Ron Higgins: LSU’s 2020 season might be more important than 2019’s national title run

If you always thought the Associated Press preseason college football poll was a bunch of hooey, welcome to the pandemic-tinged 2020 preseason version.

It features nine teams – six from the Big Ten and three from the Pac-12 – which are in conferences that have chosen to delay their seasons until next spring.

Why the AP decided to release a poll that is old news before it’s even released is as inexplicable as a sportswriter’s sense of fashion.

Wonder how all those ranked teams not playing feel when they see the poll on what could have been? It’s a bit cruel, don’t you think?

So, when you read the rankings, you can skip over No. 2 Ohio State, No. 7 Penn State, No. 9 Oregon, No. 12 Wisconsin, No. 16 Michigan, No. 17 USC, No. 19 Minnesota, No. 22 Utah and No. 24 Iowa.

They all can duke it out supposedly in the spring. AP global sports editor Michael Giarrusso said earlier this month that “we are open to adapting and finding a way for our Top 25 voters to be involved in ranking teams if real games are played in the spring of 2021.”

Great job, AP. Let’s make it even more confusing than it already is.

The AP won’t release its next poll until Sept. 14, 12 days before LSU and the rest of the SEC teams play their season openers against each other to start a 10-game conference games only schedule.

LSU’s preseason ranking of No. 6 is the exact same spot the Tigers started last season when they went 15-0 and won the national championship. The Tigers didn’t get ranked No. 1 by the AP last year until they beat Auburn to go 8-0.

This season’s No. 6 slot is the first time since 2011 that a defending national champ (Auburn) was ranked outside of the top 5 in the following year’s AP preseason poll.

Disrespect towards LSU? Not really. It’s what happens when a team loses 14 players to the NFL Draft, including five first-round selections topped by Heisman Trophy winning QB Joe Burrow as the No. 1 overall pick.

As important as last year was to LSU football, particularly its record-setting offense that has attracted recruits coast-to-coast, the 2020 season is even more pivotal for the Tigers.

It’s about demonstrating staying power and advancing to the level of perennial national championship contenders like Alabama and Clemson.

Just twice in its football history has LSU ever finished in the AP top 5 for two consecutive years (1958-59, 2006-07).

Compare that to Alabama, which has finished in the AP top 5 eight of the last 11 years including five national championships. Or Clemson, which has finished in the AP top five the last five consecutive years including two national titles. Or Florida State in its heyday with Bobby Bowden as coach, finishing in the AP top 5 14 straight years from 1987 to 2000 and capturing two national championships.

That’s done through a head coach consistently making good assistant coaching hires, particularly coordinators, as well as knowing when to stick with certain offensive and defensive philosophies, recognizing when to tweak them and understanding when to completely change.

It’s accomplished through steady, solid evaluation of recruiting prospects to maintain top-tier talent level, keeping offensive and defensive personnel balance and developing depth.

Perpetual national championship contenders possess the depth to withstand intended and unintended personnel losses.

It’s why this season most alleged experts believe LSU’s program will take a dip, because of the seven offensive players, six defensive players and one special team player lost to the NFL Draft. There are also some preseason losses of potential starters opting out of the 2020 season because of the coronavirus.

There are still those disbelievers who think LSU’s 2019 national championship was a fluke, built on “what ifs” like “What if Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had been completely healthy when he played LSU?”

Well, what if LSU linebacker Devin White hadn’t been suspended by the SEC for the first half of the 2018 game vs. Alabama because of a bogus targeting penalty the previous game?

Championship programs are constructed to withstand “what ifs?” When a coach says, “Next man up,” there doesn’t need to be a gnashing of teeth.

That’s where LSU is right now – on the verge of being elite.

Tigers’ fourth-year head coach Ed Orgeron has developed depth at almost every position on the field. He’s found an offensive philosophy he likes that fits LSU’s marvelous NFL skill level. He’s instilling an attitude that his team is good enough to overcome anything – injuries, hostile road environments, questionable officiating.

The pieces are in place for LSU football to be a national contender for as long as Orgeron maintains his focus, maniacal work energy, his passion and his thirst for improving his program from year-to-year.

The challenge for Orgeron is balancing a fine line of consistently repeating things that make a winning program while adding fresh elements to prevent veteran players from tuning out his messages.

When a team has seniors and juniors who are all in with their head coach and staff and who are willing to lead and mentor the younger players, then you have a unified, unselfish program focused on doing the repetitive things required to win.

Alabama has done it, as has Clemson.

So why can’t LSU, who averaged 44 points per game in wins over those two powerhouses last season, do the same?

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