Bowl-bound LSU Tigers have different look

LSU and Clemson have known for a week that they will be playing each other in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

The Tigers from the Atlantic Coast Conference could have used that time to track the evolution of the Tigers from the Southeastern Conference.

They would have seen a group that arrived on campus in the summer as the No. 1 team in the USA Today/Coaches preseason poll.

They would have splattered ink all over the preseason depth chart as they accounted for a variety of changes because of disciplinary action, academic deficiencies and health and personal issues.

They would have seen a team that was inconsistent against a relatively weak nonconference schedule, struggled offensively early in conference play, hit its stride in November, then finished a little sloppily.

Ultimately No. 14 Clemson will find that the No. 9 LSU team it will play could be almost anything.

It could have the offense that couldn’t score a second-half point or a touchdown at all in a 14-6 loss at Florida, or it could have the one that discovered a more productive passing game during its open date and started a string of three 250-plus-yard passing games with a breakout performance against Alabama’s top-ranked defense.

It could have the defense that contained virtually everyone it faced in the first two months of the season or the one that gave up more than 300 yards passing in each of the past three games.

It could have the special teams that were plagued by penalties and inconsistency from punter Brad Wing and kicker Drew Alleman for much of the season or the ones that saw both kickers finish strong and got big returns from Odell Beckham Jr. on punts and Michael Ford on kickoffs.

As it returns to practice this week, LSU expects to get at least two starters back from injury soon. Linebacker Kwon Alexander (ankle) and guard Josh Williford (concussion) have been sidelined since being injured Oct. 6 but should return some time during the bowl preps.

Additionally, the 15 freshmen, including five starters, that LSU has played are far more seasoned than they were when the season began.

These Tigers could be poised for their most complete performance of the season or, with barely a half-dozen seniors playing prominent roles down the stretch, they could turn in another of the uneven performances that have been common despite a 10-2 record.

“You’re looking at a very, very small number of upperclassmen,” coach Les Miles said. “We’re playing a lot of freshmen. There are a number of players we started the football season with that are no longer with us.”

The Tigers’ biggest loss came early in camp, when All-America cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off the team, reportedly for failing multiple drug tests. His departure affected LSU in a variety of ways because he played cornerback and nickelback, returned punts and covered punts.

As time passed, the Tigers lost other starters in linebacker Tahj Jones (academics), tackle Chris Faulk (knee), running back Alfred Blue (knee), Williford and tackle Alex Hurst (personal). They lost two more starters at Jones’ spot when Luke Muncie was sidelined by a stomach ailment and Alexander was injured.

LSU also lost backups in tight end Tyler Edwards, linebacker D.J. Welter and offensive lineman Evan Washington to academics and defensive end Jordan Allen to injury.

Mathieu’s absence thrust true freshman Jalen Mills into the starting lineup at cornerback and led to additional playing time for redshirt freshman Jalen Collins and sophomore Micah Eugene in nickel and dime packages. Beckham replaced him on punt returns.

“The young guys are playing great for us,” junior safety Eric Reid said. “Our young guys are growing up.”

Freshman Lamar Louis wound up starting the last four games and five of the final six at strongside linebacker, though Alexander could reclaim that spot for the bowl game. It’s unclear whether Muncie will be available.

Though Williford is due back, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to regain his starting position on the offensive line, a unit that underwent the most change and demonstrated the most improvement this season.

Redshirt freshman Trai Turner has played well in Williford’s absence, as have true freshman Vadal Alexander as Hurst’s replacement and senior Josh Dworaczyk, who filled in for Faulk.

The line started its fifth different combination in the seventh game of the season and performed so well in the 23-21 victory against South Carolina that it has stayed in tact since.

The improvement on the line helped trigger the late-season surge in the passing game, as did better play from the wide receivers, who dedicated themselves to extra work beginning with the open date before the Alabama game.

Jarvis Landry, who had 23 catches in the first eight games, caught 29 in the last four and scored three of his four touchdowns down the stretch.

When camp began, the competition at halfback featured last season’s leading rusher (Ford), last season’s primary starter (Spencer Ware), the leading ball carrier late last season (Kenny Hilliard) and the guy who was named the starter in camp (Blue). But during the second half of the season, freshman Jeremy Hill of Redemptorist emerged as the featured back.

Blue was injured in the third game of the season, Ware and Ford maintained supporting roles and Hilliard’s role diminished as Hill’s increased.

Hill, who didn’t play in the first two games and averaged three carries in the next four, broke out against South Carolina.

He rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Gamecocks and averaged a team-high 19.5 carries in the second half of the season, when he scored eight of his team-leading 10 touchdowns.

“The coaches put me in position to do things, and I just execute what they want me to do,” Hill said. “I’m never satisfied. There’s always more work that you can do to improve on mistakes and keep getting better.”