After four starts, LSU looks good, not great
A year ago, the LSU Tigers were 4-0 after a strenuous September that included road victories against Oregon, Mississippi State and West Virginia, three ranked teams that helped propel LSU to the top spot in the polls.
Flash forward to 2012, and LSU looks a lot less dominant and a bit more questionable after a 4-0 start that included three home wins against outmatched opponents and a two-point road win over a struggling Auburn team.
One game remains this Saturday against Towson, a ranked FCS team but one without the depth to seriously threaten LSU, for the Tigers to get their football house in order before the schedule turns truly nasty:
At Florida. South Carolina. At Texas A&M. Then an open date before two home games against Alabama and Mississippi State.
It is within that five-game gauntlet that LSU’s destiny as a football team will be sealed.
Based on how the Tigers have played so far, their season could go either way. To that end, let us take a look at the Tigers through four games, position by position:
Zach Mettenberger has been asked to push the accelerator down only about two-thirds of the way and has committed four critical turnovers (two fumbles, two interceptions). It’s alarming, but there is also promise in Mettenberger. He is developing better footwork, and teammates said his grasp of running the offense is good. And though that last drive at Auburn didn’t lead to points, it was good experience in leading a critical possession on hostile ground. Grade: B.
LSU has so far absorbed the injury to Alfred Blue in stride. Every time you’re ready to write off an LSU back, they stage a comeback, like Spencer Ware’s bone-rattling performance Saturday. When Blue returns, this deep pool will only get that much better. Grade: A.
Collectively this group has been a disappointment, with multiple dropped passes and a frequent inability to shake defensive backs. The receivers haven’t done a lot to aid Mettenberger’s development and have a lot of improvement to do moving forward. Grade: C.
Even with losses of Tyrann Mathieu and Tahj Jones on defense, losing Chris Faulk at left tackle hurts worse. Josh Dworaczyk is out of position as Faulk’s replacement, but one must concede LSU’s coaches figure replacing him with left guard La’El Collins or right tackle Alex Hurst will only create more problems. Look for more help for Dworaczyk in the form of blocking backs as more talented defensive ends await. Grade: B.
Sam Montgomery and Anthony Johnson (the latter coming off his first conference start) truly asserted themselves at Auburn, which except for some direct snap plays virtually abandoned the run inside. Ke-Ke Mingo said he’s recovered from his ankle injury, which should allow him to speed up from his slow start (nine tackles). Senior end Lavar Edwards has been brilliant. Grade: A.
Three thumbs up for Kevin Minter, Lamin Barrow and Luke Muncie, who has more than capably filled in for Jones. Their young understudies, particularly Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander, have played beyond their years in supporting roles. Depth here is better than it looked when Jones was suspended. Much better. Grade: A.
There have been a number of big play blown assignments, but trying times were expected with or without Mathieu. True freshman Jalen Mills (fourth on the team with 19 tackles, two pass deflections, one interception) has exceeded expectations in the Honey Badger slot. Tharold Simon has been beatable at times, and Eric Reid has been stretched thin, but Ronald Martin and Micah Eugene have elevated their games. Overall, this has hardly been the smoking crater Mathieu’s dismissal could have left. Grade: B.
Two misses on makeable field goals for Drew Alleman so far, but he got off to a similar start (with injury) in 2011. No need to push the panic button. Brad Wing has had one bad punt, though he hasn’t quite gotten the good bounces of 2011. Odell Beckham Jr. had the big return against North Texas and the big fumble against Washington, creating an opening for Michael Ford, who has done well. James Hairston’s precision kickoffs under the new rules have been textbook. Grade: B+.
LSU is 97th nationally in penalties allowed, tied curiously enough with Florida, Washington and Georgia. LSU has also has come away empty five times in the red zone in 21 possessions compared with four on 61 possessions last season. Faulk’s injury and a slow start by the receiving corps could be the culprits and could undo LSU’s BCS hopes.
Execution must improve. At the moment, this looks like a 10-2 or even a 9-3 team with potential losses to Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. But no team stays static all season. LSU’s depth has been taxed by injuries and dismissals, but there is still ample talent and experience to win every game the Tigers play.
Expecting LSU to go undefeated through the regular season a second year in a row (the odds have to be astronomical) is a lot to ask. Lose once, in the right game, and LSU can still be squarely in the BCS picture.