BATON ROUGE, La. — From a sheer talent perspective, the LSU football team isn’t all that far behind Alabama and Clemson.
Yet Monday night, Alabama and Clemson competed for the College Football Playoff national title for the second consecutive year. Manwhile, LSU watched from home, its season having wrapped a week and a half ago. So what separates LSU from Alabama and Clemson? Can that question even be answered? Let’s examine.
For starters, we have to look at the similarities. And in 2016, those similarities began and ended on defense. Alabama, Clemson and LSU all had top 7 scoring defenses this season, with Alabama and LSU tied in allowing the fewest touchdowns in college football. The three schools also all ranked in the top 10 in yardage allowed per game, top 20 is rush defense and top 25 in pass defense.
But in one major defensive category, the three schools deviated massively: negative plays. If you just look at sacks per game, LSU ranks pretty closely to Alabama and Clemson. But when you look at tackles for loss in the aggregate, the disparity is startling.
|Team||Sacks||Sacks Per Game||Tackles for Loss||TFLs Per Game|
Negative plays stall drives. And when drives stall, teams punt. Alabama and Clemson force the most and third-most punts per game with 7.3 and 7.0, respectively, while LSU forces 6.1 punts per game, the 20th-best mark in the FBS.
At the end of the day, that mark is respectable but not great. And when we’re talking about the difference between good and great, sometimes it is as simple as one extra possession per game. Clemson and Alabama get them. LSU doesn’t.
Moving on to offense …
Clemson and Alabama both average 39 points per game. LSU averages 28 points per game. There really isn’t too much worth breaking down here. LSU’s offense just isn’t as good as Clemson’s or Alabama’s.
Oftentimes when discussing the flaws in LSU’s offense, we bring up variety. LSU’s offense is too predictable. LSU runs the ball too much. Les Miles and Cam Cameron refused to mix up the play-calling. Yada-yada-yada.
Well, it might surprise you to learn that Clemson and Alabama both run the ball more frequently than LSU does. The problem with LSU’s offense wasn’t play-calling. It was plays.
|Team||Points Per Game||Yards Per Game||Rushes Per Game||Plays Per Game|
Only three teams ran fewer plays than LSU in 2016. And sure, LSU has played only 12 games compared to Clemson and Alabama’s 14. But, by comparison, Texas Tech, California and Texas all ran more plays than Alabama did this year in just 12 games. It’s possible to speed up your attack. And LSU’s plodding nature has been an issue.
Then there’s luck
It would be silly to say Alabama and Clemson are where they are because of luck. If you don’t believe me, reread all the words above this.
But when you’re talking about the difference between good and great, luck is a bigger contributor than any of us are willing to give it credit for. And there’s actually one place in football where luck can more or less be quantified: fumbles.
In 2016, offensive fumbles were recovered as turnovers 48.2 percent of the time, meaning the offense was able to hold onto the ball 51.8 percent of the time. Clemson is a perfect example of this: The Orange Tigers fumbled 18 times this season. They recovered nine and turned nine over.
But Alabama and LSU are on the exact opposite sides of the spectrum as one another in these situations.
As you can see, even though Alabama fumbled 10 more times than LSU, the Crimson Tide and the Purple Tigers turned over the exact same amount of fumbles this season. This made Alabama approximately 27 percent luckier than LSU this season, and LSU approximately 16 percent unluckier than Clemson.
Do fumbles always lead to points? No. But is it naive to say that this trend didn’t hurt LSU? Of course.
And then there’s coaching …
If you were going to rank the top 5 coaches in college football, you’d be insane not to include both Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. The men at the helm of Alabama’s and Clemson’s programs are a combined 46-2 in their last two regular seasons, have both won back-to-back conference championships and are, of course, about to play for another national title.
The jury is still out on whether Ed Orgeron will be able to join the ranks of Saban and Swinney. I for one have written extensively about the parallel approaches of Coach O and Dabo. But at this point, it’s probably more fair to compare the way Saban and Swinney have built their programs to how Les Miles built his.
So let’s talk about recruiting. It’s important to remember that recruiting is all relative.
For example: By the 247Sports composite rankings, a Dabo Swinney Clemson team has never finished higher in the year-end recruiting rankings than either Alabama or LSU. Over the last four seasons, LSU has finished No. 3, No. 6, No. 2 and No. 6 in recruiting, while Clemson has finished No. 11, No. 9, No. 17 and No. 15 those years, respectively.
Despite this, if you compare LSU football’s average recruiting finish among SEC schools to Clemson’s average recruiting finish among ACC schools since the beginning of the Swinney era (2009-16), you’ll find the two schools are nearly dead even, with Clemson at 3.0 and LSU at 3.125. And if you take away Swinney’s first year after he was promoted from his interimship, that breaks to a significant Clemson advantage: 2.7 in the ACC to 3.4 in the SEC.
There’s a difference between recruiting to keep up and recruiting to get ahead. As long as LSU is behind the Alabamas and the Auburns and the Floridas and the Georgias of the world in recruiting, a top 5 class is meaningless. But if Florida State is the only school Clemson is chasing, who cares if you’re ranked lowly?
So what can LSU football do?
Most of these issues are fixable. There’s no way to correct for being lucky or unlucky, other than maybe teaching your linemen how to pounce on loose footballs. But even that is subject to chance.
Still, all of these other issues can be addressed. On defense, LSU needs to preach being a little less proficient and a little more opportunistic. There are risks involved with forcing negative plays and LSU doesn’t often take them. But taking a few more of those risks and sending a few more defenders in run and pass situations could help out LSU’s offense.
On offense, LSU needs to sustain drives longer. Be more adventurous on first and second down. Go for it more on fourth down. Pass when teams expect you to run and run when teams expect you to pass. The last thing LSU can afford is to keep its defense on the field longer than it needs to be.
And in recruiting, lean into your strengths. Try to have a top class, but don’t let it be the end-all, be-all. Recruit your needs and get guys who fit what you’re trying to do. If you try to beat Alabama at getting 5-stars, you’re going to lose. So get the guys you need. Even if they might be 3-stars or 4-stars. They’ve got a better chance of playing early, which leads to quicker development and more leadership when they become juniors and seniors.
Is this a guaranteed way to get to the national championship? No. It’s a lot easier said than done. There’s a reason I’m a reporter and not a coach.
But if you look at the numbers, these are some of the reasons why LSU is at home tonight. And they need to be fixed if LSU wants to have any chances of making that not the case next season.