FISCHER: Outside the Box
Ranking LSU’s opponents 1-through-12
By RICHARD FISCHER
Tiger Rag Assistant Editor
We may still be two and a half months away from the kickoff of the 2011 college season, but it’s never too early to look forward and preview the action.
Especially in Baton Rouge, and especially when the Tigers have legitimate national title aspirations.
But if LSU wants to hold up the crystal ball for the third time in a row in New Orleans this January, they’ve got one heck of a difficult schedule to operate through first.
Add a pair of tough non-conference games away from home to an already daunting SEC slate, and Les Miles and Co. have their work cut out for them in 2011.
But exactly which games will be the most difficult this season?
Below is my list starting with the easiest and finishing with the toughest, and I’d like to thank tigerdroppings.com for spawning this idea. Yes, we do check out the message boards from time to time.
The Tigers have their easiest break in the non-conference slate in Week 2 when the Demons of the FCS come to town.
LSU leads the all time series 10-0-0, and you can be sure the Tigers will make it 11.
The Demons were a competitive 5-6 and 4-3 in Southland play last season, which was a pretty big step forward for a team that went winless in 2009.
Although no one outside of Natchitoches will argue that Northwestern State has any chance in this game, keep your eyes on Demon linebacker Derek Rose who made a whopping 142 tackles last season.
Northwestern State only gets the nod as the weakest opponent over Western Kentucky because of their FCS status.
The Hilltoppers may return 17 starters including many of their key contributors to last season’s team, but they remind me of legendary coach Jim Valvano’s bit (yes, he doubled as a comedic motivational speaker) about when he took his first coaching job on a squad that was winless the year before.
Trainer: We may have been winless last year, but we have everyone back from last year’s team?
Valvano: Even the kid with no thumbs?
Trainer: Yep, him too coach.
Obviously, Valvano didn’t coach a kid with no thumbs, but the point was that it doesn’t matter who you bring back if your team struggled to win any games at all the year before.
Since beginning the transition to the FBS in 2009, Western Kentucky is 3-35 against FBS opponents, but if there’s a silver lining, two of those victories came last year against ULL and Arkansas State.
By the way, Valvano went on to say his team lost its first game by six….six touchdowns.
So might Western Kentucky on Nov. 12.
The Wildcats executed their annual bowl eligibility plan to perfection last year by playing four weak opponents in the non-conference slate and squeaking out two victories in league play.
With Western Kentucky, Central Michigan, Louisville and Charleston Southern on the docket in 2011, the ‘Cats are at it again, but picking up those two wins in the SEC could be the challenge.
Attrition plagues Kentucky offensively with the losses of Mike Hartline, Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb.
Add the fact that the last time these schools met, the Tigers left Lexington with a bad taste in their mouths. Expect the 2011 edition of LSU-Kentucky to be more like the 2006 game than the 2007 one.
The Rebels gave LSU one heck of an offensive shootout in 2010, and they return nine offensive starters, but the loss of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli will likely keep them off the scoreboard as much.
Defensively, stud linebacker D.T. Shackleford is out for the season with a knee injury, adding to Ole Miss’ already depleted defense, meaning 2011 could be another long season for Houston Nutt by the Grove.
Ole Miss’ best shot lies in the hands and legs of Baton Rouge native Brandon Boldin, who torched the Tigers for two touchdowns and 5.1 yards per carry in his hometown last year.
It tells you a lot about the strength of LSU’s schedule that Ole Miss is ranked this low, but not as much as the next team on my list.
It seems absurd to think that the defending national champion could be this low on the list, but the Plainsmen return only eight starters and lost the Heisman Trophy winner.
Auburn still has a stable of backs to carry the load, but good luck replacing four offensive linemen.
Defensively, the Tigers won’t have the exploits of Nick Fairly to rely on.
Like LSU, Auburn plays a tough non-conference road game when it heads to the other Death Valley to play Clemson in September. The Plainsmen also have the misfortune of drawing arguably the East’s three best teams in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
The defending champs could be hoping to salvage bowl eligibility by season’s end.
As it stands today, the Tigers are a seven point favorite over Florida in October, and although the Gators may be on hard times for their standards, there’s little doubt the LSU-Florida meeting has been one of, if not, the best SEC annual contest in recent memory.
The Gators return only six starters from last year’s squad, and that’s including John Brantley who might not even win the starting QB job.
Florida’s entire front four and defensive backfield will be new in 2011 after star safety Janoris Jenkins got kicked off the team this offseason.
But the Gators still have playmakers in the form of the speedy Jeff Demps and Chris Raney, so LSU can ill-afford to overlook its seventh most difficult opponent in 2011.
It kills me not to put Tennessee higher, because I truly believe this is one of LSU’s most losable games of 2011.
The Vols will undoubtedly be fired up to avenge their thought-to-be win from last season when LSU won on an untimed down after time seemed to run out.
The atmosphere will be ruckus on Rocky Top, and 100,000+ will likely be cheering on a better offense than the unit the Tigers saw last season under the direction of Chris Simms.
Tyler Bray has taken over Tennessee’s O, and he finished the regular season 4-0 with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. Time will tell if his late-season exploits were fool’s gold, because he did it against Memphis, Ole Miss, Vandy and Kentucky. Not the best competition
Either way, the Tigers will be facing one motivated bunch in a sandwich game the week after Florida and before Auburn.
LSU’s most difficult home game according to my list its last when the Tigers host Arkansas the day after Thanksgiving.
The Bayou Bengals have lost three of their past four meetings with the Hogs, and even though Arkansas signal caller Ryan Mallett is gone, Tyler Wilson has showed that he is more than capable of picking up the slack.
And he’ll have help surrounding him with the return of running back Knile Davis as well as receivers Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright.
It remains to be seen if this game will have SEC Championship or national championship implications for either, neither or both, but considering the last four meetings have been decided by a total of 14 points, we should be in for another special contest.
The Mountaineers get their return match-up with the Tigers in Morgantown this year, and after losing by only six in Death Valley last year, West Virginia thinks they can pull off the victory this time around.
West Virginia has enjoyed home success over SEC opponents in recent years with convincing victories over Auburn in 2008 and Mississippi State in 2007.
The boys from the Appalachians are picked by many to win the Big East this year (for whatever that’s worth), and under new head coach Dana Holgorsen, there’s little doubt the Mountaineer O won’t be as bad as it was when it only mustered 177 yards of total offense against the Tigers last year.
LSU’s pathetic offense in that game put a damper on the Tigers’ incredible defensive performance, and it saw Jordan Jefferson get pulled in favor of Jarrett Lee for the first time.
LSU’s offense will need to be better to beat West Virginia this time around.
One advantage the Tigers may have is that they’ll have extra time to prepare for the Mountaineers following a Thursday night game against the next team on my list, Mississippi State, the week before.
It’s been a decade of dominance for the Tigers over the Bulldogs, winning 11 straight meetings - nine of which by double digits.
But many feel State can beat LSU for the first time since 1999 after showing quite a bit of promise with a 9-4 record last season.
Granted the Bulldogs were 1-4 vs. the SEC West, but returning QB Chris Relf and RB Vick Ballard made for a daunting one-two punch on the ground that powered State to more wins than they’ve had since the 90s.
The game will be played on an ESPN Thursday night telecast, meaning both teams have a short week to prepare for the contest.
LSU appears to have the advantage with Northwestern State the week before while State travels to Auburn, but don’t underestimate the disadvantage road teams have on short weeks taking into account the day of preparation they lose in traveling.
The season-opener will set the stage for the remainder of both teams’ seasons. Each will enter with a top-5 ranking and don’t be surprised if the winner finishes there and the loser does not.
The Ducks took college football by storm with a revolutionary, fast-paced offense, and playmakers Darron Thomas and LaMichael James are back for more.
However, the Ducks return only five starters defensively, including All-American cornerback Cliff Harris who will be suspended for this game at minimum.
LSU should be able to move the ball offensively against an inexperienced defense, but can the Tiger D slow down the fastest offense in sports?
Auburn gave LSU quite the blue print, holding Oregon to 19 points in the BCS Title Game, so expect John Chavis and Co. to study that film quite a bit between now and Sept. 3.
There’s another opponent on LSU’s schedule that’s in the preseason top-5, and it’s an Alabama team looking for revenge after LSU knocked it out of the national championship picture last year.
Les Miles may be 4-2 vs. the Tide in his six seasons, but he’ll be judged on his win-loss record against Nick Saban which currently stands tied at 2-2.
Alabama will have to deal with the losees of QB Greg McElroy and 2009 Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram, but we all know Bama reloads, not rebuilds.
The combination of Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and highly-touted freshman Dee Hart should more than make up for the loss of Ingram, but if Bama is to have an Achilles’ heel, it will likely be at signal caller.
Saban hasn’t decided on a starter yet, but if he selects the best game manager, his defense should be good enough to shut just about everyone down with nine returning starters.
The winner of the game will likely win the West, and with Alabama getting the home turf this year, they get the nod as LSU’s most difficult opponent in 2011.
Richard Fischer is the assistant editor of Tiger Rag Magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.