And the time has arrived for my 11th season of writing about LSU football for this here website. That’s a long time. Marriage, kids, real jobs that have come and gone. Each season had its memories, and this one will be no different. Regardless of the destination, always make sure to enjoy the journey.
So for the first time in what feels like a long time, the Tigers open in Death Valley as a heavy favorite against a non-conference opponent from the Sun Belt.
Of course, Georgia Southern is a bit more than the average Sun Belt squad. They’ve been a proud FCS program for a long time. They run a specialized offense that requires a very specific defensive gameplan. They fit into that most cursed of G5 non-conference opponents: pesky.
“Pesky,” as our esteemed Holly Anderson once defined on the Shutdown Fullcast, means “the kind of team that makes you look bad even when you win.”
It might not be next week’s mega match-up with Texas, but there will still be plenty to learn about the 2019 Tigers in how they handle a team that they should have no real problem with.
So let’s start the show...
LSU vs. Georgia Southern — What to Watch For
Georgia Southern hasn’t been in the FBS for very long, but they’re a storied program with six FCS national championships from the 1980s through the year 2000, the most recent one under Paul Johnson, who went on to a lot of success at Navy and Georgia Tech.
The backbone of the program, and the thing that makes them that aforementioned pesky team is their offense, built around the most perfect football play ever invented, the triple option. Richard Johnson and the SB Nation video team did a great job laying it out about a year ago:
The option is designed to make the defense wrong no matter what, and in its truest forms, get the defense moving one way while the ball goes another.
Georgia Southern doesn’t run the flexbone, but offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse has adapted the triple option into a funky spread-formation-based look that he ran to a ton of success at New Mexico previously. Honestly, in a vacuum it’s a lot of fun to watch. The Eagles will use multiple backs and motion receivers into different sets to create hell for a defense’s reads and get the ball into open space — with a few run-pass options worked in as well. The blocking will mostly be zone-based, as opposed to the cut blocks that are a staple of most flexbone teams, which is very good news for the Tiger defensive front.
That brings us to one of the most frequent problems of power programs facing the triple option, and oft-repeated false narratives: that you just stop the option with good, fundamentally-sound assignment football.
Assignment football is the very thing the triple-option is designed to attack. If the offense carries out its assignments, and the defense carries out theirs, the offense will get that ball into the hands of a player the defense can’t account for.
So how do you stop it?
A defense can try and load up the numbers and have defensive backs cheat against the pass, but that would obviously create other vulnerabilities. More so with a team that will spread the field and try to create space for the receivers.
Defending the triple option requires controlled but deliberate aggression from the A-gaps out. The defensive front needs to control blocking so that the pursuit can rally to the ball and prevent the option’s numbers advantage. Defenders flying up the field can find themselves vulnerable to getting read off by the quarterback. But if a defense can control the individual gaps, they can force the quarterback into decisions on their terms, not his.
For the defensive line, this involves what’s known as the block-down, step-down method — in which defenders step down into their nearest play-side gap when they feel a blocker attempting to come off of them to get down field. This can not only help stall the opposing line from getting to the second level, but also help close off the play-side gaps to the quarterback or the dive play.
From there, close each door until he has no choice but to go through the one you want.
Of course, the reason the triple option is a great offense for an underdog program is that it can increase variance for the offense. You can stop it four or five straight plays but that next one may still go a long ways if the pitch is timed perfectly and you don’t have your numbers. It’s a much lower margin for error; a defense has to play with a lot of consistency and specific discipline. Its easier to maintain that over time, but it can be tough in a one-week, one-game situation. Which is why we’ve seen triple-option teams pull upsets over the years. LSU does, at least, have the advantage of a little extra prep time because this game is a season-opener.
One sub-plot has been how this gameplan might apply going forward, but luckily the style of option the Eagles rely on won’t be completely foreign to teams like Texas, Florida, Auburn or Mississippi State. And on third-and-long situations, the contain principles that LSU will have to apply to Shai Werts will also apply to Sam Ehlinger or Feleipe Franks down the road.
Still, don’t be surprised if GSU makes a few plays and gets some yards. They have an experienced offensive line and a veteran quarterback that understands what he’s doing.
Of course, LSU can also help its defense by scoring early and often and taking Georgia Southern out of a more run-heavy game plan. The Eagles also play at a very deliberate pace, often lining up and making a few reads at the line of scrimmage before the actual play.
Which begs the question that most fans have about this game: will we see the new LSU offense we have all been promised this offseason? Yes. Will they be able to execute it? That remains to be seen.
But it also brings up the idea of what to show and what to hold back ahead of the match-up with Texas.
Personally, I’m a believer in a team running its offense, especially in an opener. Yes, there are some things you don’t want to show to Texas — more on that later — but on the whole, you run what you’re going to run and what you’ve been preparing to run. You can hide portions of a gameplan, but you can’t hide an entire offense.
If LSU truly is going to run at a faster tempo — and yes, I do believe they will — then they need to start that right out of the gate. You don’t break that for the first time on the road at Texas next week. Plus, with a more deliberate offense like GSU’s it’s a good idea anyway. Likewise, you get the newbies that you want to involve in early and often as well, particularly the backs like John Emery Jr. and Tyrion Davis-Price, or a receiver like Trey Palmer.
You run your bedrock plays — power, zone, stick, mesh, what have you. Texas is already expecting those things, if not from LSU, from most of the other teams on their schedule. Film or no film, what will matter is whether or not they can stop it.
You can hold back some constraints, like some play-action looks or screens. Maybe some specific formations or personnel groupings. If you have a concept that you believe will be especially effective on third-and-long against Texas, maybe you hold that back. But you run your offense.
The real question for this unit isn’t whether or not the offense will look different. It’s whether or not the offense will look good. It’s an opener, so you can expect a few hiccups, especially when we know there may be some starters out. But look for a general command and flow. Joe Brady has talked about the value of easy completions on early downs and staying on schedule — does this offense do that? Those little plays help set up the big ones down the road, and against a team like Georgia Southern, LSU’s offense should be able to give its athletes a chance to make some plays.
If things do click early for Joe Burrow and the passing game, I want to see if this group can still exert its will with the running game as a lead builds. Namely, get back to executing in short-yardage situations and in the red zone.
Things will get real next week, but for this one let’s enjoy the return of Tiger football.