Somehow, someway, we’re just days away from the first full Saturday of the college football season! After spending the last few months breaking down every angle in the sport, it’s finally time to talk about the national championship contenders. Therefore, go ahead and step aside, Purdue. Deuces, Iowa State. See ya later Oklahom --- oh wait, Bob Stoops’ club is actually really good. We already have discussed Ohio State, the Washington Huskies, the Houston Cougars, the Tennessee Vols and the TCU Horned Frogs.
Now it’s time to head back to the SEC and focus on the LSU Tigers. Here are five reasons Les Miles’ team can not only win the division, but go on to win the national championship as well.
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY SporCrystal LoGiudice
Leonard Fournette will be as monstrous as ever
Look, we all know Fournette was an absolute monster last year, but given the way LSU finished its season and Derrick Henry emerged late, I really do think people forget just how dominant Fournette was at certain points last season. For starters, there's the 1,953 yards rushing, which included 10 games with at least 100 yards on the ground and three with over 200. That is incredible output for any running back, but even more amazing when you consider that he did it in two fewer games than most of his competition.
That’s right, LSU didn’t play in a conference title game and lost one game due to weather, meaning that while Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey rushed for more total yards than Fournette, neither came close to his 162 yards per game average. No one in college football did.
Still, with Fournette it wasn’t just the numbers that he put up, but the beauty with which he ran. It was his ability to break through the hole, shift into fifth gear and cruise untouched for a 40-yard touchdown run on one possession, then use his brute strength to brush off four, five or six tacklers on the way to the end zone on the next possession. Point being, while Henry won the Heisman Trophy, and McCaffrey got plenty of love, nobody -- at his best -- was more fun to watch than Fournette last year. With another offseason of progression, it will be fascinating to see what he’s got in store for us this year.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY SportsDerick E. Hingle
Quarterback Brandon Harris has plenty of help around him
It’s no secret that LSU’s entire season basically rests on the shoulder of quarterback Brandon Harris (hey, no pressure, kid). As good as Fournette was, he can only do so much, especially when defenses load the box because they know the quarterback can’t beat them. Whether Harris is actually better or not, only time will tell. But he has plenty of talent around him to help.
Malachi Dupre is a former five-star guy who was considered every bit the super-recruit Fournette was in 2014 and should break out after a solid 43-catch, six-touchdown campaign a season ago. Travin Dural is about as solid a No. 2 option as there is in the SEC (assuming he can stay away from the Popeye’s fried chicken) after making 28 catches prior to injury last season. Colin Jeter is a solid red zone threat at tight end, and Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams are power backs who might not have the breakaway speed of Fournette but can punish opposing defenses when they get their chance (they combined for seven touchdowns last season).
It’s also why I’m a bit more bullish on the LSU offense than most. Yes, Harris needs to improve, but the good news is that he has the pieces around him to help. Also, doesn’t this team feel like it has the make-up of the Tigers’ SEC-title winner in 2011, the one that came in with question marks at the quarterback spot but still managed to make the BCS title game at 13-0? It seems like it, especially when you consider ...
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The defense is absolutely loaded
At this point, we all just assume Alabama has the best defense in college football in the same way we all assume that every new Taylor Swift song will immediately become a head-bopping success that we will all sing to ourselves in the car (Oh wait, that’s just me?). But while Alabama is still stacked on D, I’d actually argue that it’s LSU with the better top-end talent.
It starts up front, where LSU has arguably the deepest set of skilled pass rushers in college football, guys who will absolutely terrorize opposing quarterbacks. Even without Davon Godchaux (who is out for the season with an injury), Lewis Neal (9.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks last season) and Arden Key (6.5 TFLs) provide the star power on the D-line, with guys like Frank Herron and Tashawn Bower adding depth.
At linebacker, Kendell Beckwith bypassed the NFL to come back to Baton Rouge (after tallying 84 total tackles last year), and the Tigers’ group of defensive backs might be the best in the country. Jamal Adams is an absolute star and a terror for opposing offenses after tallying four picks last year, and Tre’Davious White is now entering his fourth year as a starter after earning All-SEC honors a season ago.
Oh, and in addition to the overall talent in Baton Rouge, they should be fundamentally better with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda from Wisconsin. Aranda is a future head coach in waiting and is the guy to take this defense from “good” to “great” after leading the nation’s No. 1 defense in Madison last year.
Getty ImagesStacy Revere
The schedule is manageable by SEC standards
Sometimes it isn’t just how good you are, but how good everyone else is around you. And in terms of this year’s schedule for LSU, it’s about as manageable as it has been in years.
For starters, the cross-division games are against a thoroughly underwhelming Missouri squad and a Florida team that is talented but has more questions than usual heading into the year. The West schedule is always tough, but the Tigers do have the benefit of playing their two toughest games (Alabama and Ole Miss) at home. That doesn’t guarantee victory in either game but is a good sign; they have won six of their last seven against Ole Miss in Baton Rouge, and if there was ever a year the Tigers were going to beat the Crimson Tide (they've lost five straight), this has to be a year when the game is in Death Valley, right? Plus LSU gets Bama while it's breaking in a new starting quarterback for the third straight year and has to replace Derrick Henry and DC Kirby Smart.
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
They’re playing for Les Miles
Look, I know that, at best, this reason is abstract, and at worst this isn’t a “reason” at all. At the same time, make no mistake about it: The Tigers know they’re playing for something larger than themselves this season. They’re playing for their coach.
As easy as it is to forget, Miles was -- quite literally -- one quarter away from being fired last season. With his career on the line, the Tigers held on to beat Texas A&M and then proceeded to carry Miles off the field. You think this team loves its coach? LSU then went out and crushed Texas Tech in their bowl game and held together a monster recruiting class, with several key players (including Beckwith and White) passing up the opportunity to go to the NFL to instead stay in Baton Rouge. As a matter of fact, doesn’t it say everything you need to know about this year’s team that not only did Beckwith decide to return to Baton Rouge, but explained it by saying, “I feel as if I have a lot of unfinished business at LSU?” That is a guy who knows what’s personally at stake and came back anyway. And he isn’t alone. The whole team knows what’s at stake.
It’s also the best reason why the Tigers might finally break through and not only win the SEC West, but the whole darn national championship as well.
Aaron Torres covers college football for FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com.