in the spring.

RUNNING BACK

Key departing seniors: Tailbacks Terrence Magee (545 rushing yards, 3 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (431 rushing yards, 6 TDs), fullback Connor Neighbors (four catches for 27 yards)

Key draft-eligible players: None

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tailback) Freshman Leonard Fournette (891 rushing yards, 8 TDs), freshman Darrel Williams (280 rushing yards, 3 TDs), (fullback) Melvin Jones (five catches, 22 yards, TD)

Comment: Nobody has a decision to make here. Magee, Hilliard and Neighbors are all seniors and Fournette, Williams and Jones will return in 2015. The Tigers are poised to add ESPN 300 tailbacks Nick Brossette and Derrius Guice to the backfield next season, and both will have the opportunity to contribute immediately following Magee and Hilliard’s departures. The running game will still be in great shape.

WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END

Key departing seniors: (Tight end) Travis Dickson (seven catches, 60 yards), Logan Stokes (one catch, 3 yards, TD)

Key draft-eligible players: (Tight end) junior Dillon Gordon (no catches), (Receiver) redshirt sophomore Travin Dural (37 catches, 758 yards, 7 TDs)

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tight end) Sophomore Colin Jeter (no catches), sophomore DeSean Smith (no catches), (receiver) redshirt freshman John Diarse (13 catches, 199 yards, 2 TDs), freshman Malachi Dupre (14 catches, 318 yards, 5 TDs), freshman Trey Quinn (17 catches, 193 yards)

Comment: The big news is that draft-eligible sophomore Dural said this week that he expects to be back at LSU next season. The speedster was the heart and soul of LSU’s passing game, but he’s probably making a good decision. A more consistent season in 2015 could improve his draft stock, as he started out with three 100-yard outings in the first four games, but hasn’t had one since. Gordon should also return and will contribute heavily as a blocking tight end. Both positions have youngsters who are in line to contribute more heavily. Diarse, Dupre and Quinn are all freshmen who made some good things happen in their first game action, and several freshman receivers (keep an eye on D.J. Chark) are in line behind them. Same thing at tight end, where Colin Jeter, DeSean Smith and redshirting freshman Jacory Washington all could enjoy expanded roles in 2015.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Key departing seniors: Left tackle La’el Collins, center Elliott Porter, right guard Evan Washington, right guard Fehoko Fanaika

Key draft-eligible players: Junior left guard Vadal Alexander, right tackle Jerald Hawkins

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore center/guard Ethan Pocic

Comment: This is the most important position group to watch. Collins has been outstanding at left tackle, winning the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top blocker. He and Porter make two starters who are definitely leaving, and Washington and Fanaika are two of the top reserves. Where things could really go sideways is if Alexander and Hawkins opt to enter the draft, as well. LSU looks to be positioned well for a championship push next season, but having to replace four of the five starting offensive linemen would not be an encouraging sign. Both players were noncommittal when asked about the draft this week, but both of them requested draft grades from the NFL’s advisory committee. Said Alexander, whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rated as the No. 7 guard prospect among draft-eligible players, “You want to focus on getting better because, stay or leave, you want the type of guy who can compartmentalize things and just focus on the here and now, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now. Somebody’ll lie to you and say they never think about it, but I’m not seriously thinking about it right now and I will make a quick decision after the bowl game.”
BATON ROUGE, La. – For the first time since 2005, Les Miles’ first season as LSU’s coach, the Tigers will already be home by the time the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Typically that’s a sign of a disappointing season, which is certainly the case for a Tigers team (8-4) that fell well short of the standard that Miles set in his first decade at LSU. This was not a great season, and if the Tigers fail to win their bowl game, they will match the 2008 team for LSU’s fewest wins in a season under Miles.

With all of that said, however, LSU’s matchup in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl is as good as an 8-4 team could expect. The Tigers drew Notre Dame (7-5), which like LSU was ranked in the top 10 early in the season before a late slide.

Both programs have played for a national championship within the last four seasons, and while they both finished this regular season with a flop, a game featuring two of the sport’s most successful programs provides a reason to get excited about playing one more game.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsLSU players sound eager for a shot at Notre Dame no matter the bowl game.
“It adds a little more relevancy to the opponent just because it’s such a big-name program. Two great programs, us and them,” LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. “So you grow up looking at Notre Dame and watching them play since you were little. And it’s always a program that’s in the national spotlight, so it’s easier to really get up for it.

“No matter who the opponent would have been, we would have got up for it, obviously, but definitely Notre Dame, we can get excited for a great team like that, to play them.”

The caliber of the programs should drive interest despite a 3 p.m. ET kickoff on Tuesday, Dec. 30, and the game will add to the considerable history between the Tigers and Fighting Irish.

LSU and Notre Dame have actually played 10 times, the most of any SEC opponent against the Fighting Irish. Both clubs have won five times in series history, so this will be a rubber match of sorts.

“LSU and Notre Dame, they have some history with each other in bowl games,” LSU running back Terrence Magee said. “So growing up, Notre Dame is a big program. They’ve been on the big stage lately playing Alabama in the national championship, and I think it’s going to be a big matchup for us. I’m excited about it.”

Oddly enough, the bowl trip also will help LSU’s seniors cross Nashville off the list of SEC towns where they will have played. The Tigers haven’t played in Music City since 2010 and while several fifth-year seniors (including Connor Neighbors, D.J. Welter, Travis Dickson, Evan Washington and Justin Maclin) were on LSU’s team that season, none of them played in the Tigers’ 27-3 win over Vanderbilt.

Missouri is the only SEC team that LSU hasn’t faced in the last five seasons, and Mizzou, Kentucky and South Carolina are the only SEC towns where the Tigers haven’t played in that period.

But the location of this game is only a footnote. After all, nobody on either of these teams set a preseason goal of finishing the year with a bowl game in Tennessee. It’s the opposition that drives interest for fans and players alike.

“It really doesn’t matter, the destination,” LSU cornerback Jalen Collins said. “I feel like the opponent is the bigger part. It’s who we’re playing and how we finish the game.”

In that regard, both clubs are getting off lucky. Notre Dame lost five of its last six games after ranking as high as fifth at one point. LSU dropped two of the last three after it ranked eighth early in the season.

Obviously the season didn’t end the way fans of either school once hoped, so getting to face a big-name opponent in a bowl game was far from a foregone conclusion. The sunny side of the teams’ late stumbles – certainly from the bowl’s perspective, as this is probably the best pairing in Music City Bowl’s 17-year history – is that they paved the way for a bowl pairing that’s actually interesting.

Both teams were better last season, but Notre Dame’s bowl game against Rutgers and LSU’s against Iowa didn’t do much for anybody. At least now we get to see two of the sport’s most historically significant programs meet. All things considered, that’s not so bad.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Travin Dural knew his own mistake contributed to an interception just before halftime against Alabama, and he admitted as much to his teammates in LSU's offensive film review session a couple of days later.

"If I'd have been more physical and more aggressive on my route, I'd have never fell and they would have never caught the pick and they would have never gotten in good position to kick a field goal," said Dural, a sophomore receiver.

[+] EnlargeDamon Mitchell
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsLSU may have lost to Arkansas, but its players are working on learning lessons from their mistakes.
Quarterback Anthony Jennings has confessed to mistakes like "an interception that I've thrown that I maybe should have went to the other side of the field or maybe on a run check, I should have went to the other side."

Running back Terrence Magee has stood up in the weekly meeting and told fellow Tigers that he blocked a play incorrectly. Tight end DeSean Smith has fessed up for dropping a pass against Wisconsin and leaping too early when a high throw was coming his way against Arkansas. Offensive lineman Evan Washington has told teammates that he overstepped on pass blocks or came out of his stance too high while blocking an opponent.

In fact, go down the roster. Every regular on LSU's offense has come forward about mistakes at one time or another -- which was part of the reason offensive coordinator Cam Cameron instituted the practice during film sessions at the start of the season.

"It's just giving us a taste of what it's like in the NFL," said senior running back Magee. "Coach Cam said when guys mess up in the NFL, they stand up in the film room and they admit that they messed up and talk about what they're going to do to correct it. It just shows the team that you're accountable for your mistakes and you understand the mistake you made and you're going to try to go out this week in practice and fix it."

Longtime NFL coach Cameron has preached accountability to his young and inexperienced offense this season, consistently reminding his players to focus on doing their jobs correctly instead of worrying about their teammates' assignments. He reinforced that message by asking players to diagnose their own errors during film review without having a coach do it first.

It was an entirely new way to analyze the game for most Tigers.

"It's been very different. I know for me personally in my career, I've never had a coach do that. And I like it," redshirt freshman receiver John Diarse said. "It teaches you not only to accept your mistake as a player, but as a man, as well. You're standing up or speaking up on your behalf and letting the team know that, 'Hey, this is my mess-up and this is what I'm going to do better.' "

When the offense gathers in the team meeting room each Monday to review the previous game with Cameron, the offensive coordinator sometimes calls on players while watching a specific play and asks if they should have done something differently on that down. If they believe they executed their duties correctly, they say so. And if they fell short, they're supposed to own up to the mistake.

Sometimes players even speak up about their mistakes without prompting from the coach.

"We're just all men," Washington said. "They're going to coach us like men and we're going to stand up and tell our mistakes like men."

Entering Thursday's game at Texas A&M (7-4, 3-4 SEC), this has hardly been the typical winning season at LSU (7-4, 3-4). The young offense has struggled for most of the fall and is ranked 11th in the SEC in total offense (373.6 ypg) and 12th in scoring (28 ppg).

It would be easy -- and perhaps expected -- for the locker room to fracture after disappointing outcomes like LSU's 123-yard disaster in its last game, a 17-0 loss to Arkansas. And yet that's where Cameron's accountability policy has come in handy.

The Tigers say they stuck together through that disappointment because of the focus on identifying their own shortcomings and how correcting their individual errors can better the whole.

"Sometimes when you struggle like we have offensively, you get guys that want to point fingers. With this offense, we've had not one guy pointing fingers at everybody," Magee said. "Me, I think it's due to the fact that each guy stands up and owns up to the mistakes they make and holds themself accountable to the whole team."

LSU loss evokes memories of BCS collapse

November, 17, 2014
11/17/14
3:00
PM ET
When an LSU offense's performance evokes comparisons to the Tigers' effort against Alabama in the 2012 BCS championship, something has gone horribly awry.

LSU's 92-yard outing that night in New Orleans is like Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort among Tigers fans: the game that must not be named. One of the most pitiful performances in memory for an offense on a big stage. An absolute embarrassment. And highly similar to the Tigers' production in Saturday's 17-0 loss at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeDamon Mitchell
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsThe LSU Tigers' defense, as well as their offense, failed to stop Arkansas on Saturday.
The difference, of course, is that the stakes were nowhere near the same.

In the Alabama disaster, a previously unbeaten LSU team crossed midfield just once and was dominated throughout with a national championship hanging in the balance. Saturday night's game in Fayetteville pitted an injury-riddled, three-loss LSU team against an Arkansas club that hadn't won a conference game in its last 17 tries. The on-field results, though, were every bit as ugly.

By missing a pair of field goals and losing a fourth-quarter fumble at the Arkansas 19-yard line on Saturday, LSU failed to score in a game for the first time since its infamous Alabama loss. The Tigers' 123 yards of total offense were also their worst performance since that Alabama defeat -- and the program's worst performance in a regular-season game in a generation.

The last time LSU produced fewer yards in a regular-season game was Sept. 20, 1975, when No. 11 Texas A&M beat Charlie McClendon's Tigers 39-8 in Baton Rouge. The Tigers ran 66 plays for 114 yards and picked up just seven first downs. LSU's only touchdown came on a blocked punt in the fourth quarter.

Saturday's performance against Arkansas sent writers scrambling for the record books, as well, to determine exactly how historic this face plant was in LSU history. Let's throw out the BCS title game against Alabama and focus solely on regular-season games. Here are some other "last times" that LSU approached on Saturday:

  • The Tigers hadn't been shut out in a regular-season game since falling 31-0 to Alabama in 2002.
  • Their 36 rushing yards on 32 carries were the fewest by an LSU offense in a regular-season game since running 31 times for 30 yards against Mississippi State in 2009.
  • Terrence Magee's team-high 24 rushing yards were the fewest by the Tigers' leading rusher in a game since Spencer Ware's 21 against Florida in 2012.
  • And their 87 passing yards were their fewest since ... the previous Saturday, when they totaled 76 in an overtime loss against Alabama.
Saturday's game featured a perfect storm of horrible circumstances for the Tigers. Two veteran offensive linemen (center Elliott Porter and left guard Vadal Alexander) missed all or most of the game with injuries, as did senior running back Kenny Hilliard. LSU's average field position was its own 24-yard line, and the Tigers couldn't stay out of their own way even when they had decent starting field position on the freezing-cold night.

Arkansas focused on stopping the LSU running game and Tigers quarterback Anthony Jennings was unable to keep the offense moving with the pass. That wasn't much of a surprise given that Jennings has been inconsistent at best this season, but it further angered fans hoping to see backup Brandon Harris get a chance when LSU coach Les Miles never put the freshman in the game in an effort to spark the offense.

Miles fell back on his well-worn line that leaving Jennings in gave LSU the best chance to win -- and perhaps that was the case -- but this open week is the time for Miles and his offensive coaches to do some soul searching about what is working and what is not.

Obviously if we're comparing the Tigers' performance to what happened against Alabama on that fateful night in New Orleans, there isn't much to be happy about these days from an offensive perspective.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The game rested on Anthony Jennings' young shoulders when he took the field last season against Arkansas. This was no time for the 19-year-old quarterback to play like a tentative true freshman.

"Obviously if you come in like a mouse talking to the huddle and things, they won't believe me," Jennings recalled, "so I had to come in with confidence high and tell the guys, 'Here we go. We're going to go score.'"

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsThe last time LSU played Arkansas, on Nov. 29, 2013, Anthony Jennings (pictured) and Travin Dural forged a lasting quarterback-to-receiver bond.
Jennings' LSU team trailed the Razorbacks 27-24 in the fourth quarter and Jennings was standing in his own end zone when he took the first snap on a possession that would forever tie his name with that of Travin Dural in LSU lore.

To that point in the season, Jennings had appeared only on a few select running plays and in garbage time, but here he was replacing injured senior starter Zach Mettenberger and needing to drive the Tigers 99 yards in the game's final 3:04 if LSU was to avoid a huge upset.

When the Tigers' backup quarterback entered the huddle, he projected the necessary confident tone, said Dural, then a redshirt freshman who spent most of the season in veteran stars Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham's shadows.

"He came in like he had been playing the whole game and came in like he was the starter and the offense never missed a beat," said Dural, whose Tigers (7-3, 3-3 SEC) will visit Arkansas (4-5, 0-5) on Saturday.

The drive started with a 2-yard Jennings run to get the Tigers some breathing room away from the goal line. Completions of 16 yards to tight end Dillon Gordon and 11 yards to Landry soon followed. Then Jennings broke a 21-yard run to push the Tigers past midfield.

The drive started to stall from there, however. Jennings tossed an incomplete pass to Kadron Boone and then completed a screen pass to tailback Jeremy Hill, but Arkansas' Deatrich Wise stopped him for no gain. The Tigers called a timeout, facing third-and-10 from the Arkansas 49-yard line with just 1:22 to play.

That's when Jennings lined up in the shotgun and launched a perfect strike down the left sideline to a wide-open Dural, who had streaked 10 yards behind Arkansas defensive back Jared Collins. Dural hauled in the pass and crossed the goal line to give LSU a 31-27 lead, and the final score, with 1:15 remaining.

It was one of the most exciting moments of the entire season for the Tigers, and it was a pair of freshmen who hooked up to make it happen.

"You're always going to remember that play and that 99-yard drive," Jennings said. "That's the story and then being a freshman at that, I'm always going to remember that."

Jennings and Dural used that game-winning touchdown pass as a launching point, with both players enjoying much more prominent roles in the Tigers' offense as sophomores.

Dural (30 catches for 701 yards, 7 TDs), who has started every game this season and ranks fourth in the SEC with an average of 70.1 receiving yards per game, said the Arkansas touchdown gave him confidence that he could become an impact player in the SEC.

"It was coming, but after that play it was really there," Dural said. "It kind of showed me, 'OK, I can make plays. I can do this.'"

Jennings (80-170, 1,266 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs) has had an up-and-down sophomore season, but the Tigers have won eight of his 10 starts since he took over for Mettenberger.

He said he didn't need the Arkansas comeback to believe he belonged at LSU, although he first credited his teammates and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron for making the drive a success.

"I don't think it was confirmation. I think I always had that confidence in myself that I could play at a high level," Jennings said. "So just that happening was a product of all the teammates around me helping me, guiding me, coaching me, Coach Cameron calling great plays there. So it really was not on me. It's about the guys around me."

The duo has already combined to provide several other huge plays for the Tigers since the Arkansas game. They hooked up for an 80-yard touchdown in a season-opening win against Wisconsin and combined for a school-record 94-yard touchdown on LSU's first offensive play the following week against Sam Houston State.

Dural was also the recipient of a 41-yard pass from Jennings on third-and-25 that extended the Tigers' go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter against Florida. He made a one-handed, 11-yard touchdown catch to cap the drive and give LSU a 27-24 lead with 2:40 to play.

Needless to say, Jennings-to-Dural has become one of the SEC's top big-play combinations this season, and it all started with an unlikely 99-yard drive last season against Arkansas where two freshmen showed up at the game's biggest moment.

"That was a big moment for both of those guys. It kind of jumpstarted both of their careers," senior running back Terrence Magee said. "They've made big plays throughout the year this year and we've counted on both of those guys and we're going to continue to count on them through the rest of this season.

"I think the big-play ability and the connection that they have with each other is going to be vital to the rest of this season and into the future for those guys."

LSU can't afford for what-ifs to linger

November, 10, 2014
11/10/14
11:00
AM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. – Saturday’s overtime loss to Alabama was the kind that will sting for a long while at LSU.

Not only were the Tigers disappointed by the missed opportunities that allowed Alabama to tie the game in the final 50 seconds and then win in overtime, they also were seething over multiple calls that went the Crimson Tide’s way at crucial junctures.

“I think that game could have ended a lot of different ways with the Tigers in front,” LSU coach Les Miles said.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesAnthony Jennings believes the LSU Tigers will get off the deck after the loss to Alabama and finish strong.
Miles credited Alabama and acknowledged his team’s own execution issues -- particularly the multitude of dropped passes that could have extended drives -- but he seemed particularly peeved about an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against left guard Vadal Alexander on LSU’s final drive in regulation.

LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith had just recovered a T.J. Yeldon fumble at Alabama’s 6-yard line, giving the Tigers first-and-goal with 1:13 to play in a 10-10 game. After Terrence Magee’s first-down run up the middle for no gain, Alexander shoved Alabama’s A'Shawn Robinson when the defensive end grabbed him and pulled his leg.

The 15-yard penalty pushed LSU back to the 21-yard line, so instead of a touchdown, they settled for a Colby Delahoussaye field goal with 50 seconds remaining. Miles said he didn’t have a good view of what transpired, but questioned whether it warranted a flag.

“That changed the complexion of the game,” Miles said. “That call was the single most significant piece, minus their turnover, in the game.”

The play -- only one factor in LSU’s late collapse -- also changed the complexion of the Tigers’ season. With a win, they were still alive in the SEC West race and a potential dark horse for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Now at 7-3 overall and 3-3 in SEC play, the Tigers are an afterthought in the conference race and must win out in order to extend their school-record streak of four consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins.

“We have strong character in the locker room, and we’re going to push and push and push until we can’t push no more,” said senior center Elliott Porter, who played the final home game of his career on Saturday. “That’s the biggest thing. You keep on fighting. It’s tough losing this game in Death Valley, a senior in my last game in Death Valley. It hurts, but that’s what we signed up for.”

The challenge for the Tigers now is to make sure that the hangover from the Alabama game doesn’t extend into their next game, Saturday at Arkansas (4-5, 0-5). Despite not having won an SEC game since October 2012 -- a losing streak that now sits at 17 games -- the Razorbacks actually opened as a slight betting favorite over LSU on Sunday.

While it hasn’t won a conference game, Arkansas has hung tight with Alabama (losing 14-13), Mississippi State (losing 17-10 when quarterback Brandon Allen threw an interception at the goal line in the closing seconds) and Texas A&M (blowing a late lead and falling 35-28 in overtime). The Tigers likely can’t afford to enter this game with less than their full focus and expect to beat the improved Razorbacks.

Miles expressed confidence that his team will regroup and not allow the Alabama loss to linger.

“I think our football team has got more character than that, to be honest,” Miles said. “I think we’ll have to play well. I think this Arkansas team is a good football team. We’ll have to prepare well. That will be a challenge for us.”

The Tigers rallied from a much more hopeless situation earlier this season, and many of them say a players-only meeting after they dropped their first two SEC games was the turning point that helped them move in the right direction. Quarterback Anthony Jennings said he believes they will bounce back again.

“I think this team is very resilient,” Jennings said. “They never give up, so I think that early, we had that players meeting to say we’re still a great team and we’re going to fight until the end of the season and we’re going to continue to do that.”
The stakes in the SEC and postseason races will be huge when Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) visits LSU (7-2, 3-2) on Saturday.

Today we’ll compare how the two teams stack up at each position group on offense and defense.

Quarterback

Alabama

It’s probably time to stop waiting on Blake Sims' downfall.

Alabama brought in another QB to take his job, but that didn’t work. The SEC was then supposed to eat him alive, but that didn’t work either.

Sims might not look like your typical pocket passer, but the senior has gotten the job done with 2,034 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air. He’s completing 65.5 percent of his passes and has thrown just three interceptions.

Just when we thought we found a weakness with him struggling on the road against Ole Miss and Arkansas, he went to Tennessee and threw for two touchdowns, no interceptions and just shy of 300 yards.

Player to watch: Blake Sims

LSU

Possibly the most important player on the field Saturday will be LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings. Not because he will throw it around like a Big 12 quarterback -- Jennings has averaged just 16.8 pass attempts in his eight starts -- but because he’ll have to make it count when he does drop back to pass.

It’s no secret that LSU will lean heavily on the run. The Tigers have kept the ball on the ground 70 percent of the time this season, and they will almost certainly be a run-first team on Saturday.

But when Alabama has been vulnerable on defense, it has been in pass coverage. Jennings needs to be able to make the Crimson Tide at least respect the pass.

Player to watch: Anthony Jennings

[+] EnlargeT.J. Yeldon
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonA week of rest should do wonders for T.J. Yeldon and Alabama's stable of running backs.
Running back

Alabama

The bye week came at the right time for Alabama’s running backs, as T.J. Yeldon needed it to nurse a foot injury and Derrick Henry's shoulder likely benefitted from the rest as well.

With no Kenyan Drake, Alabama’s running game is slightly less dynamic than it was at the beginning of the season, but it’s still quite potent as Yeldon and Henry each average more than 5 yards per carry.

Look for H-back Jalston Fowler to be mixed in at running back some and don’t discount Sims' effect on the running game from the quarterback position. He might not escape the pocket much these days, but he did play running back and receiver for Alabama once upon a time.

Player to watch: Derrick Henry

LSU

All eyes will be on freshman Leonard Fournette, who has broken the 100-yard mark twice during the Tigers’ three-game winning streak.

With 671 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, Fournette is already the lead figure in the LSU backfield, but its true strength is its depth.

Terrence Magee has been outstanding lately, raising his yards-per-carry average to 6.1 thanks to a number of long runs during the winning streak. And Kenny Hilliard probably doesn’t get enough credit for his impact on the 10-7 win over Ole Miss. Hilliard’s tough running was one of the keys as the Tigers drove 95 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Player to watch: Leonard Fournette

Wide receiver/tight end

Alabama

Amari Cooper can’t do it all on his own. Or maybe he can.

The junior wideout has been among the best receivers in college football, and he’s been the absolute focal point of Alabama’s passing game. With 96 targets, he’s accounted for 40 percent of the Tide’s pass attempts. As Nick Saban said, “Should you play to your strengths or not?”

But Alabama needs more than No. 9. It needs Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and Chris Black. It needs O.J. Howard and Brian Vogler at tight end. Those guys are capable of making plays, and against LSU they’ll likely have to do so.

Player to watch: Christion Jones

LSU

Sophomore Travin Dural exploded out of the gate with 100-yard outings in three of the first four games, but nobody at LSU has done much in the passing game lately. It remains to be seen whether they can get away with being so one-dimensional against a defense as good as Alabama’s.

During LSU’s three-game winning streak, wideouts Malachi Dupre and John Diarse have combined for one catch for 8 yards. Dural (5-102) and Trey Quinn (5-73) haven’t done much more, but LSU has worked in several throws to running backs and tight ends lately.

The target of the passes is irrelevant, though. It seems unlikely that the Tigers will be effective on offense if they fail to make at least a little something happen through the air.

Player to watch: Travin Dural

Offensive line

Alabama

Cam Robinson might be available. That’s an awfully lot to ask, though, considering the starting left tackle was said to be out 3-4 weeks after tweaking his ankle against Tennessee two weeks ago. But Saban is playing it close to the vest and not ruling out the talented true freshman.

If Robinson doesn’t play, expect Austin Shepherd to flip sides from right to left tackle. Grant Hill, a former top recruit, could then take Shepherd’s place in the lineup.

The good news for Alabama is that Ryan Kelly appears to be holding up well. After sustaining an injury against Ole Miss and missing a few weeks recovering, the starting center played all game against Tennessee and hasn’t been limited since.

Player to watch: Grant Hill

LSU

This group was a disappointment early in the fall, but they’ve picked it up considerably once new position coach Jeff Grimes got center Elliott Porter back from an early suspension and settled on a starting lineup.

They’ll have their work cut out against an Alabama defense that ranks second nationally against the run (78 ypg), but the Tigers did a good job against sturdy defensive lines from Florida and Ole Miss.

Left tackle La'el Collins is the group’s star, but it might be the interior line’s play that determines LSU’s level of success in what will surely be a smashmouth game.

Player to watch: Elliott Porter
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The problems that LSU's offensive line encountered early in the season seemed as numerous as Leonard Fournette scholarship offers.
  • The Tigers weren't healthy.
  • They played without suspended senior center Elliott Porter for the first two games.
  • Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes needed several games to settle on a starting right guard -- a job that eventually went to sophomore Ethan Pocic.
  • Opposing defenses regularly stacked the box because LSU's passing game isn't exactly intimidating.

It was a mess, and it turned the offensive line -- one that returned four starters from 2013 -- into an early disappointment on an offense that was loaded with inexperience elsewhere.

"At first our chemistry, it was kind of off," said Fournette, LSU's freshman tailback who sometimes struggled to find running room behind the line early in the season. "But as the season's going on, we're getting stronger and we're learning our weaknesses as a whole and just getting better at it."

No doubt about that. Last Saturday's 264-yard rushing performance against Ole Miss, which boasted the nation's No. 5 run defense (97.1 ypg) entering the game, was the line's crowning achievement to date. Although turnovers hampered the Tigers throughout the night, Fournette (23 carries for 113 yards), Terrence Magee (12-74) and Kenny Hilliard (12-63) all found regular creases to exploit against the Rebels.

The Tigers' fourth-quarter drive was an offensive lineman's dream. Thirteen plays, 95 yards, and each of the first 12 plays was a run. LSU coach Les Miles later described it as "a middle-1970s drive."

Finally, once the Tigers had driven to the Ole Miss 3, quarterback Anthony Jennings faked a dive handoff to Hilliard, rolled right and hit wide-open tight end Logan Stokes with the game-winning touchdown.

The Rebels never saw it coming, and why would they?

"I think that [the 12 straight runs] had a lot to do with it," Stokes said, "especially because during a lot of those runs when I was in, I was the back-side tight end cutting off or cutting the guy or doing something like that. So I think that when I sold it and I think that the fact that everybody up front sold it just how we had been learning those plays, it just worked out perfect for me."

This might have been the line's most impressive performance, but it had been building to this point for weeks. Many LSU fans' eyes probably rolled when Miles said the line gave a strong performance in a 41-7 loss at Auburn -- it did, but LSU got down so quickly that depending solely on the run didn't make sense -- but its improvement has been more obvious in the last three games.

Florida came in allowing barely more than 100 yards on the ground when LSU ran for 195 -- including 140 and two touchdowns from Fournette -- against the Gators. The momentum continued the following week when LSU abused Kentucky for 303 rushing yards on 51 attempts.

"We knew last week they figured out who they want to be," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said after LSU handed his Rebels their first loss of the season. "That's the best offensive line we've played and their running backs are very, very good."

This coming from a coach whose team has already faced Alabama, LSU's next opponent, which typically boasts one of the conference's top offensive lines.

The Crimson Tide's defense isn't too shabby, either, as it currently ranks second nationally against the run (78.1 ypg). Moving the ball on the ground against Alabama will be another measuring stick of the line's recent progress.

"From Florida and on, I think we've played a lot better. Auburn, actually, we played a lot better," Porter said. "We keep on improving and keep on being together. That's what we've done a good job at in practice, in the game, talking in meetings -- everything is coming together as one."

It took longer than expected for that to occur, but LSU's line is finally playing at the high level many expected during the summer. The line combined with a stingy defense to lead the Tigers to the Ole Miss upset and will certainly be one of the driving forces if LSU takes down Alabama on Nov. 8.

"Hats off to our offensive linemen," said Stokes, who joined the Tigers last year from Northeast Mississippi Community College. "I remember looking at Elliott Porter one time and just telling him, ‘Last drive, man. Give us all you got.' … For me to come in from a junior college and just walk in and get to be around those guys and see how it's done, it's a great feeling. I don't ever question us when we get in the fourth quarter because of the leadership we have up front."
 
A breakdown of LSU's 10-7 upset win over Ole Miss on Saturday night.

How the game was won: Defense. LSU held Ole Miss to 313 offensive yards and got two critical stops in the final two minutes. The first came with 1:44 remaining on a fourth-and-1 try in which the Tigers stuffed the Rebels, and the second came with two seconds left when, instead of trying a 47-yard field goal, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze elected to try one more play. The Tigers made him pay for the decision. LSU senior safety Ronald Martin intercepted a pass from Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace with two seconds left to seal the upset win.

Game ball goes to: Leonard Fournette. The true freshman running back, who was the No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class, came up big after Terrence Magee left the game with an injury. Fournette finished with 113 yards on 23 carries, including some critical runs in LSU’s final scoring drive. He even got his face mask ripped off by an Ole Miss defender, but his work on the last scoring drive help set up the game-winning score. Give the LSU defense a ton of credit also for keeping the Tigers in it even though they turned the ball over four times.

What it means: We have a big shakeup near the top of the rankings and in the College Football Playoff race. Previously undefeated Ole Miss (7-1, 4-1 SEC) will drop and LSU, a team that is in the midst of what many have called a "rebuilding year" seems to be getting stronger. The Tigers (7-2, 3-2 SEC) have now won three in a row and are building momentum.

Playoff implication: Ole Miss’s chances take a hit. How much of a hit? We’ll find out when the playoff selection committee’s rankings are released on Tuesday. But a team that once controlled its own fate no longer does.

Best play: Without a doubt, the play that sealed the win for LSU ... Martin intercepting Wallace:

video 
What's next: Ole Miss must regroup quickly as it returns home to Oxford to host No. 5 Auburn a week from today. LSU has an open date next week and doesn’t return to the field until Nov. 8 when it hosts No. 4 Alabama in Baton Rouge.

LSU hopes to dodge turnover tidal wave

October, 23, 2014
10/23/14
4:00
PM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Football coaches and players discuss the importance of winning the turnover battle, the words can almost ring hollow. But when LSU players say they must protect the football Saturday against Ole Miss, it's more than just an empty football cliché.

The No. 3 Rebels (7-0, 4-0 SEC) have an uncanny ability to swing games by creating turnovers at key moments.

"Their defense are ball hawks," LSU receiver Travin Dural said. "If you're giving your offense the ball on the opponent's side of the field a lot, they're going to score, and that's what they've been doing. We're going to try our best to flip the field as much as we can."

No. 24 LSU (6-2, 2-2) has turned the ball over only nine times this season, and it might need to maintain that trend on Saturday if it is to have any chance of upsetting the Rebels. Not only does Ole Miss lead the nation with 90 points off turnovers, but it has been remarkably consistent.

The Rebels have either scored a defensive touchdown or created a turnover to take control of the contest in each game this season:
  • They were up 14-6 in the fourth quarter of the opener against Boise State when Tony Conner intercepted a pass at the Broncos' 40-yard line. Two plays later, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace hit Quincy Adeboyejo with a 31-yard touchdown pass to go up 21-6.
  • Cornerback Cliff Coleman returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown in Ole Miss' win against Vanderbilt.
  • Cornerback Senquez Golson -- who leads the SEC and is second nationally with seven interceptions -- had a 59-yard pick-six against Louisiana-Lafayette.
  • Ole Miss led Memphis 10-3 a few minutes into the fourth quarter when Ole Miss freshman Marquis Haynes forced a Paxton Haynes fumble that Issac Gross recovered at the Memphis 23. Rebels running back Jaylen Walton ran for a 23-yard touchdown on the next play to put Ole Miss up 17-3.
  • The score was tied at 17-all against Alabama when Crimson Tide return man Christion Jones fumbled a kickoff and Ole Miss' Kailo Moore recovered at the Alabama 31 with 5:29 to play. Five plays later, Wallace hit Walton with the game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass.
  • All-American safety Cody Prewitt returned an interception 75 yards for a touchdown and Keith Lewis returned a Kenny Hill fumble 21 yards for a score in the Rebels' win against Texas A&M.
  • Last week against Tennessee, the Rebels were up 17-3 in the third quarter when Volunteers return man Evan Berry fumbled and Haynes recovered at the UT 28. Wallace hit Evan Engram with a 28-yard touchdown pass on the next play to go up 24-3.

In other words, this is a well-established habit for the Rebels, and the Tigers understand that protecting the ball will be particularly important on Saturday.

"We pride ourself on not turning the ball over in the backfield," running back Terrence Magee said. "We work ball security every day before we get into the core of practice, and it's just something that we work on a routine basis. We realize that if we don't turn the ball over and we win the turnover margin, our chances of winning are much greater."

LSU has won or tied in turnover margin in every game this season except last week's 41-3 win against Kentucky. The Tigers have actually been extremely effective themselves at turning takeaways into points, outscoring opponents 72-7 following turnovers -- a differential that ranks third among FBS teams. Only Oregon's plus 79 (79-0) and Ole Miss' plus-71 (90-19) points-off-turnovers margins are better.

LSU has also capitalized off opponent miscues, as the Tigers' game-winning scores against both Wisconsin and Florida came after fourth-quarter interceptions by Jalen Mills and Rickey Jefferson.

That creates a competition of sorts between an LSU secondary that prides itself as being one of the best in the nation and a group of Rebels defensive backs who are tied for the FBS lead with 15 interceptions.

"You could say that," Jefferson said, "but we're looking to be on top. That's what we're trying to do as DBs."

LSU's defensive backs could accomplish that goal by capitalizing on mistakes by Wallace, and he hasn't made many this season. Ole Miss' senior quarterback has tossed six interceptions overall and none in SEC play.

Just as important will be avoiding the back-breaking offensive mistakes that set up short drives for Ole Miss. Understandably, that has been a point of emphasis for the Tigers this week.

"Just end every drive with a kick," Dural said. "Try not to make those mental mistakes to where we give them the ball with a short field."
video
BATON ROUGE, La. -- A player can’t be considered a star when the average fan still reaches for a roster after he makes a play in order to make the connection between name and jersey number.

[+] EnlargeJamal Adams
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLSU has already seen the impact Jamal Adams can have on and off the field.
 LSU’s Jamal Adams might be on the verge of making the transition from hyped newcomer to household name.

“That’s what’s kind of happening to him: ‘Who’s No. 33?’ and then they go look him up in the program because simply put, he’s making plays wherever you line him up at,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “That’s a great characteristic.”

The freshman safety’s name was already well known among recruitniks, as the No. 2 safety and No. 18 overall prospect on this year’s ESPN 300. He was the highest-rated defensive player to sign with LSU in February. He’s quickly gaining recognition among more casual fans -- and not just because of his dramatic flop against Florida after Gators punt returner Andre Debose lightly shoved Adams’ facemask.

That play, which went viral on the Internet and drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Debose, has been a source of nonstop comedy in the LSU locker room, with several teammates comparing Adams’ antics to that of NBA superstar and noted flop king LeBron James.

“That was too funny. That was something I expect out of him,” safety Rickey Jefferson said. “Then he tweeted and said LeBron taught me.”

Linebacker Deion Jones agreed, adding, “It was hilarious. I laughed about it on the field.”

Running back Terrence Magee, who was only a few feet away when Debose’s attack occurred, also got a laugh out of the play.

“He’s been watching basketball too much,” Magee said.

Adams said the play exemplified his energetic on-field personality, which Miles has described as “electric.”

“I’m a character and I do whatever for the team,” Adams said. “That flop, everybody’s blowing it up, so it was just definitely something I needed to do at the time.”

His contributions of late are not limited to appearances on SportsCenter’s Not Top 10, however. Adams is getting significant playing time in LSU’s nickel and dime defensive packages and is one of the team’s most valuable special-teams performers. He leads the Tigers with nine special-teams tackles and delivered the key block that sprung Tre’Davious White for a 67-yard punt return touchdown last Saturday against Kentucky.

On White’s first return of the night, Adams noticed that his side of the field was wide open for a return and pleaded with White to bring the next punt his way. Sure enough, White ran toward the Kentucky sideline with his next return and Adams crushed Kentucky’s A.J. Stamps with the block that helped White sprint into the open field.

 “He’s put himself in a great position to make big-time blocks for us,” White said. “I went back and watched the first punt that actually I took [17] yards. It could have been another touchdown if I would have just went outside. He was right and I did it that time and he made a big block like he said I would and sprung me for a touchdown.”

It was Adams’ most notable play in what was probably his best night as a Tiger to date. He continued to shine on the coverage teams, posting two special-teams tackles and also made his biggest impact yet on defensive downs. Adams finished with a career-high eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack.

“He has a motor that don’t stop,” White said. “He’s a guy that brings so much energy. He’s just not like that in games, he’s like that around practice. Very vocal, and he’s a young leader and we look forward to him making plays down the road for us.”

In truth, Adams is making plays now. Although he hasn’t started a game yet, he ranks fifth on the team with 37 tackles and is starting to live up to the preseason comparisons that LSU insiders made to former All-America safety Eric Reid.

Asked why he is becoming a more productive player, Adams fell back on the attributes that so many teammates cited while describing his game: He consistently shows great effort and energy.

“[LSU’s coaches have] been stressing how to be the player that you want to be,” Adams said. “They stress it hard in practice. It’s practice how you play, so every time in practice I’m going hard, I’m running hard, doing the little things. The little things separate you.”

SEC helmet stickers: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
10/19/14
9:00
AM ET
The only good thing about a day full of blowouts in the SEC is that there are plenty of helmet stickers to hand out.

Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia: How do you top a 143-yard, one-touchdown performance in your first collegiate start? By rushing for 202 yards and two touchdowns in your second start. That's exactly what Chubb did in place of the suspended Todd Gurley on Saturday, leading Georgia past Arkansas, 45-32. He became only the third freshman in school history to rush for more than 200 yards in a game (Herschel Walker, Rodney Hampton). As long as Chubb keeps getting 30-plus carries a game, he's going to keep showing up on this list.

Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss: Don't get me wrong. Senquez Golson is deserving of a helmet sticker with two interceptions on Saturday. But it was Haynes and the defensive line that set the tone for the Rebels. They held Tennessee to zero rushing yards in large part thanks to nine sacks on the night. Haynes led the way with five tackles, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery during the 34-3 win. The freshman might not get the recognition of his counterpart Robert Nkemdiche, but he's one of the SEC's better young stars whom nobody's talking about.

Terrence Magee, RB, LSU: It was supposed to be Leonard Fournette with the huge game, but Magee said “move over freshman, I'm taking this one.” Magee rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries in LSU's 41-3 win over Kentucky. That's 14.1 yards per carry for those counting at home. He also happened to be the team's leading receiver with three catches for 44 yards. Fournette might be the LSU running back to watch in the second half, but don't forget about Magee. He's not going anywhere.

Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: Murphy wasted no time putting his stamp on Saturday's game in Gainesville, returning the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. But he wasn't done yet. No, he had more in store for the Gators. Murphy made it 14-0 with a 5-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and he would later return a punt 82 yards for another score. The senior finished with 224 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns on the night. He was one of the big reasons why Missouri won 42-13 despite only gaining 119 yards on offense.

Blake Sims, QB, Alabama: T.J. Yeldon, you deserve a helmet sticker. Amari Cooper, you deserve a helmet sticker. Alabama's defense, you deserve a helmet sticker. It was that kind of game for the Crimson Tide. But the nod here goes to Sims, who went 16-of-27 for 268 yards and three touchdowns in the Tide's 59-0 win over Texas A&M. He also made arguably the best move of the day on his 43-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. This team, Sims included, was criticized after last week's win over Arkansas. It responded in a big way.

Four key storylines in LSU-Kentucky

October, 17, 2014
10/17/14
3:00
PM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. – Upstart Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 SEC) gets another chance on Saturday to prove that its fast start is legitimate. The Wildcats will visit LSU (5-2, 1-2), which notched its first SEC win in last weekend’s 30-27 thriller against Florida.

One of these teams will be bowl eligible by the end of Saturday night, while the other will start looking over a tough second-half schedule and hoping another win is on there somewhere.

Let’s take a look at four key factors in Saturday’s game:

Contributions from newcomers: A unique attribute that both of these teams share is how heavily their offenses rely on players who are filling new roles.

True freshman have accounted for 22 of LSU’s 31 touchdowns, and they have actually scored 16 of those touchdowns. Freshman running back Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 140 yards and scored twice against Florida, has six touchdowns. Receiver Malachi Dupre has four, and running back Darrel Williams three. Quarterback Brandon Harris has passed for six touchdowns and run for three.

After he rushed 27 times against Florida, one of only nine backs ever to run more than 25 times in a game under LSU coach Les Miles, keep an eye on whether the Tigers use Fournette as the feature back again. Previously they had distributed carries among Fournette, Williams and seniors Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee.

The Tigers have already played 17 true freshmen this season, which is the most for any LSU freshman class under Miles.

Kentucky, meanwhile, is also getting a majority of its production from players who didn’t play for the Wildcats in 2013. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard (38-282, 3 TDs) and freshman Stanley Williams (23-202, 2 TDs) help Kentucky newcomers account for 73 percent of the team’s rushing yards. Players who didn’t play for Kentucky last season have also accounted for 67 percent of its points (147 of 171).

Williams, who also leads the SEC with an average of 36 yards per kickoff return, had a big game last Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe. He ran seven times for 104 yards and a touchdown and also returned the opening kickoff 75 yards.

Rare air for Kentucky: In Mark Stoops’ second season, the Wildcats are vastly improved from their back-to-back two-win seasons of 2012 and 2013. In fact, they would be undefeated today if their upset bid at Florida hadn’t fallen just short in a 36-30 triple-overtime loss.

They haven’t been on the road since that painful loss in The Swamp, so posting a win Saturday at Tiger Stadium would be an even greater milestone for Stoops than Kentucky’s thrilling 45-38 win over South Carolina two weeks ago.

It would also secure Kentucky’s first four-game winning streak since 2008, its first three-game SEC winning streak since 2006 and its first 3-1 start in SEC play since 1999.

If the Wildcats are 6-1 by the end of Saturday night, it would be only the fourth time since 1950 that Kentucky had won six or more games in the first seven games of the season.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette got a career-high 27 carries against Florida and turned them into 140 yards.and two TDs.
Turnover battle: Finishing on the positive side in turnover margin is often a way to earn a victory, and these teams have done that consistently. LSU and Kentucky are both plus-eight in turnover margin, which ties for second in the SEC.

A remarkable turnaround by Kentucky’s secondary is the driving force in its success generating turnovers. Of Kentucky’s 16 takeaways, 11 have come on interceptions -- a total that is fourth nationally and second on the SEC behind Ole Miss’ 12. Kentucky had just three interceptions in the entire 2013 season.

Junior college transfer A.J. Stamps is the Wildcats’ leader in pass coverage, notching three interceptions and six passes defended.

Safety Marcus McWilson and linebacker Josh Forrest both returned interceptions for touchdowns last week against Louisiana-Monroe, marking the first time since 1986 that the Wildcats had two pick-sixes in a game.

LSU has been more balanced in turnovers, both in its takeaways and giveaways. The defense has generated 16 turnovers (eight fumbles and eight interceptions) and the offense has committed eight turnovers (four fumbles and four interceptions).

Linebacker Kwon Alexander is one of the Tigers to watch on the turnover front. He forced a fumble that Danielle Hunter recovered and returned for a touchdown against Mississippi State and then forced a Jeff Driskel fumble last week in Florida territory that led to a short touchdown drive.

Safety Rickey Jefferson made a key late interception against the Gators to set up Colby Delahoussaye’s game-winning field goal. Jefferson and cornerback Tre'Davious White are tied for the team lead with two interceptions apiece.

Pounding the run: If Kentucky is to win on Saturday, its success in the running game will almost certainly be a deciding factor.

The Wildcats have one of the SEC’s most balanced offenses, but LSU has been much more vulnerable against the run than the pass. The Tigers are 12th in the SEC against the run (175.6 yards per game), but boast the conference’s top pass defense (157.7).

Don’t be surprised to see the Wildcats feed Williams and Heard, have Jojo Kemp take direct snaps and even run a bit with quarterback Patrick Towles in an effort to duplicate previous teams’ successes running against LSU.

The Wildcats also must do a better job on the ground against the run-heavy Tigers. South Carolina ran for 282 yards against Kentucky two weeks ago, led by 183 yards and three touchdowns from Mike Davis. LSU runs the ball more than any SEC team; its 332 rushing attempts are 43 more than the next-closest team. So the Wildcats know that slowing down Fournette and Co. is their No. 1 task.

Kentucky is eighth in the SEC in run defense at 152.0 ypg. LSU is sixth in the league in rushing offense (209.1), but had one of its best outings of the season against Florida. Although the Gators have one of the toughest defensive fronts in the league, LSU ran 50 times for 195 yards.
BATON ROUGE, La. – Les Miles says Leonard Fournette is the type of running back who is built to handle the heavy workload he received in last Saturday’s win against Florida.

“I think he’s one of those backs that gets stronger as the day gets longer,” Miles said at his Monday press luncheon. “I think he’s cut out to be that kind of back.”

However, nothing about the way college running backs are used these days – or about how carries are typically distributed at LSU – would indicate that LSU’s star freshman will be a regular recipient of the 27 carries he handled in the 30-27 victory over the Gators.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette is a throwback kind of running back, says LSU coach Les Miles, a player who gets stronger as the game progresses.
Entering Saturday’s game against Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 SEC), Fournette has led LSU (5-2, 1-2) in rushing in six straight games. The Florida game was his first 20-carry outing, however, and marked just the ninth time in Miles’ LSU tenure that a Tigers back logged 25 or more carries in a game.

It felt like something straight out of the 1980s, which of course would satisfy any run-oriented offensive line.

“It was definitely cool,” right tackle Jerald Hawkins said. “I pretty much love that type of game, the ground-and-pound game. As an offensive line, you’ve got to love it.”

Two or three decades ago, Fournette’s workload Saturday was commonplace in college football, but the game has changed drastically in the era of wide-open passing attacks and spread offenses. Only four players in the entire FBS average more than 25 carries per game, led by Central Michigan’s Thomas Rawls (30.6). The SEC’s leading ballcarrier, Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (21.0 carries per game), is the conference’s only back to average at least 20.

Since Miles arrived at LSU in 2005, the Tigers have typically distributed the carries between a group of backs, much as they did in the first six games of this season. No LSU back has averaged 20 carries per game under Miles – Stevan Ridley came closest with 19.15 in 2010 – and Fournette (13.29) will have to have several more games like last Saturday before he comes close.

Before the Florida game, Fournette (93 carries, 504 yards, 6 TDs), Kenny Hilliard (65-324, 6 TDs), Terrence Magee (48-217, 1 TD) and Darrel Williams (39-188, 3 TDs) handled fairly similar workloads each Saturday. But against the Gators, Fournette (27-140, 2 TDs) became the center of attention over Magee (6-50), Hilliard (4-15, TD) and Williams (2-4).

“I certainly like the three other backs that we have, including Magee and Hilliard, certainly Williams,” Miles said. “But I think that Leonard gives us that big, fast back that can really push the ball at a defense.”

The former No. 1 overall national prospect certainly did that, plowing through Florida defenders, breaking away with spin moves and generally running with more confidence than he displayed earlier in the season.

“He was hitting the hole with great decisiveness,” said left guard Vadal Alexander, the reigning SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week after recording 11 knockdown blocks against Florida. “He would hit it, he’ll make a cut without thinking about it and he’ll just go and let his athleticism and talent take over.

“That’s the best thing to do as a running back is we open the holes for you and you just let your talent guide you – your vision and your feel for the defense and things like that. He did that.”

Fournette apparently agrees with that assessment, telling reporters after the game that he is starting to catch on after running more tentatively in the first few games.

“I’m a lot better than where I was when the season started,” Fournette said. “The game, it slowed down for me a lot for me now. That’s why I’m being able to see the cutbacks now. [It’s] just coaching and getting help from Kenny and Terrence and Connor and all the older guys. They help me a lot.”

Even if Fournette fails to log that many carries in a game again this season, it’s evident that he is establishing himself as the Tigers’ top option in the ground game.

He got off to a fast start against Florida with 44 rushing yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron decided to keep feeding him. Why tinker with something that was working, especially when LSU was in desperate need of an offensive spark?

“We found something we liked in the run game, or a couple things we liked, and we kept doing it and it kept working, so Coach Cam usually sticks with it,” Alexander said.

Perhaps that will be the key to whether Fournette’s carry total sits in the 20s on most future Saturdays. If the offensive line keeps blocking the way it did against Florida and if Fournette keeps piling up yardage the way he did against the Gators, perhaps he will finally become the centerpiece of the Tigers’ offense that many expected when he signed with LSU in February.

SPONSORED HEADLINES