LSU football’s expectations were massive entering the 2016 season — perhaps unfairly so. ESPN’s Football Power Index projected the Tigers to win the SEC championship, as they came into the season ranked No. 5 and a sexy pick for the College Football Playoff. Regardless of what happened this season, it wouldn’t be good enough.
The Tigers wasted no time ruining those title dreams.
Wisconsin shocked the Tigers at Lambeau Field in the opener, with a field goal with 3:47 left in the game to win 16-14. Just two games later, LSU watched an apparent game-winning touchdown throw to D.J. Chark get waved off in a loss to Auburn.
Combined with disappointing performances against Jacksonville State and Mississippi State, it was the death knell for Les Miles in Baton Rouge. LSU’s season was written off.
But that’s not where the story ended. Interim coach Ed Orgeron dragged the Tigers to an 8-4 record to earn the full-time job, his dream job. And after a dominant performance against No. 13 Louisville in the Citrus Bowl on Saturday, LSU deserves recognition as the second-best team in the SEC.
And the scary thing is, 2017 could be even better.
Orgeron and upside
Poor offensive game planning became a theme during Miles’ tenure, but Orgeron showed willingness to experiment. The results were obvious and immediately apparent.
LSU averaged 147.8 passing yards per game during Miles’ four games. That number leaped to 211.3 passing yards per game under Orgeron, despite playing a brutal schedule. Take out an outlier performance against Alabama’s No. 1 defense, and Danny Etling averaged 9.2 yards per attempt. That would rank No. 4 among all Power 5 quarterbacks.
Despite Leonard Fournette’s injury woes, the Tigers also averaged 233 rushing yards per game and led the conference with 6.1 yards per attempt. It wasn’t always the most productive offense, but it was efficient in a way fans haven’t seen from the Tigers in years.
The closing statement came against Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals in the Citrus Bowl. LSU held Jackson to just 3.5 yards per play and sacked him eight times. Jackson usually averaged an absurd 8.0 yards per play. LSU also held Jackson without a touchdown for the first time as a full-time starter.
Why LSU football at No. 2?
While it may be a fairly significant gap behind Alabama, LSU was the No. 2 team in the SEC this season from top to bottom. Even though Auburn got the SEC’s secondary bid for the Sugar Bowl, LSU proved it deserved to be there instead. Auburn, of course, wet the bed in a disappointing 35-19 loss to Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners.
Florida also deserves consideration, especially after beating LSU earlier in the year. However, it rested on a miraculous 98-yard touchdown reception by true freshman receiver Tyrie Cleveland. If these teams played again, LSU would win.
There will be holes to fill, especially losing star defensive players Kendell Beckwith, (likely) Jamal Adams and Tre’Davious White. But with new offensive coordinator Matt Canada and another star-studded defense, LSU will again earn its place among the SEC’s elite.