2016 season preview: LSU Tigers
The LSU Tigers came into last season with one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy in the backfield, running back Leonard Fournette. His chances fell apart after a tough outing against Alabama in a game that saw Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry take over as the favorite.
Both Fournette and the Tigers hope to put together a better performance in 2016. Here’s what’s on the horizon this season:
Fournette is obviously the key to the offense, but it’s going to take more from the team as a whole if LSU is to challenge for the SEC championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. Head coach Les Miles made it clear during the spring that Brandon Harris remains the team’s starting quarterback heading into the 2016 season. Harris graded well as a passer in the first half of the year, but graded negatively against Alabama and in the three games that followed, finishing the year with a very average grade as a passer. He has the ability to make an impact as a runner though, both on quarterback scrambles and on designed runs. On 15 scrambles he ran for 161 yards and forced seven missed tackles, while on eight designed runs off of right end he forced four missed tackles and scored two touchdowns. Fournette will be the focal point of the offense, but LSU needs an improved season from Harris if they are to challenge their rivals this season.
The big story for the LSU defense this year is the move to a 3-4 defense, and how their top defensive linemen adapt to it. Arden Key was outstanding late in the year as a freshman, and the Tigers will expect him to improve again in 2016 even as he is asked to play standing up more. Davon Godchaux impressed as a pass-rusher last year at defensive tackle, registering six sacks, six hits and 30 hurries. Now he needs to adapt and be as versatile as possible, and has been moving between nose and end this spring. Provided both he and key can adapt, LSU’s defensive front can make an impact in 2016.
You could make the case that Fournette is not just the star player at LSU, but in the entire country. Some will point to the fact that he’s somewhat one-dimensional and doesn’t excel as a receiver, but even if that is true, he is so good as a pure runner that it really doesn’t matter (especially at the college level). Fournette was incredibly tough to bring down last year, forcing a missed tackle once every 3.5 rushing attempts. If he can improve again just a little bit in 2016, he has a chance to force 100 missed tackles as a runner — which would be an incredible feat.
Breakout player to watch
Key is poised to have a huge year on the edge of the defense after ending his first year as strongly as he did. He graded positively in all of the five final games of the season, including three big performances as a pass rusher. Against Ole Miss he registered a hit and two hurries, before following that up with a sack, two hits and seven hurries against Texas A&M to end the regular season. In the bowl game against Texas Tech he didn’t register a sack, but did have two hits and nine hurries, giving him his highest pressure total as a pass rusher all season. Our pass rushing productivity rating measures pressure on a per-snap basis, with weighting towards sacks and hits, giving a better indication of production than sack totals alone. Despite not registering a sack, Key’s 21.7 pass rushing productivity rating in the bowl game was the fourth-best mark of any 4-3 defensive end across bowl season.