Well, they did say fiesta...
LSU is back in a New Year’s Day Bowl and back in one of the former Coalition/Alliance/BCS Bowls for the first time in seven years, taking on the defending national champs UCF in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl.
Bowl games themselves tend to be offseason rorschach tests — fans will see what they want. Real conclusions tend to come with the benefit of hindsight in the coming years. Sometimes young and hungry teams come out and look ready for a next step. Sometimes they take a beating that also helps show them that path. Sometimes a veteran team has its last hurrah. Sometimes they mail it in and enjoy the trip. And that’s before we talk about the coach hiring/firing cycle; the head coaches steal the headlines, but there are also position coaches on the move and that can also affect prep. Plus, now there’s the early signing period occupying space in the lead-up.
Still, there’s a lot for LSU to play for here. Yes, there’s been the standard “nothing to gain/everything to lose” narrative we see from most P5/G5 bowl match-ups, but that doesn’t really hold up to examination here. An LSU win would mark the first 10-win season since 2013 and a pretty good shot at a top-10 finish for the first time since 2011. Couple that with a top-five finish in the recruiting cycle, and Ed Orgeron’s LSU program sits in a pretty strong position after year two. Possibly building towards even bigger things in year three.
In the way is an 8th-ranked UCF team that has won 25 straight, averaging 40-plus per game and looking to claim a postseason scalp from a second consecutive SEC team as well. Even without superstar quarterback McKenzie Milton, this is a Golden Knights team to be taken seriously.
Winning 25 games in a row in college football is tough to do, I don’t care what conference you play in. There’s been a lot of talk about what the Knights would or wouldn’t do in a P5 conference, but thing is, that isn’t a zero-sum proposition; UCF might not be able to go undefeated in the SEC, but they’d certainly win more often than not. On film, they show plenty of talent, and speed, at the skill positions, even if they’re a little lighter in the trenches. They’d certainly have no problem with the SEC West’s bottom half this year — we saw them beat Auburn just a year ago. There’s good reason most advanced statistics favor them here.
And on top of that, LSU’s prep has been pretty snakebit. The defense may be down five or six players, including four defensive backs against a team that lives in three- and four-receiver sets, plus Jacob Phillips for the first half for a targeting ejection.
I expect the Tigers to be dialed in and ready to compete in this game, but it’s going to take some good football to turn 25-0 into 25-1.
So once more into the breach...
What To Watch For In The 2019 Fiesta Bowl
Over the summer, we made some preseason comparisons for 2018 to the 2010 season; the Tigers started out in the back half of the top-25 with a daunting schedule, a handful of defensive stars and major questions on offense. The season proved to be a wild ride to 10-2 in the regular season and a Cotton Bowl birth, where we caught some opening glimpses of the 2011 juggernaut with freshmen Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid, Tharold Simon and Spencer Ware all taking turns making big plays in a blowout of Texas A&M.
LSU’s probably going to need more of the same this time around, but out of necessity. On defense, the Tigers will be without starting cornerbacks Greedy Williams and Kristian Fulton, two starting defensive linemen in Breiden Fehoko and Ed Alexander and of course Phillips for the first half.
On top of that, the mental status of No. 2 tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire and cornerback Kary Vincent are up in the air as well. Both will play, but you can’t help but wonder about them given what’s happened to both young men in the last week or so.
Even with CEH the field on Tuesday, the Tigers are going to have to get major contributions from other reserves like Terrence Alexander and Mannie Netherly at cornerback plus Tyler Shelvin and Neil Farrell on the defensive line, among others.
Players like Vincent and Farrell have been solid reserves all season, but they’re going to be thrust into much larger roles against a very good offense. Likewise, the nature of this match-up is also going to put more pressure on players like Netherly, Jontre Kirklin (who will likely be back at cornerback), Todd Harris, Justin Thomas, Eric Monroe and Jacoby Stevens, plus guys like Derrick Dillon, Dee Anderson, Stephen Sullivan and Lanard Fournette on offense.
In some cases, these players may need to show exactly what it is they can contribute, because in order to bring in a full recruiting class this cycle, LSU will still need more roster attrition.
In the nearly 10 years (!!!) I’ve been writing here, one thing that I’ve tried to impart is that a team’s offense, it’s philosophy, isn’t just about the plays it calls, or formations, or personnel groupings or run/pass ratio. Those are all tactics. The nuts and bolts of how you put a strategy into action. Those can be dictated by game conditions, score, personnel, what have you.
Your offense is about identity. Your overarching theme of how you want to attack every opponent you face. Sometimes that’s about controlling the line of scrimmage and then using that to influence the defense down the field. Sometimes it’s about using space and personnel to create individual mismatches or gaps in the defense.
For Central Florida, it’s about pace. Under first-year head coach Josh Heupel, the Knights have become the No. 1 team in the country in adjusted tempo, averaging nearly 80 snaps per game.
We’ve seen our share of hurry-up teams this year, but there are few that are as committed to it as UCF. Most tempo teams, like Auburn, usually rely on some sort of primer — a big play or even just a quick first down — to really break out and start rolling. Heupel has this team thoroughly committed to lining up and moving fast, play in and play out, regardless of result.
We’ve seen his approach previously in Ed Orgeron’s very first game as LSU’s (at the time, interim) head coach, when Heupel ran the Missouri offense in 2016. It didn’t exactly work then; the Other, Other Tigers went three-and-out on their first three drives, scored all of seven points and finished with just 265 yards in less than 20 minutes of total possession.
But he got things going shortly thereafter, and his UCF team is in the national top 10 in both scoring and yards per play, and fifth overall in offensive S&P+.
As Seth detailed here, the style is based in the Baylor Bear Raid, with receivers spaced out extra wide to either sideline and the quarterback given the freedom to switch between run and pass based on the defense. The pass concepts themselves are pretty simple, sometimes with just a single receiver that is tagged by the QB pre-snap running his route while the rest just release and go down field a few yards to save their legs.
At UCF, Heupel has adapted the running game more towards Milton’s skillset as a fantastic option QB. In a very limited sample size, Darriel Mack Jr. isn’t nearly as good at making decisions and handling the ball like Milton, but is still a big, strong runner in the open field.
With an extremely limited secondary, Dave Aranda’s going to have his hands full. First and foremost, LSU has to win at the line of scrimmage, find a way to stop the run without a numbers advantage, and corral Mack. If the Tigers can get UCF in obvious passing downs, they should be able to get after the quarterback, although keeping Mack contained will be crucial. With depth thin, the last thing the Tiger defense wants is extended drives when there’s an opportunity to force a punt.
Mack seems a bit more comfortable throwing short as well, so look for lots of screens and other throws into the flat. The stars for LSU that are going in this thing, namely Grant Delpit and Devin White, are going to need to step up. Ditto players like the aforementioned Stevens and Michael Divinity, who will be targeted out on the edge.
Don’t be surprised if the defense relies heavily on “match” quarters coverage on the back end, with LSU’s corners rolled up to jam receivers/play the run, but still in position to bail out and maintain deep leverage. So long as the corners can get a good jam and bail out quickly, that should limit some liability down the field, and still allow a safety to be in position against the run.
On the other side of the ball, UCF is not very good on defense. They give up more than 20 points per game and 5.3 yards per play, and have allowed some 700 more rushing yards more than LSU actually has as a team this year.
Coordinator Randy Shannon likes to keep things pretty simple with a basic Cover-2, man-under shell defense that lets players react quickly and play fast while also limiting big plays. But the Knights just don’t have the horses up front to make that style very effective. While they don’t exactly get gashed up and down the field, teams have had a lot of steady success, averaging more than 4.8 yards per carry on first, second and third down.
So for Steve Ensminger and the LSU offensive staff, it seems pretty intuitive to lean heavily on the running game and try to control the clock and protect the vulnerable defense, right? But that’s a gamble in its own right, because it also limits the Tigers’ own opportunities. If LSU gets the ball first, a six- or seven-minute drive sounds great in theory, but only if it nets a touchdown. Sure, the defense might be fresh, but now they really can’t afford to give up anything.
Lowering the offensive margins will be tempting in this one — hell, LSU may not have much of a choice — but it’s far from a fool-proof strategy for an offense that’s been inconsistent this year.
LSU is going to have to lean on the run, however, with Nick Brossette and Lanard Fournette if Edwards-Helaire isn’t up to the task. Take advantage of Joe Burrow’s mobility as well, and maybe involve the receivers in the jet-sweep game as well.
UCF’s pass defense is pretty efficient and doesn’t give up a high completion rate. Burrow’s accuracy slowly improved down the stretch, but the match-up suggests trying to use that running game to maintain reasonable passing situations.
LSU will need to balance aggression with efficiency. A shoot-out is UCF’s type of game, and this offense doesn’t want to wind up trying to keep pace. The advantage will be at the line of scrimmage. If LSU can press that hard enough, they should be able to maintain control here.