In lieu of the fact that work continues to slay me into submission and thus I have been unable to devote as much time as I'd like to both in-depth game reviews or finishing up the Better Know a Freshman series, I figure I should at least try to contribute something to the stellar content being put out by Poseur, Billy, and Pod Katt. I'm a mere pauper in the presence of such blogging royalty. Things seem to be settling in (finally, hopefully, please God let them be), so hopefully I can get back to being a more frequent contributor and commenter starting, well, now. Alas, the Kentucky game is mostly in the rearview, and since I only have shoddy video via ESPN3 to re-watch on, I couldn't even devote the type of energy to re-watching that I would have liked for a proper review. Suffice it to say, an underwhelming offensive performance and LSU still rolled by four touchdowns against an SEC foe. It's often said that good teams find ways to win football games. I say great teams have the flexibility to win football games in a multitude of ways.
The 2011 LSU Tigers may be the best, most well-rounded team of the Les Miles' era (well, the 2005 team may be the best that never quite was for various reasons). Yet, this team still shows areas of much needed improvement (concern would be too harsh a word) in many facets. Over the first five weeks, LSU has looked like a flat-out dominant football team, cruising to victory each week, never leaving the game up to a Les Miles' timeout blunder or needed 4th quarter comeback. In fact, we could have benched all of our starters in every 4th quarter this year and still won every game by double-digits. That's the type of season it's been thus far. But, the great teams find ways to improve every single week, and Les Miles and co. should be analyzing our weaknesses aggressively as the season progresses. So what are some question marks moving forward?
Is there a quarterback "controversy?"
No. There's seemingly a million talking points regarding this subject. Honestly, there's not an LSU fan without an opinion on the matter regarding who should be starting, whether or not who actually is starting is who should be starting, whether or not bringing back Jefferson was a good idea, and what exactly the future holds for the position.
I fall back to a few things. Namely that Les Miles is fiercely loyal. It's a trait that has been agonizingly true at times. One that even Les himself says may be his greatest weakness and strength. He towed the company line on Malleveto, even to the point of allowing them to exit "gracefully." Same with Gary Crowton. He stuck by Jordan Jefferson despite often revolting criticism from some members of the fanbase. He loves his guys, and he'd go to war for them. This is the primary reason I don't expect to see Jarrett Lee suddenly moved back to the bench for Jordan Jefferson.
Regardless of what actually happened with Jefferson, Lee was given the reigns to the job. They've spent five games now building up offensive chemistry and timing with Jarrett Lee, and they are now entering the meat of their SEC schedule. Why make a change? Let's be honest, it's not as if Jordan Jefferson is Andrew Luck returning here. If he is better than Lee, it's only marginally so, and Lee's performance thus far hasn't given Les any reason to really consider sending him back to the bench.
Secondly, Les would be downright foolish to simply store Jefferson on the bench and never use him. First of all, he needs to get snaps in case of a Lee injury. Sure he's experienced, but you want to make sure he remains sharp and focused. Additionally, though JJ was thought of as more of a pocket passer coming out of high school, he's actually shown marked improvement as a runner since his freshman year. JJ operating out of the spread, in a downhill rushing attack makes our running game only more potent. In 2010, Lee was often used to jumpstart the passing game, which seemed to cause some issues with the overall flow and direction of the offense. If Kentucky is any sign, Jefferson is the much better "change of pace" QB option for LSU. His play will be important to this team as the year wears on.
Should we be concerned about the offensive line?
Coming into the season, the offensive line was considered one of the pure strengths of this team. There's experience and depth. A couple of dings and nicks later, some minor concerns seem to be arising. LSU struggled to run the ball in the 1st half against both of the SEC teams they faced (neither of which are top-notch defenses in the conference). I said it last year, and it's a favorite phrase of Rex Ryan, "Ground n' pound and wear them down." It's something Miles enjoys doing as well. But does this team really live up to that ideal? Let's go to the numbers:
1st half: 5.0 yards per carry
2nd half: 4.74 yards per carry
1st half: 3.2 yards per carry
2nd half: 4.86 yards per carry
1st half: 4.41 yards per carry
2nd half: 5.86 yards per carry
1st half: 3.52 yards per carry
2nd half: 4.44 yards per carry
On average, LSU is right at 4.5 yards per carry a game. With the exception of the Oregon game (which was already a half yard over their typical average anyhow), they've improved (dramatically so) in the 2nd half of every major game thus far. What does this tell me? It says to me that this really is a team that flat out wears opponents down.
Andy Staples wrote a nice piece a while back about how Oregon may have created a monster, because this is now the most well-conditioned football team in the country. This backs that up. Watching the Kentucky tape, there are concerns regarding the interior line play and their ability to get a push off the ball. I've been disappointed in the play of PJ Lonergan this season, after being so impressed with him last year. The guard positions have rolled through a lot of turnover, and it wouldn't shock me at all to see La'El Collins get a real shot at significant PT if they don't improve.
Yet, it's still apparent that with this line and these backs, LSU mercilessly bludgeons opponents until they can take no more. Few teams in the country can seamlessly rotate through running backs like LSU can. It takes special players who lack selfishness to pull it off. And LSU has done it well.
Should we be concerned about the offense?
This is a tough question to answer. The offense has looked tremendous at times. They rank 19th in scoring, averaging 38 points a game (that's a respectable number that's somewhat inflated by the performance of the defense and special teams). Obviously this offense isn't nearly as bad as what we've seen trotted out since 2008. But I do still have real concerns.
Rueben Randle, for all his talent, doesn't seem to be a true no. 1 (more on this later). Lee, while doing a good job of playing within himself and minimizing mistakes) is erratic and inaccurate. He hasn't made any mistakes that have blown up in our faces, yet when I see highlights of players like Aaron Murray and Tyler Bray throwing their WRs open, and putting their players in position to catch and run, I can't help but think of the continued weakness at the position. Lee's ball placement leaves a lot to be desired. Is that nit picky? Perhaps. Even still, teams like Alabama aren't going to give him huge windows to throw it in, he needs to be more effective. There's been multiple times this season where he's short armed throws (falling backward) or thrown them high (this happened a lot last weekend).During the Kentucky game, Andre Ware mentioned that he would like to see Lee "flatten out his throws" a bit, specifically regarding a toss he made to Russell Shepard that brought him up into the air and bounced off his finger tips. Shep had position on the defenders, and if the ball is laid out in front of him, nearer to the hash marks, it's probably an easy touchdown. Instead, it's incomplete and punt. Those are the throws I'd like to see him make. Then again, downfield passing is his primary weakness.
Against SEC defenses, our offense is only averaging 23.5 points a game. True, we didn't need any more than that, but it's still slightly concerning that the two games we've struggled the most offensively have both come against SEC foes. I'm not saying Kentucky is a better team than Oregon, but SEC teams are built differently and more prepared (both through experience and recruiting) to defend us than say Oregon or West Virginia. When you attach that to the talent of a Florida, Alabama or even Auburn and Arkansas, I think it's apparent this offense needs to improve and be capable of scoring more points.
Who is the best WR on this team?
For my money, it's Odell Beckham Jr. I love Rueben Randle and everything his pure physical talent brings to the table, but when it comes down to it, I'm putting all my money on red (Beckham) and rolling the dice. I love everything this kid is bringing to the offense right now, from his dependable hands to his crafty route running to his explosiveness after the catch. I credit Beckham for the development of LSU's passing game as much as any one else. When is the last time LSU had a WR with the ability to pluck and explode in the open field like Beckham? It's been a long while, that's for sure. He's a special player.
Are the linebackers a concern?
I said pre-season that I wasn't entirely concerned about this unit. In fact, I went as far to say that LB may be the least important position on the field, and I'm going to stick to my guns on that assertion.
To date, the linebacker play, outside of Baker, has been spotty, at best. We've been fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time operating out of the Mustang or other DB heavy packages, that limit the number of LBs on the field to two. In fact, on any given play you'll see a rotation of Hatcher and Minter. Hatcher is the supposed "coverage" LB while Minter is more of your classic, downhill run stuffer. Trouble is, Hatcher continues to struggle in coverage. He often gets washed out of the play. He did make a superb play against Mississippi State, but he was routinely out of place vs. Kentucky.
Some teams have had success picking on the shallow middle of our defense. Defending crossing patterns may continue to be a sore spot for this team. Fortunately, our stellar pass rush and solid tackling has prevented this from becoming a larger issue, to date.
I've said on here before that I thought Kelvin Sheppard was a better leader than football player. But Kelvin Sheppard would be a tremendous upgrade over any of the other guys we're currently pairing with Baker. Let's hope these guys continue to develop.
What's with the kickoff coverage?
I'm still not overwhelmed with our kick coverage this year. The depth on kickoffs seems to be remotely improved by the insertion of James Hairston into KO duties, but our coverage still concerns me. Even Kentucky was able to return the ball past the 35 at least once, possibly more. That's bothersome. Teams with more explosive returners (Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn) could really take advantage of this.
Are we better than Alabama?
When you look at the rest of the schedule, isn't this the only really scary game left? Sure, Florida has a ton of talent, and by no means should the players overlook it, but with their QB out and a true freshman (who has been pitiful in every appearance this year) making his first start in Tiger Stadium, I like our odds.
Arkansas has a scary offense, but their defense continues to take a beating via injuries, and this was a unit that wasn't particularly strong from the outset.
Auburn's offense frightens me a bit, but the game being in Tiger Stadium makes me feel better. Plus, they couldn't stop a slow-drip leak.
So that leaves us with Alabama, who is currently our co-no. 1. Yet, for all my concerns regarding Lee, they are multiplied by 10 for Alabama. A.J. McCarron is nothing more than a warm body. Perhaps that's all they need with Richardson toting the rock, but with LSU's outstanding rush defense, they can force Bama to have to make completions to win, and I'm not sure A.J. has that in him... not against this secondary. Sure, the game is in Alabama, so that does tilt the odds in their favor slightly, but I still really like our chances in this game. I feel like we are the better team, and I'd fall back upon the dominance of our resume to date to win that argument.
Overall, this is one hell of a team. Enjoy the ride, because this has the makings of a truly special season.