Just about everywhere one looks with regards to the 2018 LSU football season, there are question marks.
-Will the August from Hell ever end?
-Will any more felony arrests of players against women surface?
-How much will returning starter Ed Ingram (aggravated sexual assault of a female minor) be missed at right guard? Without him, LSU has just two returning starters on the line – sophomore Saadhiq Charles at left tackle and senior Garrett Brumfield at left guard. With Ingram, Brumfield could’ve been at center with junior college transfer Damien Lewis at left guard instead of right guard as he is now for Ingram.
-Who will be the right tackle? It could be junior college transfer Badara Traore.
-Is Steve Ensminger ready for his new job as offensive coordinator? He hasn’t held that title on a full-time, full-year basis since 1998 at Clemson.
-Is graduate transfer Joe Burrow really the answer at quarterback? In three years at Ohio State, he never got past No. 2. Of course, with the other option Myles Brennan, who is significantly less proven, Burrow may be the only answer.
-Is LSU really going to become a passing team this year as Ensminger keeps saying? We’ve heard this before. Old habits die hard, and Ensminger has mainly watched run-heavy, pass-bad attacks since he came to LSU in 2010. Of course, he may be as sick of it as everyone else.
-Will Ensminger and Burrow have enough time to develop this passing game? Ensminger just took over in January, and Burrow just got here in June. The last time LSU had a good passing game was in 2013 with quarterback Zach Mettenberger. He was a transfer, too, but he was on the team in 2011 (and should have started then) before starting in 2012 before things clicked.
-Who will be Burrow’s top receivers? Virtually all the wide receivers are young, and if they’re not, they’re unproven. The best returnee is Jonathan Giles, a transfer from Texas Tech in the Big 12, which features mostly zone coverage and soft man-to-man unlike the Southeastern Conference. Terrace Marshall Jr. and Ja’Marr Chase are elite recruits and have looked very good in August, but they are still true freshmen.
-Who will LSU’s other cornerback be next to Andraez “Greedy” Williams? It was supposed to be No. 1 ranked prep cornerback Patrick Surtain, who pulled an 11th hour switch to Alabama last February. Could it be junior Kristian Fulton, who has just been given eligibility by a surprising NCAA reversal of a two-year suspension to one, even though he clearly tampered with a drug test in front of a witness and got the penalty of two years that was clearly written down in the manual? Fulton may start or play a lot against Miami Sunday night. He was the No. 6 cornerback in the country in 2016 and No. 1 prospect in Louisiana out of Rummel High in Metairie. But he last played in a real game in 2016.
-Can second-year head coach Ed Orgeron finally grow into a job after failing miserably at Ole Miss from 2005-07 and doing only pretty good at interim posts at USC in 2013 and at LSU in 2016? So far, he has been up and down with horrendous losses to Mississippi State and Troy last year, but impressive wins at No. 21 Florida and over No. 10 Auburn at home.
-Can defensive coordinator Dave Aranda carry the team while the offense finds itself? It will be his third season, and he should be able to do better than he did against Mississippi State, Troy and Notre Dame last year. Remember, John Chavis had a great season in his third year as LSU’s defensive coordinator in 2011.
If none of the questions are answered positively, LSU – ranked No. 24 in USA Today’s preseason poll and No. 25 in the Associated Press preseason media poll – could be 5-7 or 4-8, considering the schedule has No. 8 Miami in Arlington, Texas, a date at No. 10 Auburn on Sept. 15, No. 4 Georgia and No. 18 Mississippi State back-to-back on Oct. 13 and on Oct. 20 and No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 3 at home.
LSU gets both Georgia and Mississippi State at home, but Georgia returns most of its offense and a few key players on defense from a team that had Alabama beat at halftime of the national championship game. And new State coach Joe Moorhead inherits a very good team – complete with 17 returning starters – from Dan Mullen, who is the SEC’s best coach who never worked at LSU.
Mullen is at Florida now, which means the Gators have a head coach who knows how to run an offense for the first time since Urban Meyer finished in 2010 and had begun making telling lies an art form. Mullen at Florida is bad news for LSU, which was 5-2 against Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain post Meyer. The Gators will be ready for the Tigers on Oct. 6 in The Swamp, which gets to host the Tigers for a second straight year.
Arkansas will be under a new coach, too, in Chad Morris, formerly of SMU, and LSU has lost three of its last five at Arkansas, but former Hogs’ coach Bret Bielema was average at best and did not leave nearly as good a program as did Mullen.
Texas A&M also has a new coach in Jimbo Fisher, the best of the Nick Saban Apostles and CEO of the FLS (Former LSU coaches under Saban) Cartel. By Nov. 24, Fisher should have his offense rolling and waiting in College Station for the Tigers, who have won their lost four against the Aggies in the state of Texas and seven straight overall. A dangerous game for LSU as Fisher would like nothing better than to show how wrong and plain stupid his former school was in not thinking he was good enough and/or worth the money.
If half these questions are answered positively, LSU could be 8-4.
If they’re all answered completely and extremely well with Burrow morphing into Jeaux Burreaux, Chase into Ja’Marr Landry and Clyde Edwards-Helaire into Clyde Edwards-Guice, why not 10-2?
A key, as is often the case, will be the opener against Miami, which is coming off a 10-3 season under a rejuvenated Mark Richt as coach. This one is more pivotal for LSU than past openers, though, because there are so many questions and lowered expectations. A blowout in the opener could be nearly as bad for the narrative around Baton Rouge as that Troy loss last year. LSU came back from that. Could Orgeron rally his team again?
It will be a home game for LSU in Arlington with fans likely on fire out of desperation as much as anticipation and just to have August behind them. A loss could mean the Tigers would be 1-2 after a trip to Auburn in week three with a home opener against Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 8.
But Miami’s offense fell apart late last season. If Aranda he can keep the Hurricanes under 14 with a shutout in the final stages, a poll upset could happen. He did shut out Auburn in the second half and Florida in the fourth quarter last year for big wins, though Coach Gus Malzahn and former coach Jim McElwain should have received thank you notes and are not as good as Richt.
Even if LSU is 1-2 after Auburn, the Tigers will have two weeks to gather themselves with fans on the bridge. They will face Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss at home following the trip to Auburn. On paper, that looks like two wins. But look out for Louisiana Tech, if LSU is feeling sorry for itself. The Bulldogs return several key players on both sides of the ball from a 7-6 season in 2017 with a 51-10 win in the Frisco Bowl over Morris and SMU after a trilogy of one-point losses. This will be a dangerous game for the Tigers as Skip Holtz is entering his sixth season in Ruston and is 4-0 in bowls.
The best way for LSU to have a successful season in the realistic area of 8-4 or 9-3 is if Aranda’s defense can somehow play like an LSU defense of 2003 or 2011. With linebacker Devin White, defensive end Rashard Lawrence, nose tackle Breiden Fehoko, cornerbacks Greedy Williams and Kristian Fulton and safety Grant Delpit, he has the talent.
A defensive gem at Auburn will be needed for LSU to have a chance. If Ensminger and Burrow have it together by the time it finishes with Ole Miss and LSU is 3-2 or 4-1, the Tigers will have a fighting chance entering the murderer’s row of their schedule – at Florida and Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama at home.
“We’re going to go after it as hard as we possibly can,” Orgeron said as camp opened. “We believe we’re building a championship program. We tell our team, ‘Block out the noise.’ And there’s a lot of noise out there. But we believe in each other. There’s a power when we get in our room alone when the team comes in. We believe in each other. I can’t wait.”
And there was much more noise on the way that he didn’t see coming, along with a lot of questions.
As camp closed, Orgeron sounded a bit like it couldn’t get any worse off the field when asked what he had learned from Dark August.
“That I’m prepared, ready,” he said. “I love being at LSU. Every day has been a great day. Some are better than others. Stuff’s going to happen. We deal with it. And we’ve dealt with it. I think all this stuff that’s happened has galvanized our football team. It has galvanized our coaching staff. Kind of gotten us closer, brought some leadership out. We’ve had to make some decisions, and I feel good about his football team.”
The lowered expectations for a change that are deserved could also galvanize the Tigers. Could it actually be an overachieving LSU football team for a change? LSU has not finished ranked higher than it started since 2011.
“This is a hungry football team,” he said. “And I do believe we’re going to surprise some people.”