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2015 LSU Football Optimistic/Pessimistic/Realistic: Quarterbacks

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Same as it ever was, right?

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Name

Height/Weight

2014 Season

10 Anthony Jennings (Jr.)

6-2, 216

Completed 111-of-227 passes (48.9%) for 1,611 yards (7.1 YPA) with 11 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Rushed for 292 yards on 108 carries.

6 Brandon Harris (Soph.)

6-3, 206

Completed 25-of-45 passes (55.6%) for 452 yards (10 YPA) with 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Rushed for 159 yards on 26 carries with 3 touchdowns.

12 Justin McMillian (Fr.)

6-2, 193

Three-star recruit.

1 Danny Etling (Jr.)

6-3, 226

Completed 89-of-162 passes for 800 yards with 6 touchdowns and 5 interceptions at Purdue (transfer, ineligible for 2015).

"Well, LSU has plenty of talent everywhere; we're just not sure about the quarterback..."

Stop me if you've heard that one before. It's basically become the raison d'etre for a large chunk of the college football punditry to dismiss LSU's chances at becoming a factor in the SEC West this season.

It's not incorrect, mind you. Last year LSU was pretty awful throwing the football, as Anthony Jennings failed to complete even half of his passes on the season. Brandon Harris briefly showed flashes early on, but completely melted down in his first start at Auburn. In addition to completing just 3 of 14 passes, he struggled receiving snaps from center, botched handoffs and in general, seemed lost on play-calls and checks at the line of scrimmage. Afterwards, LSU found a way to win a couple of SEC games in a row with Jennings executing a very basic gameplan. And while it wasn't sustainable, sources say that LSU's coaches felt that it was the best move. Harris, also dealing with a high ankle sprain, sulked and regressed in his preparation following the Auburn game, to the point that some wondered what the future held for both he and the position at LSU.

But that was last year.

From the start of 2015, there was a change. Per sources, Harris came back from LSU's holiday break engaged. He hosted recruits. Hit the film room. Started to do the things that he needed to do to earn the starting job back from Jennings. Coaches had made it clear to him -- he couldn't get it just by default. Both players competed through a strong spring, and then in the summer, opportunity knocked for the sophomore when Jennings was suspended for his role in a reported unauthorized entry incident. At the time, the hope was that Harris would work that much harder, rather than rest on his laurels. Take advantage of the situation, put his foot on the throttle and really take over the competition.

And by all accounts, Harris did just that. Hell, Jennings even continued to help his competitor.

When LSU started training camp, the results became apparent. Harris worked firmly entrenched with the first team, as Cam Cameron had started to work on a much closer, more in-depth basis. Tuning his footwork, his ball placement versus different coverages. The type of attention an entrenched starter gets. At one point, per a source, there was even some concern that Jennings would give up, which certainly wasn't something the staff wanted.

This week, Les Miles firmly spelled out what most had already figured out. Brandon Harris will start LSU's season opener against McNeese State -- although I doubt there will be any formal announcement of that until maybe the first Lunch with Les on Monday. What happens after that is entirely in Harris' hands. We've all said it, and it's still true today: he doesn't have to be a world-beating playmaker. Just keep LSU in the right plays and the right checks, get in and out of the huddle, execute the offense and avoid turnovers.

Frankly, if Harris can do those things his own natural talent will make him the playmaker that Zach Mettenberger was in 2013. Especially when coupled with growth from a young and talented receiving corps that struggled nearly as much as the passers in '14. He doesn't just have a great arm -- he seems to have that same savant-ish throwing quality that a young JaMarcus Russell showed as a freshman. The ability to just see a receiver and throw it to them, more so than read a defense. Of course, if your teammates can't trust you to spit the play out and get things started at the line of scrimmage, that doesn't really matter. But all of that is in the past now.

Harris has the arm to make every throw that LSU will ask, and enough mobility to be utilized as a constraint in the running game, although I doubt Cameron will really feature it in terms of carries. If the preparation can match his talent level, the sky is the limit. His biggest keys will be learning to trust the called plays -- in the spring Harris had a few issues with breaking containment a bit too early, rather than trusting his third read or check-down -- and take care of the football. Taking chances is part and parcel to having an arm like Harris', he just has to be measured in how and when he does it. When to take the shot down the field or live to play another series, or when to make sure you preserve points in the redzone versus taking a sack or risking a turnover.

The good news, is that all of that is standard "young quarterback" type development. They're not issues of off-field knowledge or maturity.

Jennings will most likely stay in the backup role this season, and I think that suits him. By all accounts he is a good kid and a hard worker, and I imagine that he's improved to some degree. And limited that he may be, LSU can win some games with Jennings, at least in the short term. That describes most backup-type quarterbacks. But there's just no comparison with Harris in terms of ceilings.

Behind the two of them is a pair that we almost certainly won't see in '15. Freshman Justin McMillan is likely headed towards a redshirt. Seen as more of a long-term project, McMillan has reportedly done very well in camp, showing a real aptitude for what Cameron wants in a quarterback. And then there is Purdue transfer Danny Etling, who will have to sit out the year but will provide not only depth for the Tigers in 2016, but another voice in the meeting room helping Harris and Jennings see what is going on and pushing them in competition.

Optimistic

That Harris cements himself in the starting job and steps up much in the same way that Mettenberger did as a senior. Throwing for 2,500-plus yards, 20-plus touchdowns with single-digit interceptions. LSU's offense becomes explosive and efficient and a lot of fun to watch.

Pessimistic

Harris struggles with his poise and maturity when faced with real adversity -- such as in week two, when LSU will be drowned in cowbells in a late-night road game in Starkville. If he turns the ball over and puts the offense in a hole, will Les Miles trust him to dig out of it, or go to Jennings? Some will say it's automatic, but there's more nuance to it than that. And it's all in Harris' hands right now.

But the reality is that if Jennings is asked to play a major role this season, the Tiger passing game isn't very likely to meet it's potential.

Realistic

Everybody will focus on yards and touchdowns, but my reference points for improvement for LSU this season focus on the main efficiency stats: completion percentage, yards per attempt and turnovers. Get the first at about 60 or better, the second one over 8.0 and keep the final one under about 12 or so (single digits would be great, but you can live with the lower double figures depending on the rest). And you can live with a little inverse proportionality between YPA and completion rate, which is to say that if you're throwing the ball for more per attempt you can live with a slightly lower completion rate because you'll be generating big plays.

If LSU can hit those, conversion rates on third down and in the red zone will improve, the offense will move the ball and we'll see the flashy yards and points. Touchdown numbers can be massaged -- neither Rohan Davey nor Mettenberger threw for a ton because inside the 10 they were handing it off -- and yards can be subject to game circumstances as well (LSU's not going to chuck the ball around a lot with a comfortable lead).

Harris will start the season opener for LSU, and barring a meltdown against at home against an FCS opponent, the SEC opener on the road in Starkville in week two. What happens after that is on his shoulders.

The Tigers will be better at throwing the ball this season. "Better" just happens to be a relative term when your starter completed less than half his passes the season before. But in Harris' case, I think he'll step forward and be a playmaker for this team. How consistent of one is the question.

There's no doubt that Harris has the physical ability to do everything Mettenberger could. Even more. The question is whether or not he can mentally orchestrate his teammates, and opponents, the way Mettenberger did at times in 2013. Will he know when to stay with a called play and when to adjust it. When a motion could maybe help create some space or a mismatch for a receiver. When to stay with a run in a short-yardage situation, or check to the right pass against man-to-man coverage. These are the kind of things that come with experience and maturity. We know Harris doesn't have much of the former, and the latter remains to be seen, regardless of the reports at the present.

I do know this much: Harris will have his struggles. A defense will fool him, or he'll fail to see defender drifting underneath an open receiver, or he'll just flat out miss a throw. He'll have his bad games because every quarterback does. Mettenberger did, just like Matt Flynn, Jamarcus Russell, Davey and Tommy Hodson before him. Sometimes that cost their teams in games, other times, teammates helped carry more of the load and things worked out.

LSU's going to need a lot of that this season regardless of how well Harris plays.

What I'll be curious to watch is how the media and public narrative follows it. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but make no mistake -- sportswriters LOVE ‘em. Because once there is a hole in the facts, you can just fill it with an unsubstantiated claim and call it analysis. There's been a lot of that this offseason from media pundits and message-board wonks (and the two tend to mirror each other more often than the former should be comfortable with), particularly with statements like "well if you take out Zach Mettenberger, Les Miles hasn't had a good quarterback in..."

So if you simply change what has actually happened in the past, then we'd live in some fantasy world instead of the world we actually live in right now, right? What's the old saying about aunts and uncles and balls?

Last season LSU had a passing game almost entirely comprised of freshmen, sophomores and first-time starters. Now they don't. That alone will lend itself to improvement. The only question is how much and whether that will be enough. It's not a linear, automatic progression. Better quarterback play doesn't automatically mean anything because every season and every team is different, and a TEAM wins football games, not a quarterback (another example of this line of stupidity is the "well just give Auburn/A&M a halfway decent defense and HURR DURR ALL THE TITLES"). Look at teams that had better quarterback play than LSU in 2014: Texas A&M went 8-5, was shut out by Alabama and scored just 21 points at home against ULM; Auburn also went 8-5, was held to all of seven points against Georgia and fumbled three times, including a botched snap in the final minute, in their home loss to A&M; Baylor completed just 7-22 passes for 111 yards against Texas; even Florida State and Jameis Winston threw two or more interceptions in five different games. Shit happens, and having better quarterback play doesn't make a team immune to that.

So if you're asking me if quarterback will cost LSU in games this season, the answer is probably so. Just not for the reason that you think.