Big Picture: How LSU Tigers have become major players in SEC race

OK, so upon further review this just might not be such a down year for LSU after all. The Tigers, who earlier this month looked downright dreadful in a 41-7 loss at Auburn, reminded the rest of the college football world Saturday night that they are just as dangerous — and as talented — as ever. 

Les Miles’ extremely young squad overcame four turnovers and still beat No. 3 Ole Miss and its vaunted defense, 10-7, at Tiger Stadium. It was a vintage Tiger performance. There was a late Tiger rally — LSU’s 24th fourth-quarter comeback victory in Miles’ 10 years in Baton Rouge. There was a suffocating Tiger defensive effort, forcing Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace into a 14-of-33 passing effort that was low-lighted by a late, game-clinching INT. There was also a punishing LSU ground game that saw the Tigers roll up 264 yards on what had been the country’s No. 1 defense.

The headliner was the emergence of former No. 1 recruit Leonard Fournette, who against Ole Miss looked every bit like the phenom he was touted to be, rushing for 113 yards while also shining as a receiver and return man, totaling 211 all-purpose yards. The 230-pound freshman also was involved in one of the more bizarre highlights you’ll see all season. Fournette had just broken off a 22-yard run to set LSU up at the Ole Miss 13 late in the game. He got the ball on the next play and barreled his way for the end zone but was corralled after Serdarius Bryant literally snapped the facemask off the Tiger’s helmet as the Rebel was going to the ground. 

"(Fournette) came off the field and he looked like a player from 1942 with no facemask on his helmet," LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson told FOX Sports Sunday. "All he said was, ‘Hurry up so I can get back in there.’"

The Tigers scored the game-winning TD two plays later on a play-action pass — the only pass on the 13-play TD drive — from Anthony Jennings to a wide-open Logan Stokes.

"We found our identity and we’ve embraced who we are, but we aren’t there yet," Wilson said, adding that the Tigers started to find themselves in the 30-27 come-from-behind win at Florida three weeks ago behind Fournette’s 140 rushing yards. Last week, LSU hammered an upstart Kentucky team hoping to crack the Top 25, 41-3.

Fournette is a big part of that identity. The rampaging 230-pounder runs with great pad level, has fierce leg drive and also is one of the five fastest men on the Tigers roster. According to Wilson, Fournette has learned to not be overzealous and is now allowing plays to develop. 

"He’s being patient now and knows that every carry is not always gonna be (a) home run," Wilson said. "Sometimes it may only be (a) six-yard run. Sometimes it may only go for three. He’s figuring out that he can’t always cut back across the grain, and that the defense is like a puzzle and they have their pursuit angles, and that our line is taught specifically about how they take their steps and what their hat place (needs to be on a certain play), so you can’t be on a different page from them. He gets that now."

Fournette also proved Saturday night he’s not only a headache for defenses as a ball-carrier, but he also made a terrific over-the-shoulder catch past a linebacker on a 40-yard reception. 

Tiger offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said Fournette has uncanny maturity for such a young player. "He is a consistently hard worker and prepares like an upperclassman," Cameron told FOX Sports Sunday afternoon. "In my book, he’s even better than I thought."


As impressive as Fournette was, as Wilson reviewed the Ole Miss game film, he came away raving about another Tiger, senior offensive tackle La’el Collins, who saw plenty of Ole Miss star D-lineman Robert Nkemdiche.

"La’el had a monstrous game. I’ve only gotten to play No. 24 and I’ve already counted six pancake blocks,” said Wilson before rattling off a list of former first-round O-linemen he’s been around, who he believes weren’t anywhere near as complete as the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Collins.

"If La’el Collins is not a top-five draft pick, I’ll kiss my own ass," Wilson said.

Cameron, a long-time NFL coach, was almost as effusive when it comes to Collins. 

"He was dominant (Saturday) night," said Cameron. "He’s improving at such a rapid rate. He’s probably half as good right now as he’s gonna ultimately be. La’el has the heart of a lion. He’s a warrior. His leadership has been as good as I’ve been around. There are very few guys who you can legitimately say can be dominant tackles or dominant guards. He can. To have that much versatility, that is uncommon."


With Collins paving the way, the Tigers have amassed 26 run plays of at least 10-plus yards a piece just in the past three games — not bad for an offense starting six players who are either freshmen or sophomores. 

On defense, the Tigers are just as green, starting only two seniors along with five players who are either freshmen or sophomores. A budding star is sophomore middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith, who had 11 tackles against Ole Miss. 

"We’re a different team with him in the middle," said Wilson. "He’s 6-3, 250 and so physical. He’s a true Mike with 4.5 speed. He just needed to recognize what the offense was doing and now he’s playing fast because before he was thinking all the time."

The Tigers held the Rebels to just 36 rushing yards on 19 carries in the second half as the pressure mounted on Wallace. This is all such a big change from their home loss to Mississippi State, where they were outrushed 302-89, or at Auburn, where they surrendered 298 rushing yards.

LSU now has a week off to get ready for a visit from another No. 3-ranked team, Alabama. With another win, the Tigers not only would have a chance to throw the SEC West into more chaos, they might even have a shot to get back into the race themselves — a thought that seemed pretty far-fetched earlier this month.


On Tuesday night, this whole “best” vs. “most deserving” stuff is gonna probably get maddening for some folks around college football and many fans. With that said, here is my latest FOX Four ballot:


1. Mississippi State: I like the Bulldogs’ backfield a lot. They came up big on the road against Kentucky Saturday and MSU’s resume is strong. Plus that win at LSU keeps looking better — although I do wonder about pollsters propping up certain factors whenever it seems to suit their case (kinda like I just did here) — meaning the LSU team they beat wasn’t as formidable or focused as the one Ole Miss faced or that Alabama will face.

2. Florida State: The Noles are the only other undefeated team from the Power 5. Their resume isn’t quite as strong as MSU’s, but their W over Notre Dame last week is a good chip in their pocket. However, the strength of the ACC won’t do them any favors. Still, as long as they keep winning, their path to the playoff is clear.

3. Oregon: A 19-point win over a very good Michigan State team is the best point they can make, and credit to them for scheduling a home-and-home with the Big Ten power (the deal was made just two years ago). They also thumped UCLA on the road, at one point leading 42-10 in the fourth quarter. The downside: The Ducks did lose at home to Arizona, but that was without Jake Fisher, their top OT.

4. Notre Dame: I was really impressed with how the Irish dominated the line of scrimmage at FSU and came about as close as possible to knocking off the defending champs. ND’s win over Stanford looks OK. Actually it looks a little better than it did last week. And the Irish do deserve credit for not scheduling any FCS or Division II teams. Ever.

5. Alabama: The Tide’s best win so far was the opener against a WVU team that is now surging. That said, the Mountaineers, especially on D, have improved more than most over the course of this season, I think. But I’m not going to try to make this like an LSU type curve. After that, the Tide have the dominant showing at home against then-No. 22 Texas A&M and the loss at Ole Miss. I was torn about putting Bama over an Ole Miss team that beat the Tide, but like the Oregon/Arizona dynamic, there has been a few weeks since and that, fair or unfair, gives me the wiggle room to factor in the wildcard/get-out-of-jail free card of "best" vs. "most deserving."


6. Arizona: They’re really young at a lot of key spots, but they deserve a ton of credit for beating Oregon at Autzen, which is the best road win of the college football season so far, and the Cats’ lone loss was against USC and on a last-second field goal. I know — they also dodged another L thanks to their Hail Mary against Cal. I’m sure a lot of voters won’t be on board, exercising their "best" argument with Arizona, but the Cats have proven more than a lot of top-10 teams have so far.

7. Auburn:  A win at K-State looks nice, as does a demolition of LSU, which figures to look better and better. However, I have them behind their archrivals, because MSU jumped all over them and was up 21-0 before winning by 15.

8. Michigan State: The Spartans were leading the Ducks in the third quarter before the wheels fell off. The Spartans are superb on D (as usual) and very tough on offense. Their best win was over a 7-1 Nebraska team. They get a chance to make a bigger statement in two weeks against Ohio State.

9. Ole Miss: I really like the Rebs’ D, but it did give up over 260 yards rushing to a one-dimensional LSU team this week and lost. They also beat Bama this season, and Bo Wallace played exceptionally well in that game, but he was dreadful in Baton Rouge Saturday night and it’s a stretch to think he’ll be closer to the Bama Bo than the LSU Bo going forward in big games.

10. TCU: The new Horned Frogs O is explosive, putting up 82 on a beleaguered Texas Tech team. TCU now leads the nation in scoring at 50.4 ppg. They beat both Oklahoma schools when they were ranked in the top 15 and their lone loss was at Baylor by three. If they win the next two weeks — at WVU and vs. K-State — they’ll have made a strong case to crack the top five. Their resume is better than Michigan State’s, but at this point I believe that the Spartans would beat TCU on a neutral field.


Speaking of the Big 12: It’s been a lot of fun so far, especially with the two newbies, TCU and WVU, now having the inside track to the conference title. Both teams have had quite the metamorphosis thanks to staff shake-ups. TCU spruced up the offense with the arrivals of Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, two guys Dana Holgorsen is very familiar with from his previous coaching stops, and the Mountaineers seem radically different for how well they’re playing for first-year DC Tony Gibson. 


The Horned Frogs last season ranked No. 88 in scoring at 25 ppg — just half of what they’re averaging this season as Trevone Boykin has emerged as a Heisman Trophy contender. 

Last week, I wrote a lot about how Gibson contained the explosive Baylor attack despite being down both starting corners. Here’s a little p.s. to that:

Last year, WVU ranked 91st in the nation in third-down D (at 43 percent allowed). In 2012, WVU ranked No. 104 at just 46 percent. However, in the past month, Gibson’s D is holding teams to just 21 percent on third-down tries, and Baylor and Oklahoma State converted just 16 percent of the time. The showdown Saturday in Morgantown between TCU and WVU should be a blast.


1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

2. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State

3. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

4. Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana

5. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska – Abdullah is my new addition, as he set a Cornhusker record with 341 yards, and 225 of them coming on the ground, against Rutgers.


If, as expected, Mariota leaves early for the NFL after this season, Oregon will have quite a challenge replacing the star QB, but the skill talent around Eugene is strong.

The Ducks have scored 50 TDs so far, and 22 of them have been scored by freshmen.


Props to Arizona’s play-making LB Scooby Wright, who was the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week after making three sacks and forcing three fumbles in the Cats’ romp at Washington State.

Wright was quite the recruiting coup for Arizona. UA was the first to offer him and 10 days later he committed. A few Mountain West programs came in on him later while another Pac-12 program straight up told the California native he just wasn’t good enough, according to an Arizona source. In four Pac-12 games this season, the sophomore has 11 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles.



I’m skeptical that Mack Brown will be a real player for the SMU coaching job. The former Texas coach, whose name was mentioned by the Dallas Morning News a few days ago in connection with a big money pitch for the Mustangs head coaching job, I’m told is not seen as a viable option by SMU brass.

Three more sensible names to remember: Ohio State OC Tom Herman, Clemson OC Chad Morris and East Carolina OC Lincoln Riley. All three are considered among the sharpest assistants in the country and each have strong Texas ties. Another option: Memphis coach Justin Fuente, a former TCU assistant. Fuente’s Tigers gave the hapless Mustangs a good look Saturday when they blew out SMU, 48-10, at their place.


A name to keep in mind for the Buffalo vacancy: Lance Leipold of Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater. This is his eighth season at the school. He’s won five national titles and lost just six games. His career record: 100-6.



So what has happened to Sean Mannion this season? I mean, like, besides not having the great Brandin Cooks around to wreck defenses. He’s gone from 37 TD passes last season to just seven in seven games this year. 


In Butch Jones’ first 20 games at Tennessee, 10 of the Vols’ opponents have been ranked in the top 12 and five of them were in the top four. Tennessee is ridiculously young, with a whopping 24 true freshmen playing and just nine seniors or juniors starting. UT is starting six true freshmen on offense alone. Recruiting, by all accounts, is going exceptionally well for the Vols. The biggest question is will they have a QB to lead this team as the kids grow up? In the loss to Alabama, brainy sophomore Josh Dobbs came off the bench and gave the Tide some fits with his legs and also threw the ball pretty well, which might’ve been as encouraging as anything for the Vols in a while.



Only one of the five teams with the fewest penalties in FBS has a winning record — 6-1 Kansas State. The other four (New Mexico State, Navy, Tennessee and Michigan) have a combined record of 12-20. Meanwhile, only one of the five MOST penalized teams in FBS has a losing record — 3-5 Texas Tech. The other four (Marshall, BYU, Baylor and East Carolina) have a combined record of 24-6.


Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.