FanPost

Run Through The Jungle....

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"They told me don't go walking slow, the devil's on the loose..."

Despite the doom and gloom predictions from the so called experts throughout the country, it has been an outstanding opening month for the 2018 LSU Tigers.

With an insultingly low ranking of #25 to start the season, perhaps even inspiringly so, the Tigers have fought their way through two showcase games and opponents to launch themselves all the way to #5 in the country, and into the SEC and National Title conversation. LSU is sitting at 4-0 with one of the most difficult challenges of the season already out of the way, a road victory over a still top 10 ranked Auburn team. But the challenge now becomes staying focused through the next streak of four consecutive SEC opponents before the bye week and the annual November showdown with Alabama.

While an October home date with #2 Georgia appears to be the toughest matchup of the stretch, this team has already proven their ability to rise up to the challenge when they are the underdogs against highly ranked competition. What they have yet to show Tiger Nation, and the country as a whole, is the focus it takes to consistently play their best football against teams they are expected to beat.

While the two in state schools the Tigers have faced simply didn't have the talent to take advantage of the lack of preparation and execution that was given in those games, teams like Ole Miss and Florida certainly do. And while they are far from equals to this team, the SEC has proven time and again that only the absolute best can make it through without getting ambushed on the path to Atlanta.

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THUNDER MAGIC SPOKE

A win over Auburn on The Plains is something that should never be understated. But when the home team is ranked in the top 10 and poised as a serious national title contender, it is a victory that cannot be overstated either. With one swing of his leg, senior transfer kicker Cole Tracy not only earned his one year ticket into Baton Rouge, he may have helped to punch LSU's ticket back to the exclusive penthouse of the college football world as well.

Following a hard fought game in which LSU jumped out to a 10-0 lead, then floundered as Auburn put up 21 unanswered points, the fourth quarter was one of the most impressive displays by this Tiger team in quite some time.

Down 21-10, Dave Aranda's defense did all it could do to keep the game within reach, holding Auburn to 89 yards on their final five drives of the game. All of those drives were scoreless, two of which were 3 and outs and one ending in an interception by the Tigers in purple and gold.

Auburn's defense was up to the task as well, holding LSU to 3 points on their previous seven drives before Joe Burrow floated a perfect pass over the fingertips of an Auburn defender into the hands of Derrick Dillon halfway through the fourth quarter. There was no one between Dillon and the end zone, and 71 yards later the game was 21-19 with just over 8 minutes to play. Perhaps fortunately, LSU failed to convert the 2 point conversion, leading to a somewhat conservative approach by Gus Malzahn on the ensuing possession.

The defense was unforgiving, forcing another three and out and giving the ball back to Burrow with 5 minutes and 24 seconds left in the game. Auburn would not touch the ball again. LSU went on a 14 play drive that was not for the faint of heart. Covering a modest 52 yards in a whopping five and a half minutes is something that won't be seen often, but the Tigers needed every one of those plays and seconds to secure the monumental victory.

Burrow converted a 3rd and 11, a 3rd and 7, and a 4th and 7 on the drive, and showed the same poise and leadership that he did against Miami in the first start of his career. Under the most intense pressure he may see all season, the transfer from Ohio State made calls at the line of scrimmage and used both his arm and legs to move the chains once his eyes had told him where the holes in the defense would be.

While the game may not have always been pretty, Tracy's 42 yard game winning walk off field goal was about as pretty as any play in recent memory. That put an exclamation mark on an opening month that saw LSU topple two teams ranked in the top 10, a feat that apparently has only been done twice before in college football history.

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THOUGHT I HEARD A RUMBLING

Despite the respect this team has earned from its showcase performances against Miami and Auburn, there have been old familiar signs of weakness creeping in against the less hyped up matchups with Southeastern and Louisiana Tech.

The Tigers looked disinterested and sluggish against a heavily outmatched Southeastern team as they held the ball for less than 25 minutes in the game. LSU led only 24-0 in the final minutes before a late touchdown pushed the final score to 31-0.

Things were even more frustrating against Louisiana Tech, as the home team was outgained by the fired up Bulldogs, and the defense showed an inability to get off the field. LSU held a precarious 24-21 advantage deep into the fourth quarter before two late touchdowns again gave the appearance of a much more comfortable win than it actually was.

Beyond those uninspiring final scores, however, were signs of even more troubling traits that seem all too familiar to Tiger Nation as the same problems that have recently held this program back.

Despite all of the critical plays he has made in his first four games as a Tiger, Joe Burrow has somehow completed less than 50% of his passes. While that has become the popular talking point among the media and many fans, there is no question that Burrow does not suffer from the same limitations that so many recent Tiger quarterbacks have. There aren't any throws he can't make, and more importantly there aren't any throws that appear to be off limits, as he has been allowed to make throws all over the field, including intermediate throws and throws over the middle of the field.

His statistical shortcomings are more a reflection of the pieces around him not holding up their end of the transaction. Whether it be receivers simply dropping catchable passes, or his line not providing protection, Burrow's numbers would look much different had it not been for frustrating drops as well as commendable throwaways to avoid sacks when he is escaping pressure or simply doesn't have time to let plays develop.

The receiving corps is talented but young, and Burrow hasn't had a lot of time to develop timing with them since his late arrival this summer. The offensive line has been more of a disappointment given the growing pains the unit suffered through and seemed to grow out of early last year.

That said, Miami has a very good front seven, and Auburn has possibly the best defensive line that LSU will see all season. Seeing them rise to the occasion and not being absolutely overrun, especially on The Plains, in pivotal moments is certainly impressive and a solid foundation to build upon as this team continues to grow and progress throughout the season.

Still, the most ominous sign from performances like those against the in state foes comes from the coaching staff and the overall approach to these types of games. For years, Les Miles was criticized for his inability to get his teams ready against these "rent a wins", and a tendency to take his foot off of the gas in situations like the Miami game, when LSU led 33-3 in the third quarter before the team appeared to go conservative and finished with a 33-17 win.

With an offense under his second new coordinator in as many seasons that currently ranks dead last in the SEC, there are grumblings that nothing has changed, or may have even gotten worse, in the overall production on offense since Les Miles was fired. This week marked the two year anniversary since that decision was made, due in large part to his inability to modernize that very unit.

Of course, winning is the ultimate judge, but if Ed Orgeron truly wants to take this program back to the championship level he was hired to achieve, wasting opportunities to both start and finish strong on both sides of the ball against any opponent, no matter the ranking, isn't the way to do it.

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DON'T LOOK BACK TO SEE

If LSU wants to maintain the pace it will require to earn their first ever invitation to a New Year's Six Bowl Game, they cannot afford a slip up against the middle and lower tier teams of the SEC that are still to come. If they do suffer such a loss the same way they have the past five seasons, the stellar opening month we've just enjoyed will mean very little when it comes to evaluating the state of the program.

Over the next two weeks the coaching staff must continue to fine tune the approach that has brought them to the #5 ranking. Both Ole Miss and Florida are unranked and lost their conference openers, and both will be heavy underdogs to LSU. While the Tigers have to travel to The Swamp to face a rebuilding Gators team under Dan Mullen, Ed Orgeron is likely thankful to face his former employer in Tiger Stadium this weekend instead of across the border in Mississippi.

Their defense is ranked 120th in the country and will provide a wide open shooting gallery for Burrow and his receivers to work against. But the Rebel offense is dangerous and capable of putting up points against almost anyone they will face, other than Alabama, who blasted them 62-7 in Oxford two weeks ago. Still, there is no denying the talent at quarterback and wide receiver that Ole Miss has at its disposal. Ranked #14 in the country in total offense (compared to #106 for LSU), they have averaged over 50 points a game in their other three contests.

While the skill position players are outstanding, their offensive line will has the unenviable task of trying to slow down Dave Aranda's fast and aggressive front seven that has already forced nine turnovers on the season. Despite their ability to score points, if LSU can't do the same against this awful defense, things will become very uncomfortable in Baton Rouge for Ensminger and Orgeron.

While the scoreboard operator will stay busy this weekend, Florida should present a much more traditional SEC challenge, with the first team to the teens likely to earn the win. Florida struggled mightily against the only solid defense they have faced against in Kentucky. With a quarterback situation that Tiger Nation should recognize all too well, even Dan Mullen won't be able to figure out a way to do much against this LSU defense.

While the Florida defense is respectable, the middling offenses of both Tennessee and Kentucky scored in the 20s against them. That should be more than enough to get out of Gainesville, for the second year in a row, with a win. Again, if LSU can't figure out a way to beat a Florida team that didn't go to a bowl game and may not again this year, this program simply isn't where it needs to be after two years under new leadership.

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GUNS ARE LOADED

As long as LSU takes care of business in the next two weeks, the season will truly begin to take shape as October comes to a close with both Georgia and Mississippi State traveling to Tiger Stadium.

Georgia is currently ranked #2 in the country, and played Alabama to the wire last year for the national championship. That was Kirby Smart's second year as head coach, and represents everything that LSU fans hoped and were told that Ed Orgeron could do for LSU.

There is no question that Georgia is a very good football team. But this is a team that is still largely living off of their reputation from last year rather than anything they have done this year, and UGA lost a substantial amount of talent and leadership from last year. The NFL Draft was littered with Bulldogs including three first rounders, five picks in the top three rounds, and seven total players currently on active NFL rosters.

There is still ample talent that LSU will have to deal with in this potential clash of top 5 teams. Sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm has picked up right where he left off as a true freshman, and appears to be one of the best quarterbacks LSU will face all season. While sophomore running back D'Andre Swift got most of the preseason accolades, junior Elijah Holyfield, son of the former heavyweight champ, has proven to be the most explosive player in the backfield. He gives the running game another one two punch that made them so dominant last season, and diminutive junior receiver Mecole Hardman is a big play waiting to happen. The offensive line and linebacking corps are still trying to reload, however, and are areas that give both Dave Aranda and Steve Ensminger points that could be vulnerable to attack.

While Georgia may still be a slight favorite, even in Tiger Stadium, this is the type of marquee game that LSU has already shown they can win if the team is ready to play.

The following week, Mississippi State will make the trip to Baton Rouge for a pivotal game in Ed Orgeron's tenure. Last year, the Bulldogs absolutely embarrassed LSU 37-7 in their biggest defeat in the 111 game series between the two schools. That led to cringeworthy performances against Syracuse and Troy in the following weeks, capping off a September that couldn't have been more different than current one.

While Mississippi State returns quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who torched LSU to the tune of four touchdowns last season, longtime head coach Dan Mullen has finally moved on, leaving unproven first year man Joe Morehead to lead this team into Death Valley against a revenge minded group of Tigers.

There are playmakers at his disposal, however, including Louisiana native and former LSU commit Stephen Guidry who has emerged as the top wide receiver in Starkville. The Bulldogs have also added Kylin Hill and Osiris Mitchell to their backfield and receiving corps, respectively, to go along with returning players Aeric Williams and Keith Mixon who were both used by Mullen to great success last year against the Tigers.

Mississippi State also returns two standouts on the defensive line in juniors Montez Sweat and another Louisiana native Jeffrey Simmons that will provide yet another challenging front for LSU's offensive line to handle. So while Burrow may once again find himself without much time to throw, Mississippi State has proven less stout against the run, giving up over 200 yards rushing and four rushing touchdowns in a loss to Kentucky last weekend.

That means senior breakout Nick Brosette will likely play a big role in avenging last season's loss. After waiting for patiently for years, Brossette has emerged as the newest Tiger runner, ranking fourth in the SEC in rushing yardage, and second in touchdowns. As long as he stays healthy, LSU will have a reliable and explosive option to keep pressure off of Burrow and the passing game.

While a win over Georgia would be a slight upset, Mississippi State is a must win game, especially considering LSU hasn't lost back to back games to the days of Curley Hallman in 1990 and 91. If Ed Orgeron allows a new head coach that is a newcomer in the SEC to derail this season in Tiger Stadium, once again, his seat will begin to get uncomfortably warm as the Alabama game looms on the horizon.

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TAKE AIM

With 10-2 being the benchmark to receive that elusive NY6 Bowl bid, it appeared going into the season that getting a win against either Auburn or Miami was key to staying on pace to reach that goal. When Tracy's kick sailed perfectly between the goal posts, getting that bid not only became much more likely, it also upped the ante for what this team may be able to accomplish this season.

Splitting games against the four top teams on the schedule was a reasonable expectation in Orgeron's second full season, and ending the season 10-2 would still be a great accomplishment. But now that we have actually seen what this team is capable of, it seems possible to continue to reach even higher.

Maintaining the goal of splitting with the top teams left of the schedule, with now only Georgia and Alabama remaining, would push that bar to 11-1. At that mark, this team isn't limited to a New Year's Six Bowl, but they would have proven themselves to be a prime candidate for the College Football Playoff.

While that is certainly a tall task, it isn't one that is unreasonable or out of reach, provided this team continues to improve as the season goes on. With Burrow and his receivers continuing to gel, and his offensive line settling into their new roles, there is not reason that this fierce defense can't continue to put them in position to win games against even the best of competition.

If Orgeron and his staff want to silence any lingering concerns over his ability to lead this team back up the championship mountain, he won't have many better opportunities than the one sitting right in front of him.

No one is saying it would be easy, but when has a championship ever come easily in Baton Rouge?

"Whoa, thought it was a nightmare, low, it's all true..."

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