This year's LSU football team has something we're not used to having around these parts: a lot of returning production on both sides of the ball. Last year, almost the entire offense left for the NFL, following the example of the defense the year prior.
The results were fairly predictable. The LSU defense struggled in 2013, but nowhere near as badly as the offense struggled in 2014. The other side of the ball was forced to carry the team in the past two seasons, to varying degrees of success.
Last season was the worst record a Les Miles team has ever posted, tied with the 2008 team. More dispiriting, last year's team was blessed with the easiest schedule in Miles' LSU tenure, and while it posted a 4-4 SEC mark, better than the 3-5 low of 2008, LSU finished fourth in the SEC West. It was the first time a Miles-coached LSU team has ever finished worse than 3rd place in the West (the conference doesn't officially break ties for any spot but 1st).
Given the schedule and divisional finish, the 2014 season was the single worst season of Miles' tenure. There is no way to categorize the season as anything other than a crushing disappointment. The fans and coaches demand that LSU competes for titles, and a .500 in-conference finish does not cut it.
The good news is that eight wins and a .500 conference record even qualifies as a failure says a lot about the quality of the program. The bad news is that the inexperienced offense never showed any signs of turning around. In fact, it got worse as the season went on.
In SEC play, LSU averaged 19.13 PPG and allowed 20.75 PPG. Neither of those figures are good enough, and let's not dwell on the fact LSU was 17 outscored by 17 points in SEC play last year, indicating the record could have been worse.
The two halves of LSU's schedule were of roughly equal quality (LSU played two ranked teams in each half of the schedule) and the team went 2-2 over each half. However, the footprint of the team was entirely different. LSU went from an average score of 26.75-26.25 to 11.5-15.25.
Really, what throws everything off are the first two games. LSU averaged 19.5 PPG, right at its season average, in games 3 through 8. The defense, on the other hand, went from a 37.5 PPG allowed to 15.17 PPG, right in line with the second half average. The defense remarkably improved the moment it replaced the DJ Welter-sized hole at MLB, and went all-in with Kendall Beckwith (not playing Auburn's offense helped).
The defense didn't improve steadily last season, it improved radically with one major change in personnel, then held steady for the rest of the year. The offense, by contrast, was consistently bad to mediocre the whole season long. There was no steady improvement, just stagnation.
When we looked at returning production last season, the benchmark was 60-70%. Teams return about 70% of their games played but about 60% of their production. Anything less, and the team will be looking at experience issues (it does not mean a team is without question marks, as this doesn't look at whether the returning production is any good). However, it is only when teams lose about half of its production that replacing the lack of returning talent is the concerning issue.
Last year, LSU returned 53.13% of its games started on offense and 65.24% of games played. Worse, almost all of the production was gone: 36.65% of the rush yards returned, just 12.96% of the receiving yards, and 5.55% of the passing yards. This year, LSU returns 66.43% of its games started on offense, but far more production: 65.13% of the rushing, 86.02% of the receiving, and 100% of the passing yards. On top of that, LSU returns three starters on the line.
That doesn't mean LSU's offense will make a great leap forward. However, it does at least mean that the coaching staff is not trying to figure out where the production will come from. The offense did not improve as last season went on, but they have had another offseason together. The offense at least isn't starting from scratch, trying to replace production at every position. And in the case of the running game, Miles knows he has a rock upon which to base the attack in Fournette, who did see his production trend upwards as the season wore on.
The defense is in the same situation as last season. Instead of returning 63.89% of the starts as it did in 2014, the defense now returns 60.14%. There is a slight dip in tackles returning, dropping from last year's 74.06% to 66.40%. And for as much hand-wringing there has been over the pass rush, LSU returns 60.53% of its tackles for a loss, slightly off the 2014 pace of 68.12%.
The point here is that while LSU has lost some production on defense, it is hardly catastrophic. In fact, it is the normal amount of production a team would expect to lose. For once, LSU was not absolutely gutted by graduation and early entrants to the draft.
There is no unit to rebuild this year. In 2013, Miles had to almost rebuild the defense from scratch. Last season, he had to do the same with the offense. While he and his staff definitely have to figure out a way to improve the offensive production, they are not tasked with completely overhauling the unit this year.
The only SEC West team returning more starts resides in Oxford. LSU has a deep, experienced team that is also buoyed by some recent spectacular recruiting classes. Despite all of the returning experience, LSU returns as many sophomores in starting slots as seniors.
Miles relied heavily on freshmen and sophomores last year, leading to a middle of the pack SEC finish. It's time for that decision to pay off. All of those freshmen last season trying to just make a mark; Fournette, Adams, Dupre, Harris, and Godchaux (not to mention Paris, Bain, Teuhema, Gilmore, Quinn, Diarse, Chark, and Williams); are now part of the veteran core.
This team is young, talented, experienced, and again blessed with a manageable schedule. Get ready y'all... Delusional Optimism is coming.