**After one of the best offseasons LSU football has had in some time, the 2016 team could be poised for some great things. Les Miles has the best running back in college football, more returning starters than any other team he's had here, and hired one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to coach a unit that returns eight starters. The pieces could easily be in place for a run at the college football playoff -- the advanced statistics back that up as well.
But as with any team, there are question marks that have to be answered. Things that have to be improved upon, or steps that need to be taken. Over the coming weeks before we get into the meat of really previewing this team, we'll talk about some of those issues.**
We start with the Tiger secondary, and improving the turnover ratio. Specifically, the number of interceptions gained.
There's no question that LSU's pass defense took a step back last season. The coverage busts in the first half of the season were the most visible manifestation, but overall it just wasn't what we've grown used to in recent years. The most touchdown passes allowed in nine seasons, plus eight-year lows in passes broken up and pass defense efficiency. LSU broke up all of 47 passes in 2015 -- the first time they've batted down fewer than 50 passes in the Miles Era.
What's more, they converted just 31.1 percent of those pass break-ups to interceptions -- 1.7 percent under the national average. **Ed. Note/Correction: I appear to have misinterpreted Bill C.'s table here -- LSU broke up 31.1 percent of the total incompletions they saw -- although that number was still under the national average. Still, the overall point of this article remains.**
In short, LSU struggled to break up pass plays and picked off less than a third of the passes they did get their hands on. The Tigers finished with a positive turnover margin, largely because the offense very rarely gave the ball up, and I would not expect that to change much. But the defense has got to find a way to get the ball back a little more often.
So how do you work to insure more turnovers? Years of statistical analysis have taught us that it's largely a random stat, and random functions of sports are pretty hard to coach. Even the best defenses and secondaries tend to fluctuate from year to year. On fumbles, that's easy to understand -- it is literally dependent on the bounce of the ball.
But I've always been of the belief that you can help to create better opportunities for interceptions by forcing situations beneficial to the defense. Namely, obvious passing situations like third-and-long plays. The rub of defense will always be the offense's run/pass variability. Obvious passing downs cut down on that and allow the defense to disguise and mix coverages and send more exotic pressure packages. That means quarterbacks making throws under pressure and a greater chance of a bad or missed read with defensive backs looking for the ball.
The 2015 LSU defense saw just 103 third-down passes in 12 games (not including sacks), and 66 of those were of a distance of seven yards or longer. Alabama, for a point of reference, saw that situation 99 times. Clemson saw it 93 times.
The big variable for the Tiger defense is, of course, new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. His Wisconsin defense saw third-and-long situations 75 times and allowed just 28 completions and 11 first downs. Overall, they hit right on the national average of breaking up 32.8 percent of the incompletions they saw. They ranked second in the country in pass defense efficiency, and broke up 54 passes.
And of course, he inherits a pretty talented secondary with a returning Tre'davious White, Jamal Adams, Kevin Toliver and Rickey Jefferson, plus reserves like Donte Jackson and Dwayne Thomas. So how do the same players find their ways to pick off more passes in 2016? The new pressure packages should help, but the secondary approach will also change, with less of an emphasis on checks and adjustments to motions and shifts and more jamming on the line of scrimmage. Aranda will likely work with more man-to-man coverage, as well as pattern-matching quarters -- a style of coverage that should put the defensive backs in more positions to break on the ball. More breaks on the ball equals more hands on passes.
Likewise, a talent infusion in the secondary from the 2016 recruiting class should help. Players like Kristian Fulton, Savion Smith and Eric Monroe are all big-time talents that will play early, and Fulton and Smith have both shown a knack for getting their hands on the ball, which is something I've always believed can be particularly innate with some players.
Fumble luck tends to even out, but in LSU's case that could work out both ways, given that the offense very rarely loses them either, but there's no question this defense will have to improve on 17 measly takeaways this season. And increasing that interception total from 10 will be a big part of it.