Excuse me. Hey. Hey! HEY!! LISTEN UP.
I have a very important announcement to make.
LSU FOOOOOOOOTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTBBBBBBBBBAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLSSSSSSS BBBBBBBAAAAAACCCCCCKKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Let's gear up for LSU's season opener versus the McNeese State Cowboys.
What to Watch For on Saturday
Opening Night or Dress Rehearsal?
By now, we should more or less know what to expect from LSU in season openers. A degree of sloppiness, usually enough to frustrate a segment of fans that have the anticipation so built up that they're ready for the finished product in week one. By now, you can bet on a few foolish penalties, drops and missed tackles, etc...as LSU starts on the journey of this season.
Luckily, this also marks just the second time in the last five seasons that the Tigers are opening things up against a non-Power 5 conference opponent. Just the second home opener in that stretch as well, the first since 2012, when parts of the state (your correspondent included) were still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac.
McNeese State, despite being LSU's lone FCS opponent this year, may actually be its second-toughest non-conference game. Yes, better even than Syracuse. The Cowboys return 17 starters from a team that went into Lincoln last season and very nearly took Nebraska to overtime. They're stocked with a couple of Power-5 transfers, including quarterback Daniel Sams, previously of Kansas State, and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who came from Texas A&M. More importantly, they're a proud program with a history of success at the FCS level and under head coach Matt Viator. They may not have much of a chance to win but you can bet they'll come in ready to compete hard. They're likely better than the Orange and certainly better than Eastern Michigan.
What's great about this game, however, is that it sets up the Tigers with a solid preview of the other two, far more crucial ones in weeks two and three. The Cowboys run a spread type of offense with some tempo that will definitely feature Sams, an athletic quarterback who led the team in rushing last season. Sams, from Slidell, was an athlete that I believe LSU considered recruiting, albeit not at quarterback. He's certainly not in Dak Prescott's league, nor Jeremy Johnson's, but still a dangerous athlete that this front seven will want to get its hands on. Per McNeese, he battled a broken thumb that hampered his throwing ability last season.
It's a good chance to see how LSU's new-look defensive line handles the balance of getting up the field and after the quarterback, versus the gap discipline necessary to avoid getting burned by a more mobile passer.
This season is a chance for LSU's quarterbacks to hit the reset button a bit and write a new chapter, and that's going to start with the sophomore from Bossier. Harris is securely buckled in to the driver's seat of his position at LSU, and the only way he's getting relieved is if he drives it into another ditch. And he should have a pretty smooth start against the Cowboys as a warm-up for next week's big road trip to #CLANGAvegas.
I expect to see Harris make some plays throwing the football, but most importantly, I just want to see him run this offense efficiently and do what is asked. Keep things moving on pace, convert first downs and get the offense into the endzone. I'm not going to get too hung up on stats -- if LSU starts out with four 80-yard drives that all end in rushing touchdowns from Leonard Fournette or Darrel Williams, I'm not going to be upset about them not scoring through the air, so long as Harris had a clear hand in guiding those drives.
An interesting conundrum for Les Miles and Cam Cameron will be the QB reps in this one. On the one hand, Harris definitely needs plenty, so he and Cameron can begin to figure out where his comfort in the playbook rests: what he does/doesn't do well, how he handles checks and certain looks, etc... But on the other, the staff has to manage injury risk. And likewise, they'll want to get Anthony Jennings some game looks as well. Nobody wants his first game action of the season to be at night, on the road against Mississippi State, should Harris turn an ankle or take a particularly hard shot. Realistically, LSU has had a second quarterback start at least one game in all but two of the seasons Les Miles has been at the helm -- sometimes for ineffectiveness, but often due to injury. Jamarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, Andrew Hatch, Jordan Jefferson and Zach Mettenberger all missed time. So while it is certainly ideal for Harris to handle the job and be the player we all think he can be, Jennings needs to be ready.
LSU has a new defensive coordinator this season, and I think I speak for all of us when I say we're eager to see whatever wrinkles he's added to the Tiger defense. He'll have to balance getting players game reps against showing too many looks to State and Auburn. Likewise, will we see any of Ed Orgeron's impact from the defensive line? Especially in the pass-rush, against a McNeese offensive line that should be fairly overwhelmed.
In a similar vein, I'll be on the lookout for what, if any, changes about the offense this season. Will we see more of a one-back base? Some pistol? Are the motions and jet-sweeps that we saw to close '14 a more regular part of the attack? And of course, the new freshmen. Obviously, LSU will keep things pretty basic as they take over the game, but it's important to come out of this game with an idea of what the team executes well.
Also, I really hate to ever talk about any kind of downside to recruiting as well as LSU does, but one of the things that can be annoying at times is what I like to call "new toy syndrome." Fans occasionally tend to forget about the rest of the team when some new, shiny recruits show up. This year's examples are players like Derrius Guice, David Ducre, Donte Jackson and Tyron Johnson. At least three of those players will probably see SOME snaps on Saturday, but keep in mind they have some pretty talented teammates. Johnson in particular is going to have an uphill climb in the reception department with the guys ahead of him. Even if Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre have a short night as LSU builds a lead, there's still Trey Quinn and John Diarse (although Quinn has battled some injuries in the last month, so it wouldn't surprise me if he's limited). And there's only one ball out there.
Guice and Ducre, likewise, face some crowded depth charts. Guice in particular has a lot of competition in his own class from Nick Brossette, who I'm told may be a more well-rounded fit for the offense.
Still, it does create one of them good problems, as they say. And it certainly behooves the staff to try and give these young players their first reps at home, against a more overmatched opponent, as opposed to week two against Mississippi State. I expect Leonard Fournette to get some kickoff return reps early on, but watch for Guice and Jackson there as well.
Also seeing a bit of this at corner, where Dwayne Thomas is presently ahead of Ed Paris and Kevin Toliver. Thomas has made plays whenever he's been given the opportunity, so it's not surprising that Steele and Corey Raymond may want him out there in the base defense. He will, however, slide inside to nickel, which will get the other two on the field often. Especially against a spread team.
The one area where I'll really be watching for the newbies is along the line of scrimmage, particularly Arden Key's snaps on defense. Is he strictly a pass-rush specialist, or will he rotate in more regularly? And along the offensive line, how does Will Clapp and Maea Teuhema fit in at guard? Jerald Hawkins, Vadal Alexander and Joshua Boutte seem to be set in stone for the starting five, but the two freshmen and Ethan Pocic could rotate a bit at left guard and center until they find the right fit.
Do Not Expect
I feel like I mention this for every opener, but it always bears repeating: we will not be watching the Tigers at peak efficiency on Saturday night. Or at least, we better hope we're not seeing it. This team will look different a month from now, and damn sure will three months from now. Lineups and rotations will finalize as the staff figure out who can perform and who can't. There will be injuries. New and different weapons will emerge.
So be patient. No matter the result, we're in for one helluva ride again this season. Let's enjoy it.