Let that sink in for a minute.
The undefeated Rebels, riding high ever since their landmark program win over Alabama on Oct. 4, enter the annual LSU-Ole Miss Western division tilt as the heavy - and justifiably so. Oddsmakers in the desert have Hugh Freeze's bunch listed as a field goal favorite, if not slightly more.
So just what is the state of the Tigers on the eve of such an important meeting? I dive in with my thoughts and observations below.
Trust level at quarterback position still very much in question
Let's get one thing out of the way: More than anything else Brandon Harris isn't playing because he can't be trusted to communicate, operate or execute the offense the way it's drawn up by the staff. His best strengths right now are improvisational in base (think back to the end of the Mississippi State game). That doesn't jive with the coaches or the rest of the team, especially the offensive line, which craves a certain amount of structure and consistency.
Anthony Jennings gives both of those things, so he's their guy. While that's not in doubt, what is dubious is the level of trust the offensive decision makers have in Jennings to actually go out and win a game. The game plan with him, and with many of LSU's quarterbacks under Les Miles as long as the defense is playing solid, is to not turn the ball over. Seriously, that's what the play calls, schemes and everything center around - do not turn the ball over. With the caliber of Ole Miss team set to take the Death Valley field tomorrow night, it's easy to get the sense that may not be enough. Trust, and Jennings rewarding it, will be huge themes in this ballgame.
On a related note, what happened to intermediate routes?
Before jumping away from the quarterback topic, I have to reiterate something that I mentioned time and again during the LSU-Kentucky game last week. When exactly did the Tigers revert to a feast-or-famine passing attack? It's possible Miles and Cam Cameron saw something in Kentucky film study that prompted this, but there were an abnormal number of all vertical-plays called in that contest.
My theory, though, is that the staff knows Jennings doesn't work through his progression at all, going from his primary read to the second look to third and so on. So they've boiled it down - hit the back out of the backfield or throw it deep/up on a sideline, mainly to Travin Dural. The result versus Kentucky: Dural caught two balls and the other five receptions went to backs or tight ends. That won't cut it versus Ole Miss. And, back to the essence of this topic, at some point receivers will have to run button-hooks, slants, out routes and digs and Jennings will have to find them. LSU is far to easy to cover when the intermediate route tree is in the dumpster.
Defense stepping up, but competition last two weeks contributed
This is perhaps the most interesting debate that's raged on over the last week in TigerTown. It's accepted that LSU's defense is taking positive strides, but just how far have they come considering the level of play exhibited by Florida and Kentucky (as compared to Mississippi State and Auburn, which are closer to Ole Miss' caliber these days)?
I for one am a believer in what the secondary is doing and becoming. The infusion of Jamal Adams has been refreshing, giving LSU another physical presence to play in the box and aid in the pass rush. But the emergence of Rickey Jefferson has also added to what the Tigers are doing defensively in recent weeks. Where legitimate questions linger, that Florida and Kentucky didn't provide answers to, is in run defense. I'm still not sure the interior linemen have what it take to stop a relentless, capable SEC attack for 60 minutes. But, in LSU's favor, John Chavis has been devising more ways to help those guys out via more time for Kendell Beckwith and some shifting of personnel to bring more numbers into the box. There's definitely still room to worry for LSU fans, but I think the 'D' is in a better position to take on Ole Miss than they were at this time two weeks ago.
LSU has to get out to an early lead on Saturday
This ties in to not only the whole confidence quotient, but also the obvious fact that the Tigers aren't built to come from behind with this offense. Understand this: the program is trying to rally and circle the wagons around this game in a major way. The guest captions for LSU are Billy Cannon, Bert Jones, Bradie James and Billy Baggett. That's a heckuva cast to roll out for any game, much less one where the Bayou Bengals are barely in the top 25.
That lets you know just how important it is to Miles & Co. to get back on track and register a major win on the season. If the home team can parlay that with some good fortune and confidence gained in recent wins into an early lead, LSU has a legitimate shot against Bo Wallace and that landshark Ole Miss defense. But, if the opposite occurs, it will be a long night, and Ole Miss has the quality of starter and depth to bury the Tigers in that scenario. Starting strong is the only way for LSU in this one.