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LSU Football Preview: Why The Tigers Can Win The National Title

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a 15-part series in which we preview college football’s top teams. We’ll be counting down from 15 to one, with the final team, released on Sept. 3 – the day college football starts – serving as our national title pick.

12. LSU Tigers

A bonafide national power in the mid-to-late 2000s, LSU has slipped a bit as the rest of the SEC West has improved, making the division a bear to get through with an unblemished record. The Tigers are 28-11 (15-9) since losing in the 2012 BCS National Championship to Alabama, which most teams would sign for in a heartbeat, but is a bit underwhelming for fans of the Bayou Bengals. 

There is some legitimate pressure on head coach Les Miles coming off of 2014's 8-5 campaign, but the Mad Hatter has the talent for a big bounce back season. LSU's last four recruiting classes have ranked 14th, sixth, second, and fifth in the country, per 247Sports composite rankings, and the defense was close to vintage LSU last season, finishing tied for fourth in the FBS in points per game allowed. Most of the questions lie on the offensive side of the ball, and specifically the quarterback position. Will the Tigers graze around the .500 mark in conference for a second straight year, or does Miles have a College Football Playoff run hidden up his sleeve?

Let's take a deeper look at LSU, one of the country's more interesting and enigmatic clubs.

Where They’re At In The Rankings

  • USA Today Coaches’ Poll – No. 13
  • ESPN FPI – No. 5
  • Las Vegas Odds – No. 8

The Schedule

Sept. 5 – vs. McNeese State
Sept. 12 – at Mississippi State
Sept. 19 – vs. No. 7 Auburn
Sept. 26 – at Syracuse
Oct. 3 – vs. Eastern Michigan
Oct. 10 – at South Carolina
Oct. 17 – vs. Florida
Oct. 24 – vs. Western Kentucky
Nov. 7 – at No. 3 Alabama
Nov. 14 – vs. No. 20 Arkansas
Nov. 21 – at No. 15 Ole Miss
Nov. 28 – vs. Texas A&M

Key Games

Sept. 19 vs. Auburn

LSU dives head first into the SEC West grind, with games against Mississippi State and a Top 10 Auburn team in weeks two and three of the season. State might finish last in the SEC West, as some have projected, but they also may have the conference's best quarterback in Dak Prescott. However, we're more interested in week three's game against Auburn. With a 3:30 (ET) kick-off, Death Valley projects to be incredibly intense for this game against a team that some think can make a playoff run of its own. Auburn's defense was pretty bad in 2014, but the addition of coordinator Will Muschamp should help that unit return to respectability pretty quickly. This will be a good early test for whichever quarterback emerges as the starter from camp, and a win over a team of Auburn's stature this early would get the hype train rolling for LSU as they enter a very manageable stretch of Syracuse, Eastern Michigan, South Carolina, Florida, and Western Kentucky. A win here could have LSU sitting at 8-0 heading into the showdown with Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Nov. 7 at Alabama

Speaking of that Alabama game, yeah, that's an important one. There is a pretty plausible scenario where this is a game between 8-0, top five teams that could wind up serving as an SEC Championship, if not College Football Playoff, knockout game. Alabama is the first game LSU has against a team in the preseason Top 25 after the September showdown with Auburn. A trip to Tuscaloosa for an 8-0 LSU team promises to expose them as paper tigers, or as championship contenders. This could be one of the most important games in the country, if it all shakes out correctly.

Nov. 14 vs. Arkansas

The Nov. 21 game against Ole Miss might be a big one, with the potential for some serious post-season ramifications. The reason we give a nod to this home game against Arkansas? LSU outlasted Ole Miss in a 10-7 slugfest last season. Against Arkansas? This happened.

">@LSU_Logo @HelmanJunior

@LSU_Logo@HelmanJunior@Arkansas_Logo SOON

— Darian Cunningham Jr (@D_Ray_CJ) July 30, 2015

">@Arkansas_Logo SOON

— Darian Cunningham Jr (@_DRCJ_32) July 30, 2015

After four losses in five games, Arkansas blanked the Tigers, holding Les Miles' team to a paltry 123 total yards. Arkansas shut out Ole Miss in the next game, beat Texas in a bowl, and after a 7-6 year, has as much upward momentum as anyone. Meanwhile, fans don't really seem to know what to make of LSU. A win over Arkansas would help take the sour taste out of the mouths of LSU fans, and could also have massive ramifications in the SEC West race, depending on how LSU fared in the aforementioned Alabama game.

Key Players

Leonard Fournette, sophomore running back

Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 recruiting class, was so highly regarded as a high school player, that his 1,034 yard, 10 touchdown true freshman campaign didn't even seem like that big of a deal. Even so, Fournette was the most productive player on LSU's offense last year, grinding out 5.5 yards per carry despite not playing with a great playmaking quarterback. Fournette is currently 14/1 to win the Heisman trophy, per Bovada, and last month he revealed that he has college football's greatest trophy on his mind.

Travin Dural, junior wide receiver

If LSU finds consistent quarterback play, this offense can go from one ranked No. 80 in total offense into one of the nation's scariest units in a hurry. The aforementioned Fournette is a legitimate Heisman contender in the backfield, and LSU has a litany of blue-chip level players in the receiving corps. Sophomores Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, John Diarse, and Kevin Spears, and freshman Tyron Johnson were all four or five-star recruits, but the unit is led by junior Travin Dural. The 6-foot-2 receiver was targeted 82 times last year by LSU quarterbacks, 47 more than any other player, and wound up with a very solid 758 yard, seven touchdown season despite inconsistency at quarterback. Dural has gamebreaking talent, he just needs someone to get him the ball.

Jalen Mills, senior safety

LSU did not get after the quarterback well in 2014, but the defense did not suffer much because of a very strong secondary. The Tigers have an incredibly strong group of safeties, led by senior Jalen Mills, that helped keep the top on the defense despite opposing quarterbacks having time to get through their reads. Mills finished 2014 with 62 total tackles and a pick, and has started all 39 games of his LSU career. With star cornerback Jalen Collins gone, and a somewhat inexperienced group filling in at that position, Mills will need to play at an elite level once again, especially if LSU continues to struggle getting after the quarterback.

Why They Can Win The National Title

LSU had major issues in 2014, many of which boil down to issues with the quarterback position. Junior Anthony Jennings completed fewer than half his passes and only 5.8 yards per attempt last season, while sophomore Brandon Harris, who is currently taking first team reps, was better in limited time, but struggled mightily in a game against Auburn, going 3-for-14 for 58 yards, 52 of which came on a long throw to Dupre before getting pulled in the third quarter.

If one of those two can develop into an above-average quarterback, they'll have plenty of help. Fournette is one of the nation's top running backs, and will take on an even bigger role in the offense in 2015. A receiver group of Dural, Dupre, Quinn, and Diarse is about as talented as any in the country. LSU loses acclaimed defensive coordinator John Chavis to SEC West rival Texas A&M, replacing him with former Baylor head coach and Clemson coordinator Kevin Steele. LSU has had one of the nation's best, most consistent defenses during Les Miles' tenure. As long as Steele can maintain the status quo, LSU should have a defense that can compete for a title. 

During its seven year stretch of BCS dominance, SEC national champions started Chris Leak, Matt Flynn, Tim Tebow, Greg McElroy, Cam Newton, and A.J. McCarron at quarterback. While there are a few Heisman winners and all-time greats in that mix, a team with a great defense and top playmakers on offense can make an undefeated run and win a title. Barring a breakout from Harris or Jennings, that may be what LSU is looking at this year. Reaching even a Flynn or McElroy level would be a big step up for LSU's quarterbacks, but it doesn't seem totally out of the question. The SEC West is a gauntlet, but any team that makes it through with even one loss, and wins the SEC title, should be a good bet to make the College Football Playoff. 8-5 to 12-1 or 13-0 is a big jump, but LSU is as talented as anyone, and we would never put anything past a Les Miles-led team.

Last week: No. 13 Arkansas; up tomorrow: No. 11 Clemson