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LSU-Vanderbilt: What to Watch

Here's your weekly primer before LSU's home-opener with the Commodores.

Remember last week? A few of my points, for the record...

Hope you like Vanilla Ice Cream
The Wizard will keep most of his magic tricks under wraps. Season openers against teams you're supposed to beat are for getting the basics of your offense down cold. Look for a similar game plan to what LSU started out with against Georgia Tech. I-formation running with Charles Scott, along with some play-action and roll-out throws from Jordan Jefferson...

...Steve Sarkisian loved running play-action bootlegs early and often as the offensive coordinator at USC...

Do NOT Expect:

In terms of his physical skill-set, Jake Locker is probably the third-best quarterback LSU will face this year behind Tim Tebow and Jevan Snead. He's got the size, speed and a strong arm - though I definitely have my questions about trying to turn him into a pro-style passer. Regardless, he's going to make a few plays on Saturday, and fans will no doubt get frustrated at times with the defense...

I'm pretty good at this.

What You Should Expect to See on Saturday:

Under Pressure
This one's true on two levels. Offensively, LSU can expect a lot of blitzing and pressure out of defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler. Against Western Carolina, they flashed a lot of run blitzes on first down with linebackers Patrick Benoist and Chris Marve, and were not afraid to bring defensive backs in passing situations. It will be imperative for T-Bob Hebert and the running backs to identify who is coming and from where. But, more than one time against WCU, those blitzers got caught up in the wash and had to recover against outside/misdirection running plays. They had little trouble catching up to the Catamount runners, but that won't be the case with LSU. Vandy's defensive line, while active and quick, is still an undersized unit, and one that can be moved.

The other side of this coin won't happen on the field, but can affect it. Frankly, this LSU team now has pressure on it that is rarely seen in a home opener. The Washington game was expected to be a statement game, the moment every LSU fan watched the Tigers dominate and show that the spirits of 2008 were exercised. And that didn't happen. People can (and will) argue back and forth the merits of winning a tight game after a cross-country road trip, and in the end they all have their points. But the LSU fan base still wants to know if last year was just a sneeze, or a symptom of larger problems to come.

For some, that question may never be answered so long as Les Miles is in Baton Rouge no matter how many games are won (that's a topic for another column). But for the average fan, this game has become a litmus test. Will LSU show up with a concentrated and dominant effort on both sides of the ball? Or will LSU fans and players continue to be frustrated by mistakes on defense and big plays by the opposition? Only the game can answer those questions.

But it's that tenseness, that apprehension in the air that can also be a problem. Nick Saban used to call it catastrophe syndrome, and while people love to say that the Napoleonic one "changed the culture" in Baton Rouge, he never found the cure for this. When the going gets rough for the Tigers, the fans get going - back to their cars. I'm tempted to digress into the "win at all costs" contradictory mentality that seems to permeate nearly all SEC fan bases at the moment, but again, a topic for another column.

Of course, fans always have a right to show their displeasure, and express their opinions. But be mindful of the consequences - last year that negative attitude only aggravated the morale and unity issues that LSU already had. Should the players be able to block all that out? Of course. Do they always block it out? Nope. Fans can accept that reality, or continue to complain.

It's only the second game of the year, and Vanderbilt is a solid football team that will have some success against LSU Saturday night. We've seen one example of how the LSU team will respond. But will the fans keep their composure as well?

Bend it like Fowler
Last week, Washington kicked the ball everywhere Trindon Holliday wasn't, even willing to skykick a gimme to the 30-yard line over giving the Tigers a true return. Likewise, Vanderbilt had a similar strategy versus WCU, with kicker Ryan Fowler usually trying to pin the Catamount's returners in the corners - that probably won't change kicking to the NCAA 100-meter dash champ. But that also means that Holliday and Ron Brooks need to be smart - if the ball's too close to the sidelines, remember that a kickoff out-of-bounds means a free trip to the 40-yard-line.

More Than One Flavor
Admittedly, even I didn't think the offense would be quite that vanilla last week. Predictably (which is sad because you'd think by year 5 they'd learn), the same characters on the message boards and radio talk shows cranked up the usual "see, all Miles wants is three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust," and "Miles must be trying to call the plays again" catcalls. His LSU offenses have averaged 33.1 points per game and 2,988 passing yards per season. This offense will do more. Trindon Holliday will play more, and Russell Shepard will see the field - folks, do you really think he's redshirting?

More than once I either read or heard somebody say "do we ever do anything out of the pistol foundation but run the option?" If you were one of these persons, and you're reading this, please go to youtube and watch highlights of last season. I know it's painful, but try to watch for this innovative thing called the play-action pass. LSU has tended to make frequent use of it in the past out of the pistol formation. I doubt that will change. In fact, it's a great way to create time for a quarterback against an aggressive run-blitzing team -- especially in pistol sets, because it allows for a deeper drop by the QB. Don't be surprised if you see it early from LSU as they try to get Jordan Jefferson in rhythm.

I realize I may be recycling this every week, but I ask you to refer to the previous...

Why Did (player X) only get X touches?
This will probably get said in postgame every week, win or lose. When you have Charles Scott, Keiland Williams, Trindon Holliday, Richard Dickson, Brandon LaFell, Terrance Toliver AND tantalizing unknowns like Russell Shepard, Rueben Randle, Deangelo Peterson, Stevan Ridley and Richard Murphy, somebody has to get the short end of the touches. So get used to it, because you're going to be thinking it a lot. This doesn't mean the coaching staff is misusing talent necessarily, it just means that no matter what option gets taken, people are going to wonder if the other one would have worked better. But, and I know I'm asking a lot, but please, think this to yourself before you say it - who would you have taken the ball away from?

Do NOT Expect:

Not the Same Old Vandy
Matt Hinton and others have suggested that the 2008 Commodores have a parallel with the 2007 Mississippi State Bulldogs - the loan winning team of Sly Croom's tenure - in that they were outgained and outscored by their opponents, and that timely turnovers (which always fluctuate year-to-year) were the only difference between winning and losing. Teams like this tend to be anomalies, and usually regress to the mean the next season.

While I don't completely disagree with this theory, do not confuse this Vanderbilt team with one that is lacking in talent. Offensively, they run a no-huddle spread-n-shred attack similar to the Pat White/Steve Slaton West Virginia teams. It's a new attack for them and one that scored 45 points last week (albeit against a 3-9 FCS team), a point total that Vandy's only touched one other time in the last 5 seasons - a 45-28 win over Duke in 2006. This time periods includes Jay Cutler's last two years in Nashville, so I doubt that's an insignificant figure. The Commodores offensive line averages 6-5 and over 300 pounds per man (a figure comparable to LSU, Alabama or Florida's lines), and quarterback Larry Smith is an athletic threat that will make plays similar to Jake Locker. His mobility will also help open lanes for running backs Zac Stacy and Warren Norman on read-option plays. This offense will move the ball and it will score points.

Defensively, this team's top four tacklers will all likely end up in NFL training camps, and cornerback Myron Lewis is considered one of the top 10 senior prospects at his position. He would start for any team in the SEC, with the possible exception of Florida. Free safety Ryan Hamilton had over 100 tackles and four interceptions last season, and Benoist and Marve each had 100-plus stops themselves. Does LSU have more talent than this team? Yes. Does that mean this won't be a competitive game? Absolutely not.