The 2013 LSU Tigers are proving to be the exception to that rule, as Les Miles' crew this fall is unlike any of the previous four or five editions of the Bayou Bengals under The Hat.
Instead of what Tiger fans had become accustomed to – a team predicated on great, opportunistic defense and an unimaginative offense that just hoped to maul the opposition on the ground, LSU suddenly features a pro-style passing game that's lighting up the SEC and, conversely, a floundering defense that's playing musical chairs in the secondary and lacks quality depth.
Now, as the conference has seen this fall virtually everywhere outside of Gainesville, defense is on the decline. After losing so many defensive underclassmen to the NFL in April, LSU is not surprisingly among the teams playing catch-up versus high-powered offenses and an elite crop of quarterbacks.
But, what's going on with the other side of the ball for LSU is all about internal factors inside TigerTown. Zach Mettenberger, now a senior, is displaying a lot of the growth and maturity any starter would at quarterback going from his first to second season. He, and the entire offense, have also benefited tremendously from new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who has fine-tuned this LSU offense and passing game.
As referenced above, Miles' offenses have conditioned SEC defenses for the last half-decade to expect a very heavy dose of the power-run game (primarily out of a two-tight I-formation). That seems to be the only plausible explanation for why, even after all the success LSU has had throwing the ball through six games in 2013, defenses continue to flood the box with eight defenders against the Tigers.
Mettenberger has absolutely feasted on this tendency, routinely completing passes to Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry from run-predictable sets and even from the shotgun. LSU's senior signal caller has connected on 107 of 157 attempts (68.2%) for 1,738 yards (289.7 yards per game) and 15 touchdowns against only two interceptions. He's quite simply been a different player than a season ago – processing defenses and blitzes quicker, working with a better internal clock, sifting through the pocket better and getting rid of the football much faster than he ever did in 2012.
However, according to Beckham and Landry, the one thing Mettenberger is doing now that's made the biggest difference is showing trust in them. Last season both receivers felt as if Mettenberger wouldn't let it fly unless they had copious amounts of separation. Fast-forward to current day, and No. 8 is putting the ball up for those two to go get it, whether it's on back-shoulder fades, lobs into the end zone or lasers over the middle of the field in traffic (see Landry in the Georgia game).
He's been rewarded.
Beckham, who leads the nation in all-purpose yards, has hauled in 35 passes for 686 yards and six touchdowns. He's been more of a deep threat, too, averaging a stout 19.6 yards per catch. Landry, typically more of the chain-mover, has 42 grabs for 616 yards and seven touchdowns. Combined the duo accounts for 217.0 of Mettenberger's 289.7 yards per game. (It should be noted that Landry tweaked his right ankle before halftime on Saturday. He came back in and finished the game, but Landry has been in a walking boot all week. Expect him to play versus Florida but not at 100 percent.)
Of course, as with any Miles offense, there will be an attempt at balance. Sophomore Jeremy Hill enters this weekend as LSU's lead back and is also a player beginning to gain steam after sitting out the opener due to suspension and figuring in sparingly the following week.
Hill, in the last three weeks versus Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State, has rushed for 427 yards and six touchdowns. For the season he's averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Since the start of SEC play, he's received about 65-70% of the carries doled out to tailbacks, with the other 30-35% going by committee to Kenny Hilliard (a bruiser who will play near the goal line and in short distance sets), Terrence Magee (the best pass-catcher out of the backfield) and Alfred Blue (the most versatile backup who is finally starting to look back to normal from a knee injury).
Along the offensive line, LSU has its starting five intact, but those guys have had some issues the past few weeks, particularly in pass protection. The Tiger front had only conceded two sacks through the team's opening three games, all against non-conference opposition, but they've allowed nine takedowns of Mettenberger in the three weeks that have followed versus SEC defenses.
The biggest impact of this development: Cam Cameron has had to leave in two backs more often than not in shotgun formations when LSU has to throw on second- or third-and-long. It's usually been Hill and tight end Travis Dickson back there, but no matter who it is, it takes away from the amount of route runners LSU has out in patterns, putting even more pressure on Beckham and Landry to get open.
At tight end Dickson is the preferred pass-catcher while LSU will rotate in plenty of Dillon Gordon and Logan Stokes to help bolster the line in run-blocking. Of those latter two, Gordon is the only one who could conceivably see a pass thrown his way.
Overall, considering LSU is passing for 291.5 yards per game and rushing for 197.3 yards per game, it's safe to say the Tigers can adapt to whatever a defense throws at them and both run and pass successfully. It has become obvious, however, that this offense would prefer to set up the run with the pass, and that's a big change from recent years.
Projected Starters: QB – Zach Mettenberger (6-5, 235, Sr.), RB – Jeremy Hill (6-2, 235, So.), FB – J.C. Copeland (6-1, 270, Sr.), WR (X) – Odell Beckham (6-0, 193, Jr.), WR (Z) – Jarvis Landry (6-1, 195, Jr.), TE – Dillon Gordon (6-5, 286, So.), LT – La'el Collins (6-5, 315, Jr.), LG – Vadal Alexander (6-6, 342, So.), C – Elliott Porter (6-4, 300, Jr.), RG – Trai Turner (6-3, 316, So.), RT – Jerald Hawkins (6-6, 301, R-Fr.)
It's hard to identify one specific thing when talking about all the areas where John Chavis' defense has seen a drop-off this fall. Perhaps the most appropriate thing to point out is that all over the field there's nowhere near the same level of quality and experienced depth that the Chief is used to taking to battle.
That problem has been most glaring across LSU's defensive front, where starting defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson have played way too much football this fall, too often wearing down in the second halves of ballgames. Against Mississippi State last week, position coach Brick Haley did finally rotate in a little more of Christian Lacouture, a true freshman, and Quentin Thomas, an unproven third-year player, at tackle, but the Tigers have a long way to go still to develop trustworthy depth.
It's been a similar story at defensive end, where LSU has had the unenviable task of replacing Sam Montgomery, KeKe Mingo and Lavar Edwards. That responsibility so far has fallen on the trio of Jermauria Rasco, Danielle Hunter and Jordan Allen. Hunter is the fastest of the three but also the most likely to get pushed around while Allen can provide a good run-stuffing option and Rasco, who's finally starting to turn the corner after offseason shoulder surgery, should be the best of the threesome. Behind those three, virtually nobody has played serious minutes for the Tigers.
The LSU D-Line has struggled mightily to generate a sustained pass rush, with the seven aforementioned players combining for just seven sacks through six games. When the Tigers are able to get a surge on the line, it's most likely to come from inside with Ferguson and Johnson, and that's a big change from the last few seasons, when the ends collapsed the pocket so effectively. What that means: expect Chavis to blitz more outside linebackers and nickel backs versus Florida to make up the difference.
Speaking of the LSU ‘backers, they were thought to be the rock of this rebuilding defense in the preseason and, frankly, have been anything but that.
The Tigers have been uncharacteristically bad against the run, allowing the following rushing totals so far in 2013: 160 yards to UAB, 213 yards to Auburn, 196 yards to Georgia and 216 yards to Mississippi State. The linebacking corps is very much at the heart of this epidemic, as returning senior weakside LB Lamin Barrow (who notched 104 tackles in 2012) and first-year starter D.J. Welter, LSU's middle LB, have been unable to fill gaps and initiate contact with runners at the line of scrimmage.
Welter is being spelled more and more by sophomore Lamar Louis, but popular thinking around Baton Rouge (and, honestly, certain factions of the program) is that true freshman phenom Kendell Beckwith deserves more of a shot in the middle. It's possible the 6-3, 246-pounder, who can also factor in as an edge rusher, gets it versus Florida.
The one linebacker that has consistently performed when given time is sophomore Kwon Alexander. A violent tackler, Alexander has supplanted Tahj Jones, who's also dealing with a hamstring injury and hasn't dressed out the last two weeks, as LSU's starting strongside linebacker. Look for plenty of No. 25 all over the field Saturday.
In the secondary, the joke has been made and made this fall, but there is at least reasoning behind it – DBU is in danger of losing its accreditation.
What's become very clear is that the loss of Eric Reid at safety is the biggest LSU sustained in the offseason. Redshirt senior Craig Loston is simply not the vocal type back there, and the Tigers have had a host of issues trying to identify a quarterback of the secondary to replace the heady Reid. Too often, particularly in the Georgia game, LSU's defensive backs have been out of position and out of sync with what Chavis and position coach Corey Raymond are trying to accomplish.
That, coupled with a recent move to two true freshmen entering the starting rotation, has made LSU vulnerable to the pass. Through six games, the Tigers are giving up 207.5 yards per game through the air. LSU has allowed seven touchdown passes and is conceding a healthy 12.8 yards per completion to its opposition.
It's Chavis' hope that this recent youth movement will get better athletes on the field and that will trump the experienced players who weren't getting the job done at the beginning of SEC play.
True freshman Tre'Davious White now starts at one cornerback position opposite sophomore Jalen Mills while fellow newbie Rashard Robinson, a native of Pompano Beach, Fla., began to factor in during nickel and dime packages for the first time last Saturday in Starkville. That rotation is expected to continue in Baton Rouge versus Florida.
At safety Loston (pulled groin) didn't even make the trip to Mississippi State, but early word is that he's more likely to play than not this weekend. In his absence sophomore Corey Thompson would step in opposite starting free safety Ronald Martin.
Projected Starters: DE – Jermauria Rasco (6-3, 262, Jr.), DT – Anthony Johnson (6-3, 294, Jr.), DT – Ego Ferguson (6-3, 309, Jr.), DE – Danielle Hunter (6-6, 241, So.), WLB – Lamin Barrow (6-2, 232, Sr.), MLB – D.J. Welter (6-1, 226, Jr.), SLB – Kwon Alexander (6-2, 218, So.), CB – Jalen Mills (6-1, 189, So.), FS – Ronald Martin (6-1, 218, Jr.), SS – Craig Loston (6-2, 209, Sr.), CB – Tre'Davious White (5-11, 177, Fr.)
LSU SPECIAL TEAMS
Walk-on Colby Delahoussaye is LSU's field goal kicker, and he's been better than anybody could've possibly expected to date. Delahoussaye has connected on all seven of his attempts, including a 49-yarder in a big spot at Georgia two weeks ago. Should LSU ever have to attempt from farther than 52-53 yards, Miles has said kickoff specialist James Hairston would likely get that opportunity.
Punter Jamie Keehn has been good but not great so far in 2013. LSU's (next) Aussie punter is averaging 40.6 yards per boot, but he's only had to punt 18 times so far, including four times in the last two weeks. LSU's offense has routinely kept him on the sideline.
Finally, in the return game, the Tigers lean heavily on Beckham, and for good reason. He'll return both punts and kickoffs for LSU. His only bad habit lately: Beckham, so anxious to make a play, has been bringing balls out of the end zone on kickoffs that are seven and eight yards deep. High risk, high reward with one of the SEC's most dangerous players with the ball in his hands.