Are Your Ready...
August 1, 2008

Gettin' in a little preseason football here:

Just curious, what does LSU have to do to get a little respect?  Two BCS titles in 5 years is not enough?  Maybe if they win a third this year?  They are, in fact, the only team to win two BCS championships.  Over the past three years they have produced as many impact NFL players as any university.  Since 2003 only USC has finished in the top five more often and in three of those years, LSU was ranked higher.  This despite the fact that LSU plays in indisputably the toughest conference in the country and, unlike USC or Ohio State, has to win a conference championship game to get to the big dance.  Yet it's always USC, Ohio State and Oklahoma (yawn yawn yawn) that the media talks about..  Whenever sportscasters or sportswriters talk about powerhouse programs why don't they ever mention the Bayou Bengals?  Ohio State will be mentioned among the "teams to beat" this year because they have so many returning starters... yes, those same starters who proved they don't belong on the same field in a championship game with SEC teams in each of the last two years.  Have these guys gotten any faster?  No, so why is the media still talking about them... at all.

USC will likely begin the season as the #1 team but the only reason I can imagine is because sportswriters can't spell L-S-U.  Both teams sent a bunch of guys to the pros.  LSU lost QB Matt Flynn, RB Jacob Hester, WR Early Doucet and DT Glenn Dorsey.  All good players.  But Flynn wasn't a playmaker; he was a field general and it was his first (and only) year starting.  All he had to do was distribute the ball to the athletes, something he did reasonably well, although there were a couple of games (Kentucky is the one that immediately springs to mind) where he could have done a much better job.  Ryan Perrilloux was going to give them an added dimension of athletic ability at QB this year until he got himself kicked off the team.  So who will replace Flynn?  Either Andrew Hatch, a Harvard transfer, or Jarrett Lee, a redshirt freshman and one of the most highly recruited and regarded QB prospects in the country.  I suspect Hatch will be the guy... so does anyone think a Harvard guy can't make the same kind of smart decisions from the backfield that Flynn did?

Hester and Doucet are gone to the pros as well.  True, but Doucet was injured most of last season and was a non-factor in several games.  The receiver who actually made an impact was Demetrius Byrd.  He's the guy who caught the last second TD in the Auburn game and the guy who caught the winning TD in the SEC championship.  He is returning, as well as speedsters Brandon LaFell and Ricky Dixon.  The sportswriters think Hester will be missed because of all those tough 4th down, short yardage conversions he made.  Well, among the LSU running backs, he had the lowest yards per carry so had the Tigers been using Keiland Williams or Charles Scott or Richard Murphy primarily instead, they probably wouldn't have needed to make those critical plays because they would have converted on 2nd or 3rd down.  Richard Dickson (one of the better recieving tight ends in the country) is also returning, so whoever is QB will have plenty of options that can make big plays.  Their entire offensive line returns led by All-Americans Ciron Black and Herman Johnson and All-SECers Brett Helms and Lyle Hitt.  LSU's offense was better than USC's in every respect statistically last year despite playing a tougher schedule and this year's crew has an excellent chance of being better than last year's national champs.

So it must be the defense that will suffer, yes?  Perhaps.  But it won't be because Glenn Dorsey graduated.  Dorsey is a phenomenal player and like Hester and Flynn, a great team leader.  In those respects those guys could be missed.  But like Doucet, Dorsey was injured for much of last season so he was not nearly the force he could have been.  In his place in the middle of the line, the Tigers have five guys who could and will likely be drafted in the first two rounds once they move on: Ricky Jean-Francois, Marlon Favorite, Al Woods, Drake Nevis and Charles Alexander.  Most teams would love to have one of those guys; LSU has five.  The pass rush that forced 23 interceptions and sacked a ton of QBs (including Qhio State's Todd Boeckman five times in the championship game) will likely be as good or better than last year's.  Yeah, and those five championship sacks were against an offensive line that was supposed to be one of the better groups in the country.  Last year's corners Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon were experienced but got burned on a number of long plays because they lacked the extra gear to make up ground.  This year's crew of Patrick Johnson, Jai Eugene and Chris Hawkins is comparatively inexperienced but far more athletically capable.  Also returning is LB Darry Beckwith and DE's Kirston Pittman, Tremaine Johnson and Tyson Jackson.  This is not a defense that has been gutted by graduation losses; this is a defense that is doing what is commonly called "reloading".  Last year, offensive coordinators could isolate on Dorsey and LB Ali Highsmith in the middle.  This year, the Tigers simply have too many threats on defense to successfully double-team anyone. 

So how is USC, who is now being QB'ed by a guy who got rattled by Stanford's pathetic defense for four interceptions, and lost 10 starters from last year's squad including four from the offensive line... how is this team going to be improved, much less better than LSU?  Yes, Joe McKnight looks to be a very good running back, but with a questionable offensive line, no deep threat receivers and a QB with a questionable heart, how tough will it be for opposing coordinators to figure out how to defense this team?  

The same question might have been asked of LSU last year after losing 4 players in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft.  But Matt Flynn's previous exposure as a starter was excellent - a 40-3 rout of Miami in the Peach Bowl - and the Tigers had most of their impact play-makers returning.  USC doesn't enjoy either luxury.  The Trojans also doesn't have any big time replacements for the guys they lost in the interior of their defensive line.  They might have a lot of experience on defense, but this too is not a tough squad to figure out.  The only way USC finishes the season at #1 is if they don't play anyone from the SEC, which would not be surprising given their cowardice the last two years

I thought West Virginia had a real shot at a national title this year with QB Pat White returning, but I recently read that they want to pass the ball more in order to keep him healthier.  That's great, but who are they going to throw the ball to?  The success of that offense was spreading the field and maximizing the QB option.  By limiting Pat White's ability to make plays running the ball and improvising, I think they are shooting themselves in the foot, even in trying to keep him healthy.  They won't win if he's not on the field, but likewise they won't win if he's not Pat White.

Oklahoma looks like a strong contender for a national title shot.  However, they still are weak on both sides of the ball in the passing game.  That shouldn't keep them from winning the conference, but it will absolutely undo them in any championship game.  Missouri looks pretty decent as well with returning Heisman candidate QB Chase Daniels.  But like Oklahoma, they are going to have problems on both sides of the ball with a consistent passing game as they had several key graduations on both lines and don't have any ready made replacements.  The same can be said of Kansas and their chances.

All Big Ten teams are automatically eliminated from national title consideration until they grow a pair (and hold a conference championship game) and until they start recruiting real athletes.  They may get lucky with an occasional star player like Chris Wells, but that conference has been exposed as a fraud in the major bowl competition.  Some team like Ohio State or Illinois might get into the BCS title game because of their won-loss record, but you can take it to the bank that they will get smoked by at least 20 points.  All title talk about the Big-10 is just marketing to sell tickets and commerical time, nothing more. 

Clemson has been mentioned as a trendy pick for a title shot as well.  They have a studly defense which should keep them in games long enough to allow their playmakers on offense to break something.  But their offensive line is largely inexperienced and will determine if these Tigers are a true title contender or merely a good team.  Another concern is their schedule to finish the season.  Consecutively they play Georgia Tech, Boston College, Florida State, Duke, Virginia and South Carolina, and then a possible match-up against Virginia Tech in the conference title game.  None of those squads look like title contenders, but all (except for Duke) usually put a pretty good team on the field.  Going through a gauntlet like that can take a lot out of a team, no matter how talented.

From the SEC, Auburn, Florida and Georgia all look strong.  As long as Florida has Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, they are a threat to score bunches of points.  Defensively, they still have big problems stopping the run and that's a big weakness facing an SEC schedule.  Auburn has a lot of talent returning and a new offensive coordinator to help a weak offense.  But no matter how well the play is designed, they still need either QBs Chris Todd or Kodi Burns to execute it, something they had big problems with last year.  Auburn also had a lot of troubles stopping big plays in the passing game.  Georgia is a chic pick to play for the BCS title, but they have tough road games at South Carolina (and their old nemesis Steve Spurrier), Arizona State, LSU and Auburn.  The first two are back to back, followed by home games against Alabama and Tennessee.  That could be a title killer.  If not, the road game at LSU followed by a home game with Florida surely will be.  The Bulldogs also have a problem with a weak pass rush as their two best players in that respect are gone.

LSU's schedule is not easy either, opening the season against Appalachian State (who upset Michigan on the road to open last year), and road games at Auburn, Florida and South Carolina.   The Florida and South Carolina games are back to back followed by the visit from Georgia, but they will have a week off to prepare for Florida and once they get through that stretch they have three home games and finish with a visit to McFadden-less Arkansas.  This is a very tough but winnable schedule, especially if the QB position is settled early.  No doubt LSU has questions at QB and CB they will have to answer in order to repeat, but they have a great offensive line and plenty of playmakers on offense and the key defensive graduations have been replaced by extremely talented depth. 

Back to Darrin McFadden for a second... I really like his chances this year of having an impact similar to that of Adrian Peterson last year.   He's as explosive a runner and is probably more elusive.  I'm not sure how good a blocker he is or how well he'll pick up pro pass rushing schemes since he had so little pass blocking experience in Arkansas.  There will be a learning curve there.  On the plus side, he can throw the ball pretty well so he will at least offer the threat of the half back option any time he runs the ball outside.  The real question is how did this guy not win at least one Heisman trophy?  Only a sportswriter could not see that he was the best player in college football the last two years.  In a survey of blind people, 73% could see that McFadden was the man; 13% percent of dead people surveyed said the same thing; the others had no comment.  The survey of rocks and other geological formations yeilded no results beyond the plus or minus 3 percent margin of error.  Anyway, the Raider O-line isn't as good as Minnesota's but the rest of the offensive weapons are much better than the Vikes had last year so the comparison is useful.  The biggest difference between the two is that McFadden isn't as great an injury risk as Peterson.  Of course, I also thought that Reggie Bush was going to be better than Gale Sayers, so take this with a grain of salt.

Moving along in the pro ranks, I was overjoyed to see the Saints trade for Jeremy Shockey.  I am not a big fan of the guy from a personality stand point, but Shockey can really play.  He's one of the three or four best all around tight ends in the game.  More importantly to the Saints, he gives Drew Brees the reliable short pass option that will open up the lanes for Marques Colston to run his deep routes without double coverage, and Reggie Bush to run his crossing routes with some extra space.  Brees does not have the big arm many NFL QBs have so defenses really did not have to respect the deep threat as long as they kept Colston under wraps with two guys.  Now they will have to keep an extra guy in the middle of the field because Shockey can also break a big gain after the catch.  I'm not completely sold that the Saints have enough defense to go deep in the playoffs, but their offense should be one of the most productive in the NFL and score enough points to get them there.  After losing Shockey and the guys on defense due to retirement or free agency, I'm having a hard time seeing the Giants win more than 8 games this season.  I guess I'm just not sold on Eli as a QB who can carry his team like his brother Peyton can.  We'll certainly find out.

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