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Week 10 Top 25

In College Football, General LSU, History, Post-game, Preview, Rankings, Rankings Commentary on November 4, 2019 at 2:43 PM

I’ve written so much about LSU/Alabama over the years, I have a whole page of links just for that. Yes, LSU hasn’t won since the 9-6 win in Tuscaloosa in 2011, although people forget the game came down to one possession in both 2012 and 2014. I also haven’t seen much mention that over about the last 50 years LSU does better on the road in this series. You’d think from the coverage that Albama hasn’t lost at home since they hired Bear Bryant and that every game was 20+ to 0.

I haven’t done a meaningful breakdown of what’s going on in my top 25 apart from the top 10 in a good while, so I thought now would be a good time to catch up with no LSU recap. I also don’t think we need to introduce Alabama and what they do well. I covered some of it here.

American Conference

The best Big Ten and SEC teams were idle, and the only ACC team that has much to offer played Wofford; so now seems like a good time to highlight the American conference.

SMU finally lost, so my whole top 10 is now Power Five teams. The American still has five teams in the top 25 though, which is tied with the SEC and the Big Ten for the best.

QB Brady White threw for over 10 yards per pass and three touchdowns in the 54-48 win over SMU.

The controversial loss to Temple is the only reason Memphis isn’t undefeated (although to be fair they barely escaped against Tulsa). Cincinnati’s only loss is to #1 Ohio St. I don’t factor in margin of victory unless the home team wins a game decided by less than a field goal in regulation, so 42 is the same as 4 in my formula. The average home advantage is about 3 points, and obviously that happens to be a field goal. Whether you need a field goal or a touchdown at the end of the game is often a big difference, so it seems like a perfect place to draw the line. SMU’s first loss was the one the Mustangs just suffered against Memphis, so I don’t see anything wrong with their rank either.

Staying in the same conference but skipping down a few spots, Navy and Central Florida have recovered well from early losses. Navy suffered its only loss to Memphis, so that gives even more context to that ranking. Navy beat Tulane, which as I mentioned is in the top 40, and Air Force, which rose to #21 after beating Army. Central Florida had a relatively ugly loss to Pitt, so that’s why the Knights are last in the top 25. The loss to Cincinnati wasn’t bad obviously. I doubt the American will have 5 ranked teams here at the end of the season, but they’ve seemed pretty legitimate so far.

Top 10

I don’t have a specific reason Clemson fell below Penn St., but a number of the purple/orange Tigers’ opponents have been stagnant or losing value. I’m sure Florida St.’s loss to U. Miami, which Clemson does not play and will not play, didn’t help. It will generally hurt a team if a team in their own division loses to a team in the other division. It would hurt Ohio St. slightly if Minnesota beat Penn St., although the Buckeyes haven’t even played the Nittany Lions yet.

Alabama barely stayed in the computer top 10 since their schedule is bad. I’d still put the SEC top 5 up against anyone else’s, but Alabama hasn’t played anyone else in the top 5 of the conference (or any other conference except arguably CUSA). In previous years the worst team or two was around #90 and sometimes the rest were all in the top 75. The SEC does have 11 teams in the top 75, which is still very respectable; but Arkansas and Vanderbilt are among the dozen worst teams in FBS football (with losses to San Jose St. and UNLV, respectively), so they bring down the average significantly. Ole Miss isn’t too much better at #104; the Rebels’ only FBS wins have come over Arkansas and Vanderbilt.

Bama only fell one spot in the computer formula, which isn’t unusual after a bye week, especially one in which one of your best opponents lost and another played a team outside of the top 100. They only fall three spots here because I had moved them up extra spots last week.

Unlike LSU and Auburn, the Tide does not have an annual cross-divisional game against one of the top teams of the East. This year they drew South Carolina and Tennessee, two of the worst teams in the East. The Tide’s best non-conference opponents on the schedule are #67 Duke and #78 Southern Miss. By contrast, LSU has beaten three teams in out-of-conference play alone that rate at least 14 spots higher than Duke. Auburn has the best non-conference win in the nation (over #5 Oregon), and their win over #40 Tulane helps too. In conference play, the one advantage Alabama has over LSU (but not Auburn) is having played Texas A&M already; but the Aggies only rate 9 spots higher than Mississippi St., who has played LSU (and Auburn) but not Alabama. LSU also has not yet taken the hit to the strength of schedule that playing Ole Miss and Arkansas will entail.

Hopefully that explains how a two-loss team is ahead of an undefeated team in their own division (I couldn’t let that stand in the list below though) and how the AP #1 and #2 are nothing close in my formula.

Other than switching Alabama and Auburn (who only has about 1/10 of 1% more points than their rivals), I decided not to make any other changes. Whether Alabama beats LSU or not, it would cause a bigger disruption if I put all the top-10 undefeateds in the top 7. Someone will also lose between Minnesota and Penn St., and whoever wins it will look like the loser is being unduly punished. If it’s the lower team, they’ll have lost a few spots before the game even started. If it’s the higher team, it will look like they’re being dropped too far for losing to a top-7 team, who in turn isn’t being rewarded enough for the big win.

The Rest

Like a couple of the other teams I mentioned, Michigan seems to be clawing back from relatively early losses.

Likewise, Georgia’s win over Florida went some way in repairing the Bulldogs’ resume. Auburn would be another huge help.

Boise St. can only go so far with the loss to BYU and the best non-conference win being Florida St.. Another team that barely beat Florida St. was Wake Forest, who has a habit of barely beating opponents; but the Demon Deacons still have only one loss (to unranked Louisville).

Oklahoma’s one meaningful win (over Texas, which has understandable losses but a lack of wins to be excited about) only goes so far. Notre Dame, Florida, and Wisconsin are two-loss teams capable of top-10 wins, but there are weak spots on the schedule that put them significantly behind a team like Auburn.

The only top-25 team I haven’t mentioned is Appalachian St., who barely stayed in the top 25 after losing to Georgia Southern. That’s been a fairly big rivalry going back to the schools’ I-AA days, so these things happen. I’m still going to be very interested in how the Mountaineers do against South Carolina.

Outside of the top 25, things are looking good for other Louisiana schools. I mentioned LSU and Tulane, but I didn’t mention there are two other Louisiana teams between the two, Louisiana Tech and UL-Lafayette. Louisiana Tech looks like the best team in its conference right now. I wish LSU had played one of them instead of Northwestern St. The Tigers’ non-conference schedule would look even better.

Top 25 (List)

rankteamlast
1Ohio St.1
2LSU2
3Penn St.4
4Clemson3
5Oregon8
6Utah12
7Minnesota7
8Baylor9
9Alabama6
10Auburn10
11Memphis17
12Cincinnati11
13SMU5
14Michigan16
15Georgia24
16Boise St.13
17Wake Forest19
18Oklahoma15
19Florida14
20Notre Dame25
21Navy20
22Air Force23
23Wisconsin22
24Appalachian18
25Central Florida

Out of top 25: (21) Iowa

Early Discussion about LSU/Alabama

In College Football, General LSU, Preview on October 29, 2019 at 4:26 PM

I didn’t think I’d get into it this early, but I’ve already listened to a few people previewing the LSU-Alabama game.

I don’t know what their problem is, but I made a very thorough comment in response to College Football Nerds (CFN). I said right up front that I think either team could win by multiple scores (and therefore picking Alabama to win by 6-10 points, which they did, could well be correct). 

The “College Football Nerds” computer model, which predicts Alabama to have almost one yard per play more than Texas gained against LSU, not to mention more yards per play than the Tide got against Texas A&M (their best opponent so far). For comparison, the Aggies allowed 58 points between Auburn and Mississippi St., while LSU allowed 34 points between the two common opponents.

I’ll quote the exchange in full below; but to summarize, I pointed out that it’s hard to know just how good Alabama’s passing attack is given the schedule.  I also mentioned that the game plans against both Florida and Auburn were more centered around the idea that the quarterback can’t beat you (and therefore there was more cause for concern with the opponent running the ball) rather than that the quarterback is the biggest threat on the field, which is the case with Alabama. 

Had LSU not changed its defense in the second half, Trask might have beaten them; but that doesn’t mean that if on average the Alabama offense scores 50% more than the Florida offense against a given opponent that we can expect 42 points here.  If LSU plays Alabama the way they played Florida in the second half, you could only expect 21 for the game (Florida only scored 7 in the second half).

Maybe they’re just salty because their model doesn’t account for changes in strategy or for the fact that your point total can be cut in half (as LSU’s was by Auburn) if you all of a sudden play a much better defense than you have been playing.  Alabama’s average right now is about 48.6. LSU’s average before Auburn was 50.3, so Auburn actually held LSU to 45.7% of is average. 

If LSU does the same to Alabama, that’s 22 points.  I’m not saying that will happen or that 41 CAN’T happen.  There is just no inherent justification for it.  It’s not safe to assume the offense just keeps rolling as it has been minus 7-11 points.  Look at last year.  Same quarterback, but when Alabama played LSU they had a 54.1 average.  That makes the 29 allowed by LSU look pretty good.  (It helped that we couldn’t sustain drives, but that’s not our strong suit this year either.)  So if LSU is able to take 25 off of the average again, I like those chances.  Clemson took 38 off of the pre-LSU average.  I’ll be shocked if LSU does that, but only mildly surprised if they do as well as last year’s defense.  High 20s wouldn’t shock me any more than low 40s, and low 20s wouldn’t shock me any more than high 40s.

Tua Tagovailoa threw for under 8.7 yards per attempt the last time he was challenged by a defense (against Clemson in January, pictured above). The last time he played LSU he threw for just over 7 yards per attempt. CFN predicts almost 10 ypa on 11/9.

Alabama is not a particularly good team with the running backs this year, and CFN even said during their video that they expected LSU to have about 3/4 of a yard per carry more than Alabama.  And that’s given that Alabama has a decent front 7 and given that LSU isn’t particularly good at running the ball this year.

Their response was to strawman me as saying “Alabama could be terrible, they haven’t played anyone.”  I didn’t say they could be terrible, I just said they might not be as great at passing as these guys said since they haven’t faced a good defense this year.  If Alabama is going to score 41 points while not being able to run very well, they have to have a good passing game.

Anyway, the response to the strawman was that to hear this every year is “getting weird”. 

What does “every year” have to do with this year?  Alabama beat Clemson by 18 two years ago (despite losing to them the previous year).  Did that help last year when Clemson won by 28?  Trevor Lawrence outplayed Tua, who threw two interceptions (to zero), one fewer touchdown, and 2.1 fewer yards per attempt in January.  Does that mean someone shouldn’t adjust their expectations if Alabama’s next game were against Clemson instead of LSU?  I guess you can’t attack Clemson for their schedule anymore because they played two top-3 teams in January.

I attacked Finebaum for being half in this season and half in last season, but he saw the error of his ways.  He actually agrees with me now on Ohio St. #1 and LSU #2.  I changed by dropping Clemson since then, but at least I admitted I was giving Clemson the benefit of the doubt based on last year.  But he’s not these guys who construct their model and their arguments around this season and then act like I’m crazy for ignoring last season.  I don’t think he’d talk to me unless I called his show and got through, but that’s beside the point.

I finished my response to CFN by saying, “Florida is a pretty good defense [they held Auburn to 13, just FYI].  Tell me what game we can use to extrapolate that Bama would score 42 against Florida.”  I honestly would have loved an answer (and if it were a good one, I’d admit that LSU doing better than Florida would defensively might even be charitable), but the lack of an answer and the preference to mock a straw man tells me a good bit too.

The host of College Football Nerds (left) and his sidekick Josh. I’m not sure what exactly Josh looks like, so I took some artistic license.

Here is the full transcript:

Me:

Either team could win by multiple touchdowns depending on a key play here and there and who’s under pressure to be one-dimensional and throw 50/50 balls.

But I don’t think you can say Alabama has an elite passing attack based on their opponents. You’d be calling Burrow the best QB in history with Alabama’s schedule.

LSU has forced every team to throw the ball either to stay within a score or come from behind or both. In doing so, they often left a buffer behind the line of scrimmage just to prevent big plays and buckle down near the end zone. That’s how Florida was shut out for 25 minutes in a row. That’s how Miss. St. was shut out for 34 minutes. That’s how Auburn only had one legitimate scoring drive in a 50-minute period. That’s how Northwestern St. and Utah St. were completely shut out in the second halves. So the 90+% average probably won’t apply unless LSU has a good lead or is scoring so consistently Alabama is afraid to even try running the ball AND LSU struggles to get to passes and make tackles.

The other thing is part of the strategy against Florida (which didn’t work) and Auburn (which worked a lot better) was to make the quarterback beat you by leading long drives. They know Tua can do that. They know Bama isn’t as scary running the ball (with a non-QB) as Auburn and Florida. So they’re not going to focus on the run and be lax about the pass.

The Alabama offense hasn’t had to adjust to a good defense. Maybe they’ll do so flawlessly, but we don’t know. I trust LSU to do that more than Bama based on what’s been shown this year. For instance, Texas wasn’t good, but you don’t have to be good to stop a third and 19. They still couldn’t and it wasn’t their fault. Florida is a pretty good defense. Tell me what game we can use to extrapolate that Bama would score 42 against Florida.

CFN:

You think Auburn and Florida are better running teams than Alabama? Florida is 90th in total rushing, 75th in YPC. Also this “Alabama could be terrible, they haven’t played anyone” thing every year is getting weird. Alabama has a #1 overall draft pick at QB and the best WR unit in CFB history. Does that mean for certain they’ll break 40? No. But to question their passing attack is bizarre.

Me:

College Football Nerds You had to respect Perine being able to break a long run.  Even if Alabama has a player like that, he didn’t run for 88 yards in one play against a good defense. 

Pierce later ran 75 in one play against South Carolina.  That game could have been much different if it were 20-10 Carolina at the half.

To act like they have a proven passing attack THIS YEAR is bizarre

If Tua never started before this year he wouldn’t be a #1.  LSU had a #1 pick in 2006 and lost to Auburn 7-3.  That doesn’t prove Alabama is going to produce like you’re saying against a good defense.  This isn’t the NFL, there isn’t an NFL offensive line.  Not everything translates from college to the NFL.  Ask Saban.

Something else bizarre about one year transferring to another is how Alabama went from beating Clemson by 18 to losing by 28. Is Trevor Lawrence the best QB in college football today?  He was better than Tua in January

On a lighter note, this was hilarious.

Week 9 Top 25; Key Games and Race for #1

In College Football, General LSU, History, Post-game, Preview, Rankings, Rankings Commentary on October 27, 2019 at 2:02 PM

LSU/Auburn

I think my one-paragraph prediction about this game (last paragraph here) was exactly right.  There were some things that were somewhat surprising though.

I’ve updated the records here.  I had forgotten that other than Alabama, the only two teams that have beaten Auburn a majority of the time (with at least 10 games played) are from Louisiana: LSU and Tulane.

I advised taking Auburn and the points.  I said that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Auburn scored about what Florida did and actually thought Auburn might have scored more.  What I didn’t expect was that 24 would have been enough to win.  The visiting Tigers were still most of the way to Florida’s point total of 28. 

I said that Auburn would probably stop LSU from scoring a couple of times more than Florida did. LSU had four scoring drives rather than six, so that was correct.  I didn’t expect LSU would get to what would have been field-goal range last year about six times with no points to show for it though.

That’s the second game in a row in which LSU struggled to score touchdowns after driving deep in the opponent’s territory, especially early.  I don’t know if that’s a long-term issue or those were just two pretty good defenses with a relatively short field.  I know Mississippi St. has given up a lot of points over the course of the year, but some of that was the fault of their anemic offense.  The Bulldog defense at least seemed fresh with home crowd behind it for 25 minutes against LSU before the Tigers scored two touchdowns late in the first half last week.

Clyde Edwards-Hellaire, with 136 yards, was the top rusher of the game as LSU was able to control time of possession for one of the only times this season.

I was surprised that LSU committed two turnovers, one of which set up an Auburn touchdown.  There were also two officiating decisions that assisted in that score (both the turnover and the touchdown itself), but I’ll talk about officiating later.  Anyway, that actually brings up one unexpected positive for the Bayou Bengals.  I didn’t think Auburn would be incapable of a touchdown drive beyond 22 yards in the first 57 minutes of play.

The sacks and tackles for loss didn’t shock me. I knew that was an area that Auburn was good at.  I still think LSU has a good offensive line, but it’s not going to stop a really good front seven (possibly the best LSU will face) every time.

I did like how Burrow ran and threw across the backfield to avert the pass rush.  I knew that would be necessary to avoid some of the rush. Having more quick, short-yardage plays helped LSU win the time of possession.  This was more of a traditional LSU win in that way.

Another positive was the halftime adjustments.  A good offensive coach like Dan Mullen or Gus Malzahn can come up with a scoring drive to start the half, but Florida didn’t score a second time in the whole half and Auburn didn’t score a second time until about 24 minutes of play later.  Mississippi St.’s only score of the second half was in the closing minute.  Northwestern St. and Utah St. were completely shut out in the respective second halves.

I hope that LSU is at least within a couple of scores of Alabama after the Tide’s opening drive of the second half.  The Tigers could be ahead for all I know, but it really hurt their chances when Alabama scored a touchdown 75 seconds before the half last year to make it realistically a three-score game (two touchdowns and two two-point conversions isn’t necessarily realistic).  Nine points instead of 16 would have mattered there.  Nine points was the halftime deficit against Auburn two years ago, so I think that’s a good bare-minimum goal if we don’t have a good first half.  I think the defense would give the offense a chance to catch up in the third and fourth quarters in that scenario.

Tua Tagovailoa ran for more yards on this play than LSU had rushing yards in the whole game last year in Baton Rouge. Alabama also had over 100 more passing yards.

Going back to the Auburn score to open the half, I thought that even though Auburn scored, it was a moral victory of sorts for the defense to come up with a stop inside the 10.  LSU has been good at that this season.  Auburn was good too, but hopefully Alabama isn’t as good at that if the Tigers have such chances in Tuscaloosa. LSU responded by driving to the one-yard line when they were stopped at fourth and goal, but the ball pretty much stayed on the Auburn half of the field until LSU scored to take the lead for good.   

I’m not going to go into all the calls, but the officiating was terrible, so I was glad LSU was able to withstand that. 

The hit on Burrow looked bad.  I thought helmet-to-helmet hits when a guy is going out of bounds was against the rules.  The TV rules expert said Burrow wasn’t defenseless, but I’ve certainly seen other players being tackled or going out of bounds ruled as defenseless.  Those guys seem more like PR agents for the refs than unbiased arbiters anyway. 

There was also kind of a hip check by an LSU defender that was called pass interference.  I didn’t think it denied the opportunity to catch the ball, and the receiver wasn’t even looking for the ball.  Pass interference should only be called when it conceivably could have been a catch without the interference, which was the case when there was a non-call in the end zone at the end of the first half.  I’m not saying everything they called or didn’t call was in Auburn’s favor, but they definitely favored the visitors. 

We had a couple of players, Tyrion Davis-Price and Derrick Dillon, who reacted to what should have been penalties on other players.  That accounted for 30 of the 118 yards of penalties called on LSU.  If the ref doesn’t call something, a player doesn’t need to make it worse by having them call a penalty on LSU.  You also can’t count on offsetting penalties even when they’re deserved (which was a big part of the reason LSU lost to Alabama in 2014).  The flags themselves were justified though.

Top-10 opponents

Anyway, LSU is now 8-2 against top-10 opponents over the last three seasons. You can guess who the two exceptions were.  Alabama is 6-2 (losses to Clemson and Auburn), and Ohio St. is 6-1 (loss to Oklahoma).    Those three teams happen to be in close to a three-way tie atop the AP poll this week.

The Tide has not played a top-10 team this season, and LSU has played three top-10 teams.  How is this possible when they’re in the same division of the same conference?  Alabama has not played Auburn yet (obviously), their best out-of-conference opponent was Duke (LSU’s was Texas when the Longhorns were still undefeated), and their annual cross-divisional rival is Tennessee (LSU’s is Florida).

Before someone says I’m wrong about the top-10 opponents, I know there was an ESPN graphic posted after the Florida game about how Alabama and Ohio St. had more wins over top-10 teams; but that was going back to 2016, the year that Les Miles coached 4 games before giving way to Orgeron. LSU beat three ranked teams that year, but none were in the top 10.  This gave the other programs a head start, and I don’t think it’s really fair to expect an interim coach to beat top-10 teams anyway.

Race for #1

Most teams have played 8 games.  A couple have even played 9.  I think we’ve progressed far enough into the season to completely ignore last year from now on.  That being the case, although Clemson is still what I’d call a good undefeated team, I no longer consider them #1.  LSU’s best two opponents (Auburn and Florida) are better than Ohio St.’s best two opponents (Cincinnati and Wisconsin), but the Buckeyes have had a better schedule week to week.  Indiana rates higher than Texas (I don’t care how they were ranked at the time of the game), Michigan St. rates higher than Utah St., Florida Atlantic rates higher than Mississippi St., and Nebraska rates higher than Georgia Southern.  I don’t think anyone lower is worth mentioning. 

I don’t put much of a premium on margin of victory, and it has nothing to do with why Ohio St. is #1 in my computer formula; but the way the games have played out also indicates to me that there are fewer teams that Ohio St. would struggle against than teams that LSU would struggle against.

Ohio St. is the clear #1 in both the weighted and unweighted versions of my formula as well.  For instance, in the unweighted system, only 0.007 separates Penn St. from Clemson.  In the weighted system, 0.24 separates the two.  Ohio St’s respective leads over LSU are 0.093 (over 13 times the difference between Clemson and Penn St.) and 1.911 (about 8 times the difference between Clemson and Penn St.).

My educated guess is that if LSU and Ohio St. both win in two weeks, LSU will finally have enough points to go ahead, but it matters how prior opponents of the respective teams do and how opponents of those teams do over the next two weeks as well.  Also, there is more reason to be skeptical that LSU will beat Alabama than there is that Ohio St. will beat Maryland.

I mention two weeks instead of next week because #1 Ohio St., #2 LSU, #4 Penn St., #6 Alabama, and #7 Minnesota all have byes next week.  #3 Clemson plays Wofford, so I don’t think there is any concern of a major change among the top teams next week. If #5 SMU beats Memphis, the Mustangs may move up a spot or two; but that will probably be temporary given that SMU will not stand to gain many computer points by being East Carolina on November 9. 

Kansas and the Big XII

Baylor, an undefeated team I haven’t mentioned much and possibly the last good hope for the Big XII (at least unless a series of losses by others puts one-loss Oklahoma back in the top 4), starts a challenging three-game stretch on November 9 as well.  Unfortunately, they won’t be playing SMU since the Southwest Conference disbanded in 1995; but they travel to Forth Worth on that day before hosting Oklahoma and Texas in the subsequent two weeks.  November 23, which is the day Baylor plays the last of those teams, is also a big day for currently-undefeated teams since Ohio St. plays Penn St. on that day.

I don’t know whose idea it was for Baylor to travel to Lawrence, Kansas, on Rivalry Week unless they thought it was basketball; but Les Miles’ Jayhawks have been looking good the past couple of weeks under new offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon.  It might seem far-fetched for a team with only 3 wins right now to beat a team who’s currently undefeated, but something similar happened during Rivalry Week in 2001.  Les Miles’ first Oklahoma St. team entered the game against #4 Oklahoma with only 3 wins and yet beat the Sooners. Games like that can be tough when it’s the closest thing the opponent will get to a bowl game.

KU would need some luck, but they certainly had that last night.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team have the potential winning field goal blocked only to simply try again from a closer distance on the next play.  Combined with the game in Austin I mentioned here, it was the second consecutive week that a field goal on the final play decided the winner in a Kansas game.  Also, although Texas and Oklahoma may have seen better years, I don’t know how many teams can beat the two in consecutive weeks and still be ready to ward off a potential upset on the road.  Maybe Baylor is just that special, but I have my doubts.

The ball peaks just a few yards downfield from where it was kicked by Kansas after being blocked on the second-to-last play by Texas Tech. The Red Raiders would fumble the ball; and Kansas would recover, allowing the Jayhawks to win on the last play.

Top 25

NOTE: I only gave myself leeway of two spots from the computer ranking. This was only done for a handful of teams though.

rankteamlast
1Ohio St.2
2LSU3
3Clemson1
4Penn St.5
5SMU8
6Alabama4
7Minnesota11
8Oregon12
9Baylor9
10Auburn7
11Cincinnati14
12Utah21
13Boise St.16
14Florida10
15Oklahoma6
16Michigan23
17Memphis17
18Appalachian15
19Wake Forest20
20Navy22
21Iowa24
22Wisconsin13
23Air Force
24Georgia18
25Notre Dame19

Out of top 25: (25) Texas

LSU/Auburn Series and Preview

In College Football, History, Preview, Rivalry on October 25, 2019 at 7:45 PM

As I’ve been doing with these series recaps, I’m only going to focus on a portion of Auburn’s rivalry with LSU.  The rivalry did pick up intensity in the 1990s as I’ll explain, but the really interesting time was 2000 to 2007.

My original entry in the Rivalry Series covers mostly the same games, but there are different emphases.  Here I won’t talk as much about the records or rankings of teams going into the game, and I won’t refer back to the significance of each game within the greater rivalry.

Deciding the SEC West and Home Field Advantage

When LSU became relevant in SEC title races starting around the time Saban showed up, the main obstacles every year were Florida and Auburn. Except for Arkansas in 2002 and 2006 (the Hogs had the benefit of not having an annual series with either Georgia or Florida), the winner of the LSU-Auburn game would represent the SEC West in the title game every year from 2000 to 2007.

By the way, for some reason, the SEC calls you a winner of the division if you don’t play in the title game; but the way I look at it is if you lose the tiebreaker for first you’re second.  You’re not still in the broken tie for first.  So when I talk about winning the SEC West, I’m going to mean winning the tiebreaker as well. 

LSU has still never won the SEC West in an even year largely because the Tigers play both Auburn and Florida on the road in even years (and historically LSU is less likely to beat Alabama at home than on the road anyway).  You’ve probably seen it mentioned that LSU hasn’t lost to Auburn at home since 1999, but for a while that was mutual.  Nick Saban went 0-3 at Auburn as LSU head coach, and Les Miles also lost his first game at Auburn.  Miles would win two of the next three before losing his last two, the last of which lost him his job. 

Auburn players celebrate the win in 1999. LSU has had its longest home winning streak against Auburn in the years since.

LSU would end that streak in 2008, but speaking of Nick Saban, that was when Alabama became the team to beat in the division.  LSU beat Alabama and Auburn to win the SEC West in 2011, and Auburn beat LSU and Alabama to win the SEC West in 2010.  The three teams went 1-1 against each other in 2013; but LSU lost to two other teams (Georgia and Ole Miss), so that allowed Auburn to win a two-team head-to-head tiebreaker.  I think we all know who won the other 8 SEC West titles since then. 

In addition to being less important for the division, those three games just didn’t have the drama to go into much detail.  The 2010 game was the relatively close one, decided by only 7; but the LSU defense and offense both seemed defeated once Auburn took the lead with a about 5 minutes to go. Auburn could have scored again at the end of the game but ran out the clock instead.  They took the last snap from the LSU 3.

The 2012 LSU win, which at the time was only the second win at Auburn since 1998, was close; but Auburn turned out to be a terrible team.  Gene Chizik has not been a head coach since that season and may never be one again.  There were also only 6 points scored after the first quarter – a field goal by Auburn in the second quarter and a field goal by LSU in the third quarter. I like to watch good defenses more than most fans, but there are only so many ways to describe not scoring points. 

Other than it being an important game since one or both teams has been a major force in the conference (if not nationally), it’s also been a close game – again, not unlike LSU-Florida.

The Making of a Rivalry: 1993 to 1999

Unlike Florida though, it was typically a competitive game even going back before 2000.  It wasn’t even an annual series until 1993. That first game wasn’t very close, as Auburn went undefeated that season (but since they were on probation they weren’t considered in the national-title hunt), but that changed in a hurry. 

LSU led 23-9 in 1994 before Jamie Howard threw three pick-sixes and the Bayou Bengals lost 30-26.  Auburn had a quarterback named Nix, but other than a field goal drive in the second quarter, he was unsuccessful.  The four defensive scores were enough for the Plainsmen though.

In Death Valley the next year, the home team won by only 6 points.  That would be LSU’s first winning season in 7 years.

In 1996, LSU won on “the night the barn burned”.  It wasn’t a barnburner as neither team was able to get to 20 points.  It was 17-15 with 38 seconds to go when the home-standing War Tigers decided to go for two.  That backfired (no pun intended) as LSU returned the botched conversion attempt for two points.  The game was given the nickname because an old gym caught on fire during the game.

The next year, an Auburn touchdown in the last minute of the game would make the difference as LSU was only ahead by 4 before the score. 

Both programs went downhill the following two seasons with the road team winning fairly easily both times.  However, Auburn made a coaching change between 1998 and 1999, while LSU waited until after the 1999 season.  Auburn’s new coach Tommy Tuberville happened to have been the coach of Ole Miss when they beat LSU in 1997, which in retrospect would keep LSU from winning the SEC West for the first time.

After that 1999 win by Auburn, Tuberville smoked cigars with his team on the field.  He rationalized it by saying it was only Auburn’s third win there since World War II, but he didn’t mention that it was also Auburn’s third win at LSU in four tries.  Now he explains that it was also his birthday, but you don’t have to linger in an opponent’s stadium to celebrate your birthday.  Even if he just had shared a big cake on the field with his team, that would have been weird. 

2004 to 2007 Game Narratives

That wouldn’t be the end of the weirdness.  It was a big game, but none of the games were very interesting or exciting the next few years.

Then in 2004 it got interesting again.  I know a lot of people blame Les Miles for ushering in low-scoring games, but the offense wasn’t always exciting in Saban’s last year either.  LSU led 9-3 after 58 minutes of play. Auburn would score on third and 12 from the LSU 16, but the extra point was blocked. Apparently a new rule had been implemented in the offseason that if you land on another player after attempting to block or successfully blocking a field goal, it was a personal foul. Auburn got to try again and would win by that one point.

Since 2004 would become known as the extra point game, it only followed that we needed a field goal game.  This would happen 13 months later when the two teams would miss a combined 7 field goals in 10 attempts. 

LSU led 14-10 after Auburn made its one field goal in the second quarter and the teams exchanged touchdowns in the third.  The Plains Tigers would score another touchdown with just under 5 minutes to go in the game. LSU would get its first field goal a few minutes later to tie the game at 17 and eventually send it to overtime.  LSU would have the ball to begin the overtime and would settle for a field goal.  The Bayou Tigers had gotten one first down to help out the kicker Chris Jackson.  Auburn would go nowhere during their possession, and John Vaughn would miss from 39 to end the game, his fifth miss of the game.

Auburn K John Vaughn collapses to the field after missing a field goal (his fifth miss of the game) to give LSU the win in 2005.

2006 was another weird low-scoring game.  Les Miles was the coach, but he had inherited his offensive coordinator from Saban.  That was a guy you’ve probably never heard of named Jimbo Fisher.  But somehow (with the help of the referees of course), he only managed to guide the Tigers to 3 points for the whole game.  Auburn didn’t need any field goals and won 7-3 despite LSU having gained about twice as many yards.

Nonetheless, Fisher would do an impressive enough job with LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell the rest of the season to be offered a similar position with Florida St. but with more incentive and under an aging head coach being gently nudged into retirement.

LSU’s offense seemed to work just fine without him in 2007 (although you can’t really say the same for the 10 years afterward).  LSU-Auburn was another close game though.  Auburn led 17-13 going into the fourth quarter.  Matt Flynn led the home team on an 8-play 85-yard drive to put LSU up 20-17.  After a punt, the Fighting Tigers expanded that lead to 23-17.  Auburn responded with a 9-play, 83-yard drive to go up 1 with 3:21 remaining.

Unlike the last time Auburn played in Tiger Stadium, K Colt David was having a good day, having gone 3 for 3 on field goals.  It seemed like that was what LSU was playing for.  There was a number of running plays (including spontaneous runs by the QB) that took time off the clock as Flynn drove the Tigers downfield.  LSU also converted a key third and 3 from the Auburn 41 to keep the drive going (on a Richard Murphy run). Jacob Hester, the hero of the Florida game a couple of weeks before, would come in with his own 10-yard run. 

When LSU had a third and 7 from the 23 with just under 10 seconds left, Auburn probably expected another run to set up a field goal (LSU still had a timeout).  Instead Flynn threw to the end zone just to the outside of Demetrius Byrd, who turned at just the right time to catch the ball (see here if the picture doesn’t do it justice).

Along with Jacob Hester’s winning touchdown (see the final picture) two weeks earlier, Demetrius Byrd’s catch in the final moments against Auburn was one of the iconic plays in LSU’s national-championship season in 2007.

Since the extra point was taken with 1 second left, a lot of people thought the pass was an unacceptable risk.  I never bought into that since Byrd began to catch the ball with :04 showing on the clock.  It just didn’t really matter whether they stopped it at 4 seconds or 1 second at that point.  If he had dropped the ball or missed it completely, it probably would have been 3 seconds.  Maybe if he had juggled it several times and then dropped it, it would have run out the clock though.

2016

One second would make all the difference 9 years later, but I’d rather not rehash that game again.  SBNation did a good job though. You can’t tell for sure that the center wasn’t beginning the snap in the picture though.

(I already said all I needed to say about the games from 2008 to 2015.)

2017

I mentioned in the Florida summary how LSU had two ugly losses in the first five weeks of the season in 2017 but came back to beat Florida by 1.  The next week, it looked like the Tigers were going to have three ugly losses in seven weeks when #10 Auburn went out to a 20-0 lead in Tiger Stadium. 

See my 2017 blog about the game for details, but I’ll just set up how LSU reduced the lead to 9 before halftime.

The defense holding Auburn to a field goal (meaning it was 20-0 and not 24-0) wouldn’t have meant anything if the LSU offense hadn’t gotten into gear on the next drive. LSU wouldn’t even require a single pass to be thrown.  Six rushing plays got the Fighting Tigers 90 yards and touchdown (70 of the yards by on a carry Russell Gage).

Auburn looked ready to bring the lead back up to 20 a couple of drives later, but once again the defense bent but didn’t break.  After a first and goal from the 10, Auburn was only at the 8 before settling for a field goal. 

LSU took possession back with 2:16 left.  Given the passing struggles, success didn’t seem likely, but that didn’t stop Danny Etling.  On the drive, Etling completed 5 of 6 pass attempts for 67 yards and a touchdown. 

The comeback wasn’t complete yet, but a 9-point deficit at halftime looks a lot better than a 20-point deficit early in the second quarter. 

2018

I didn’t even talk about the details of the last LSU-Auburn game last year, I just debunked some of the whining after the fact by Auburn fans. 

LSU went out to an early 10-point lead midway through the second quarter, but Auburn roared back to go up 21-10 with about 25 minutes to go in the game.

Like in the previous year, it just seemed like the LSU defense drew a line in the sand at that point.  Auburn went three and out on their next drive, then after one first down Stidham threw an interception in LSU territory.  The next drive, Auburn missed a 52-yard field goal.  The only reason they got that far downfield was a targeting call, and Auburn would not get beyond their own 30 again.

LSU also had to score in the meantime of course.  After one three and out, LSU was able to vary run and pass to get into first and goal at the Auburn 8 but had to settle for a field goal.

The next drive was really quick, too quick to watch in real time.  Here is the slow-motion replay.

Derrick Dillon catches a pass over the middle before running for the end zone on a 71-yard completion to bring LSU within two at Auburn last year.

But LSU couldn’t get the two-point conversion.  As mentioned, Auburn could do nothing on offense, so LSU had to win the game with a field goal. 

LSU had a third and 11 right away, but that’s when there was one of the major pass interference calls I talked about in the blog above. After an incompletion on first down, Burrow ran a few yards on second down to make it a more reasonable third and 7, which the Fighting Tigers just barely converted. 

Burrow also ran on the next second down (which was also 2nd and 10), but he was tackled for a loss on third down.  Again, LSU was just able to get past the marker, this time to Stephen Sullivan. After yet another first-down incompletion, another pass interference was called on third down.  This put LSU into field goal position, and of course Cole Tracy made it.

This Year

Until the game last week (when LSU settled for field goals on the first three offensive possessions), I might have said how Auburn shouldn’t expect to hold this offense out of the end zone for long stretches of time.  LSU would eventually score as many points against Mississippi St. in the first half as they scored against Auburn the whole game last year though, so I’m still expecting this year’s LSU team to easily outscore last year’s in this game.

I watched parts of the Auburn games against Oregon and Florida.  Although, the LSU defense hasn’t always been great (though it is underrated by people who look at scores rather than watching games), I still think there will be stretches where Auburn can’t score.  Auburn scored only 3 points in the first four drives and 6 in the first nine drives against the Ducks   Against Florida, which let’s remember allowed 42 to LSU, Auburn couldn’t score for the last 40 minutes of the game. 

I do think Auburn’s pass rush will cause some incompletions and might get sacks (unlike Florida’s), but the defensive backfield might be even less able to keep up with LSU wide receivers.

Auburn does have a good front, hence the concerns about the pass rush, but pass rush and run defense aren’t the same thing.  If Auburn sends too much pressure, that could leave open lanes for Burrow or one of the backs.  If Auburn is trying too hard to defend the run, that often requires staying near the line of scrimmage rather than rushing the backfield. 

Auburn also has a good offensive line, so LSU could have some of the same dilemmas.  But I’m more confident in Burrow making good decisions in a game like this than Auburn fans should be in (the younger) Nix even if Nix ends up with more time.  Whitlow ran for about 4.5 yards per carry against both Oregon and Florida, but he won’t be playing.  Kam Martin (who had a few good carries against Florida but ran poorly against Oregon) ran well in his first full game as Whitlow’s replacement, but I don’t know how comparable running against Arkansas is to running against LSU.

I would lean toward taking the points.  I know I guessed wrong about Florida, but Auburn can probably score about what Florida did and maybe hold LSU out of the end zone on one or two more drives.  Maybe LSU just doesn’t have that final score to go up double digits like they did against Florida.  I would give Auburn about a 1 in 3 chance to win.  I think having a week off after Florida and not having to do anything fancy against Arkansas could be a slight advantage.  Florida did beat Auburn, but I think it was harder for the Gators to get back up for the LSU game than it will be for Auburn.  Also, despite the eventual loss by 14, Florida did still have a decent chance to win late.

LSU/Mississippi St.: Recent Games and Coaches

In College Football, General LSU, History, Preview, Rivalry on October 16, 2019 at 6:38 PM

I put a couple of paragraphs at the end about what I expect of this game, but this is not a preview blog.

Coach O and Intro

Ed Orgeron walks off the field for the last time as Ole Miss head coach after losing in the Egg Bowl on November 23, 2007. He is still looking for his first win in Starkville.

You’ll see the relevance below, but I wanted to update Ed Orgeron’s record against the various SEC teams.  Other than Saban, whose first year at Alabama was Orgeron’s last year at Ole Miss (Alabama won, 27-24), none of the coaches he has coached against as the Ole Miss head coach were SEC head coaches whom Orgeron has coached against at LSU.  In fact, Les Miles is the only other active head coach in any conference whom Orgeron coached directly against at Ole Miss.

Winning records (not counting the 1-0 mark against Missouri since they joined the SEC): Ole Miss 3-0, Texas A&M 2-1

.500: Arkansas 3-3, Vanderbilt 2-2, Kentucky 1-1, Tennessee 1-1

1 game under .500: Auburn 2-3, Mississippi St. 2-3, Florida 2-3, Georgia 1-2, Missouri 1-2 (Missouri was not in the SEC when Orgeron coached against the Tigers at Ole Miss)

Worse: LSU 0-3, Alabama 0-6

Mississippi St., Florida, and Alabama are the only SEC programs against whom Orgeron has coached but against whom he does not have a winning record while the coach at LSU.

He didn’t coach against South Carolina at either stop and is still waiting to get revenge on Kentucky for beating his Rebels 31-14 in 2006. On the other hand, the first and one of only three conference wins at Ole Miss was against the Wildcats. The others were against Mississippi St. and Vanderbilt.

Anyway, this mostly isn’t about Coach O and his disappointments with the Rebels. It occurred to me that now was the perfect time to talk about LSU’s history against Dan Mullen, the current Florida and former Mississippi St. head coach.  I’ll explain why, but given that LSU usually plays Florida in early October, it’s very rare that the Tigers play the Gators and Bulldogs back-to-back despite LSU having played both almost every year going back to the 1950s.

Dan Mullen vs. LSU and Rivalry Intro

Last week, Dan Mullen fell to 1-1 against LSU as head coach of the Gators, but he’s still 2-1 overall against Orgeron given his big win in 2017.  LSU has a much more well-established historical series against the Mississippi St. Bulldogs, where Mullen coached from 2009 to 2017. 

If you’re interested, here is the the full LSU/Mississippi St. Rivalry blog.

At State, Mullen didn’t have a good record against LSU (2-7), but he had as many wins as Jackie Sherrill, the all-time State leader in wins (75, which Mullen probably would have beaten by staying one more season) and the only Mississippi St. coach to lead the Bulldogs to the SEC Championship.  Sherrill was there 13 years to Mullen’s 9, and this has been an annual series since 1944 (the Bulldogs didn’t field a team in 1943).

The 2014 State win in Baton Rouge was the first since 1991, Sherrill’s first season.  The 2017 win (Mullen’s last year) was only the second win over LSU in Starkville since 1984.  The only other win was by that Sherrill-coached team that made the SEC championship in 1999.  It was by 1 point, and LSU would finish the season 3-8.

One thing I regret about the changes in schedules is that this was a traditional late-season game for both teams.  Mississippi St. was usually warming up for the Egg Bowl, and LSU usually played State between Alabama and Tulane.  It was played on the second or third Saturday of November (between 11/12 and 11/18) every year from 1947 to 1991.  The first game between the two was actually played on the third Saturday of November 1896.  It moved around the calendar before settling on a particular time consistently, but it was generally in November from then until 1922 and then every year from 1933 to 1940. 

The game was played on the third Saturday of October from 1928 to 1932 and on five other occasions, so I guess there is at least some tradition to draw on this time.  I don’t mind that this season we have a bit of a buffer between Florida and Auburn, although sometimes that is when a team gets tripped up, particularly on the road. Since Ole Miss can’t be Halloween weekend (which is a bye), I would have preferred Ole Miss serve as the buffer, but they didn’t ask me.

Dan Mullen discusses his first Bulldog recruiting class in 2009.

LSU vs. Mississippi St. 2009 to 2017

Mullen nearly scored an upset over the Tigers in Starkville in his first season in 2009.  LSU won with a late goal-line stand by 4 points.  I wonder if Mullen had flashbacks to that on Saturday. LSU didn’t ultimately have a great season at 9-4; but it was only two years after LSU won the BCS Championship, so it would have been a big deal. 

That 2009 season was Mullen’s only season there that the Bulldogs did not qualify for a bowl game, so he probably would have been 9/9 had he figured out a way to gain that one more yard.  The Bulldogs gained one yard on first and goal from the 2 and were stuffed on the next three plays.  Only the third-down play was a pass.  Chad Jones, who also won a national championship as a pitcher on the baseball team, made the two tackles at the line of scrimmage on second and fourth downs and defended the third-down pass.

In the next four years, no matter how good they were, they couldn’t even make it interesting against the Tigers. It helped that LSU went 44-9 over those 4 years.

The Tigers finally had a serious rebuilding job to do in 2014; and Mississippi St. had its best team in decades.  The Tigers would play well at times that season (such as upsetting the #3 team and nearly upsetting the #4 team… more on that here), but that wasn’t until later in the year.  What made it worse was the Tigers could not find a consistent quarterback that season, and the Bulldog quarterback was Louisiana native Dak Prescott, whom the Tigers coaching staff refused to offer a scholarship as a quarterback. 

Dak Prescott stiff-arms DB Jalen Mills in Tiger Stadium in September 2014.

Prescott was not a household name before that game.  LSU was ranked #8 and the Bulldogs were unranked.  The depleted LSU defense led by DC John Chavis was not prepared for that type of spread attack at all.  The defenders were somehow unable to fill gaps or keep the play in front of them, and they weren’t able to make key tackles.  Prescott threw for 268 yards and rushed for 118 (not counting the sack yardage).

The only reason LSU was able to make the final score respectable was that three different Tigers were able to throw for a combined 341 yards, but they didn’t even try to do that until they got well behind in the game.  QB Brandon Harris threw two touchdown passes in less than 30 seconds late in the fourth quarter.  The Tigers attempted an onsides kick with 1:27 left that would have given them a real chance to win, but when the Bulldogs recovered it, they were able to run over a minute off of the clock.  LSU then had 20 seconds to go 80 yards, and you can guess how that went.  Harris did have 34 all-purpose yards on that drive before throwing an interception on the final play, but it needed to be at least 34 yards in one play.

It was 34-10 in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, so the 34-29 final score doesn’t convey how dominant the Bulldogs were for most of the game.

The next year in Starkville it was the Tigers who led early in the fourth quarter, 21-6 in that case.  Kevin Steele, the new defensive coordinator (now the defensive coordinator at Auburn), and Ed Orgeron, the Tigers’ new defensive line coach, seemed to have instilled the right schemes and techniques in the offseason.  Cracks were already developing late in the third quarter though.  The Bulldogs had just gotten into the red zone when the fourth quarter began and shortly afterward Prescott took the ball into the end zone himself.

When LSU got the ball, the Tigers called three rushing plays for a combined -1 yards.  Mississippi St. would drive again, but the drive stalled behind the LSU 30.  Prescott was sacked by Lewis Neal on third down to prevent a long field goal try (the kicker Devon Bell had previously made it from 43 and it would have been about 49 before the sack).

The Tigers went back to their conservative ways on offense again, but it actually worked for a couple of first downs before the drive stalled at midfield, giving the ball back to Dak at the Mississippi St. 18 after a punt.

Prescott threw completions on 6 consecutive plays to lead the Bulldogs to a touchdown, but he could not score from three yards out on the conversion attempt, so LSU still led by 2, 21-19.

The Tigers still refused to throw the ball; and Mississippi St. got the ball again, this time at the 11. Only 1:32 remained though, so it wasn’t the dual-threat situation that the Bulldogs excelled in.  LSU jumped offsides on the first play, and Prescott then threw completions in four of the next five plays.  This gave the Bulldogs the ball at the LSU 39.  The Tiger defense, knowing time was running out, knew the Bulldogs were going to throw, probably toward the sidelines.  All three passes from that spot were unsuccessful, leading to a fourth down with 3 seconds left.  Fifty+ was probably not in Bell’s comfort zone, and he missed from 52 as time expired.

The next year, Dak had been replaced by Nick Fitzgerald (with assistance from Damian Williams… Mullen likes having a second QB to throw into games apparently), and LSU had settled on Purdue transfer Danny Etling as the starting quarterback in another early-season game. The Tigers started strong again, this time with a 20-0 lead midway through the second quarter.  After and exchange of field goals, it was 23-3 at the half.  The Bulldogs got another field goal in the third quarter, but it seemed like LSU was going to run out the clock with no major drama. 

However, the momentum shifted when LSU failed to convert a fourth down from the Mississippi St. 34.  Rather than trying for a field goal to go back up by 20, LSU decided to go for the first down instead.  Fournette was stuffed.  He actually fumbled on the play, but by rule a fourth-down fumble recovered by the offense (which it was) essentially means the play was dead.

Nick Fitzgerald looks for the sideline after a first-down run as LSU safety John Battle closes in in Starkville two years ago.

Fitzgerald and Williams responded with a 9-play, 66-yard touchdown drive to bring the score to 23-13.  State recovered the ensuing onsides kick, and Williams led the Bulldogs to another score, this time taking only two plays.  It was now 23-20 with 3:30 to play.  You can guess what LSU did (or didn’t do) on offense, and the Bulldogs would start the next drive on their own 33 with 1:35 remaining. 

The Bulldogs could only come up with a two-yard rush, two incompletions, and a sack, so LSU would be able to run out the clock after tense final minutes for the third consecutive game in the series.  It was Les Miles’ 114th win as LSU head coach and would be his last.  It was his 10th win against the Bulldogs in 12 seasons.

In 2017, both offenses were ineffective early (0-0 after the first quarter) and then more methodical (10-7 in favor of the home Bulldogs with 5 minutes left in the half).  The wind was taken out of LSU’s sails when Mississippi St. had a 10-play, 54-yard touchdown drive to end the first half and a 7-play, 48-yard drive that ended in a field goal to begin the second half.

Now down 20-7, LSU tried to mix run and pass on the ensuing drive, but Etling went 1/3 for 6 yards on the drive.  So Mississippi St. got the ball back. The shorthanded LSU defense was already getting worn out, and then two players were ejected for targeting.  The Bulldogs were forced into two third-and-1 situations, but they ran for a first down on one of them and fooled the defense on the second one for a 45-yard touchdown pass.  In hindsight, the game was essentially over at that point even though 5 minutes remained in the third quarter. 

The final score was Mississippi St. 37, LSU 7.  The Tigers did have a couple of decent long drives on offense, but when you’re three possessions or more behind, you usually don’t try to settle for long field goals even if they were likely to go in.  The field-goal kicking that year was not very reliable anyway.

The Tigers would lose to Troy two weeks later before going 6-1 to close out the regular season.  I’d rather not talk about the bowl game.

At Mississippi St., Mullen only had double-digit wins that one year of 2014, but the 2017 team was tied for second-best of his tenure at 9-4.  It was tied with the 2015 season in which they lost to LSU, 21-19.

Mullen goes to Florida

So 2017 was the first Orgeron-Mullen meeting.  I still wish LSU had last year’s Florida game back, but Orgeron has had a pretty decent improvement in two seasons, especially considering that Mullen took over a better program.  I look forward to more games between the two.

Mullen didn’t even replace a bad coach, just one who lost a few games in a row the year after winning the SEC East the prior year.  As I mentioned last week, I’m not a Jim McElwain fan; but from what I saw he could at least do a respectable job of recruiting, hiring assistants, and managing the game (at least unless they got behind a few scores).  The point of bringing him up is, although Mullen had to recover from a bad year and did well to win 10 games last season, I don’t think McElwain did anything that made it more difficult to win games at Florida than it had been at Mississippi St. in any long-term sense.

Not really apropos of anything, but McElwain is 4-3 as the Central Michigan head coach this season despite games against Wisconsin and U. of Miami.  I was just curious where he ended up and didn’t find out until I looked him up while preparing the Florida preview, so I thought I’d share.

2019 Preview and Joe Moorhead

Anyway, since I’m done talking about Dan Mullen for now, I’ll mention the upcoming game against his successor Joe Moorhead, who actually served on the Penn St. staff with LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady.  Ed Orgeron said Moorhead called after the hire to add his endorsement.

I would say Moorhead had a respectable showing last season, going 8-5. He had close losses to Florida and Iowa (in the bowl game). He beat four teams who went to bowl games: UL-Lafayette, Auburn, Texas A&M, and Louisiana Tech. Apart from Iowa, all the losses were to teams who would win 10 games or more.

Things aren’t going quite as well this year. State started 3-1, which looked decent given the win over Kentucky (which had beaten the Bulldogs 28-7 last year); but the Bulldogs have been outscored 76-33 in the last two games. That included Moorhead’s first loss to a mediocre to bad team Tennessee.

LSU K Cole Tracy was responsible for 13 of the game’s 22 points – and for all of the points after the first quarter – in Baton Rouge last year. LSU had one touchdown drive that started at the Bulldog 3, and State only scored on one field goal.

Since Mississippi St. could only hold Tennessee to 20, I don’t think we will see a replay of last year’s 19-3 score in favor of LSU.  The Bulldogs had three defensive players drafted from last year’s team, not to mention LSU’s changes on offense. 

State has another decent mobile quarterback Garrett Shrader, but he won’t have the kind of talent around him that Nick Fitzgerald had in the big Bulldog win in September 2017 (and didn’t have last season).  They have another quarterback Tommy Stevens who may come off the bench, but he’s statistically not as good at running or passing. Both have had injuries, which is the main reason LSU doesn’t want Burrow to show off his running abilities more.

Yet again I think the prior opponent most comparable to LSU is Auburn, who won 56-23.  Shrader did average 5.6 yards per rush and 9.1 yards per pass in that game though.  That was at Auburn and not following a top-10 opponent, so don’t be too disappointed if LSU doesn’t beat that margin of victory. 

I will be very interested to see how the LSU defense deals with Shrader early though.  Like Florida, the Bulldogs are capable of long, methodical drives; but unlike Florida they showed that ability against Auburn.  They just couldn’t keep up with the Auburn offense, which had great field position on its first three drives to take a 21-0 lead.  But if by contrast LSU struggles early offensively (which happened against Northwestern St. and Utah St.), maybe it will be a game for a while.

LSU/Florida Series Recap and Preview

In College Football, General LSU, History, Post-game, Preview, Rankings Commentary on October 8, 2019 at 2:36 PM

Utah St.

It was below the radar for most, but I think it’s worth mentioning a couple of developments from the Utah St. game that may feed into the Florida game and have affected the emphasis in practice.

I was pleased with some aspects of the LSU game.  The passing game didn’t look as great as it had previously, but the defense and running game looked a lot better.  We were able to control the clock more, which I think made the defense more comfortable despite the heat.  We had 3 running backs with at least 8 carries, and the worst one averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Burrow was almost as good with 4.2 yards per carry, and in college that number includes sacks.  He had about 6.5 yards per carry without those.

Utah St. couldn’t run at all. The Aggies had 1 yard rushing in the first half and 18 in the second. I think this showed that the tackling drills during the week that Orgeron talked about paid off. Hopefully the practice drills to correct fumbles will bear similar fruit.

I really don’t like that Burrow threw another interception deep in the LSU end of the field (although it arguably should have been caught by LSU); but like when that happened inside the 10 against Texas, the defense kept the other team from scoring a touchdown.  The defense only gave up one other scoring drive, and that one required a 35-yard pass (with a one-handed reception) and a 47-yard field goal.  There was a similar long pass on the next drive for Utah St., but the LSU defense came up with a turnover before any more damage could be done. 

Although I thought the passing game took a step back from previous games, there were some very nice touchdown passes (this one to Justin Jefferson). Burrow was involved in all 6 touchdowns, running for one of them.

There were a couple of penalties that shouldn’t have happened.  There were actually three fumbles, although LSU recovered two of them.  Utah St. is not a bad team, but if we have two turnovers against them, that gives me some concerns for some of the better SEC teams coming up.  I also mentioned sacks, so it wasn’t the best pass blocking.

Florida Preview

I won’t go into elaborate detail about players to watch for etc.; but I have consumed some media discussing the game, so I’ll give my take. 

I wasn’t that impressed with the model used by College Football Nerds and resulting predictions, but they did an all right job talking about the various units.  I think Florida’s main problem, other than Tiger Stadium at night, is the fact that they’re coming off a tough game against Auburn.   It’s just hard to improve along with the competition two weeks in a row. 

If you didn’t see the game, Florida had a little bit of luck at key moments too.  Auburn was poised to take the lead and threw an interception in the end zone after an 80-yard drive to end the third quarter.  Auburn was driving again to at least get within 1 with a field goal, and Nix was dropped for a 22-yard sack (which he made much worse than it could have been).  Then the first play after the punt the Florida running back Perine was able to get to the outside and no one was home, so he scored 88 yards later.  I’m not minimizing the Gators’ skills, but it’s a little misleading that they finished with almost twice as many points as Auburn.

There were four turnovers by each team in the Florida-Auburn game, and I think winning the turnover battle is definitely a possible avenue to victory for the Gators.  LSU can force turnovers; but defenders have to have good hands and be ready to fall on fumbles.  On the other hand, Tiger turnovers deep in LSU territory (which have happened at least four times) that didn’t really affect the outcome in previous games could make the difference here. 

Auburn has a good defense that Florida got through for a few long plays (no Florida touchdown drive was more than 2 plays), although the Gators are not the best at sustaining drives.  So basically I’m really confident if the LSU offense doesn’t make huge mistakes and the defense keeps the play in front of them and forces mistakes.  Those are big ifs though.

Florida WR Freddie Swain slips a tackle on the way to the opening score in Gainesville Saturday. Auburn allowed just enough of a seam for Swain to run 64 yards.

I’ll elaborate more below and I’ve covered this in previous discussions of the rivalry history, but I’m really skeptical of LSU winning this game by multiple touchdowns (they’re favored by 13 1/2 last I saw).  If they do, I think it will still be late plays that allow that to happen. 

Since the Miles-Meyer era began, 2011 LSU (the one that lost the national championship to Alabama) and 2008 Florida (which won the national championship) were the only two teams to win by 14 more..  All were against opponents who lost at least 5 games on the year.  The only other Florida wins by more than one possession (2006 and 2009) were by eventual 13-1 teams.  The 2006 LSU team only lost two games, but the 2009 edition lost four.  LSU won by 11 in 2013, but Florida would lose eight games to LSU’s three.

So if LSU is a Playoff team, I can see them winning by 10 or 13; but any more than that would probably mean Florida isn’t nearly as good as their rank.

Also, as sort of a transition, I wanted to mention that there is a good chance the game could come close to a high score in the series. Here are the games with the most combined points. It also shows how consistent the time of year in which the game is played has been.

DateLocationLSUFlorida Total
10/11/2008Florida 215172
10/12/1996Florida 135669
10/17/2015LSU352863
10/9/2010Florida 332962
10/9/1993LSU35861
10/8/1994Florida 184260
10/6/2001LSU154459
10/11/2014Florida 302757
10/7/1978Florida 342155
10/9/1971LSU48755

LSU/FLORIDA SERIES

See my series blog for the full details, but LSU/Florida has been a weird series.  Prior to the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina in time for the 1992 season, LSU was the farthest West SEC school, and Florida was the farthest East.  On the other hand, they are the two southernmost SEC schools and almost as far south as one another (Gainesville is slightly south being that it’s below the panhandle, and Baton Rouge is basically a straight line from the panhandle).

The third game in the series wasn’t played until 1953, but LSU has played Florida nearly every year since then (apart from a three-season gap between 1968 and 1970). 

I’m glad the game against Florida is at night.  I think that’s as important as location if not moreso.  LSU is 6-2 in night games against the Gators this century compared to 5-4 at home (the Tigers have the same mark in Gainesville since 2001). 

I’m not sure it mattered where or when the games in 2008 and 2009 were played.  LSU was in a rebuilding cycle those two years (The Tigers lost 9 games between the 2007 BCS championship and the 24-2 stretch that encompassed the 2010 and 2011 calendar years) while Florida experienced a 22-game winning streak that included both LSU games.  Tebow’s last game against LSU was in 2009, which corresponded with the Tigers doing a bit better, so that’s why I included the record since 2010 at the bottom. 

Florida’s only win at Tiger Stadium since that 2009 game was a noon kickoff in a rescheduled game in 2016.  Florida’s late goal-line stand in that game nearly cost Ed Orgeron the permanent job as head coach. 

LSU’s one-point win at Florida in 2017 (by the same score the Tigers would have won by in 2016) got the ball rolling for Jim McElwain’s departure.  This development was also enjoyable for LSU fans given his reaction to the win.  The Tigers entered with two losses to unranked teams.  Florida had a loss, but it was to a fairly decent Michigan team to open the season (at least the Wolverines were fairly decent in their 8-2 start), so that loss stung.  The Gators would have another close home loss the next week before getting blown out by Georgia in Jacksonville, in what turned out to be McElwain’s last game. 

Chart of recent games

2005 was the first Les Miles vs. Urban Meyer game, so I thought that was a good place for the chart to begin although ig doesn’t encompass all the night wins.  The coaches won three games apiece against one another, but the LSU wins were close (all by exactly four points) and dramatic.

There was also a close (night) game in Gainesville in 2004 that LSU won after benching JaMarcus Russell; but LSU suffered two losses in the previous three games that season, and Florida would lose five games overall.   Both teams played like it (when the winning team throws three interceptions and misses two field goals it usually isn’t a well-played game), so it just didn’t have the same feel as the next few years, so I didn’t include it.  LSU’s win in 2002, the Tigers’ first in Gainesville since 1986, was also at night; but it was a blowout.

Yearlocationkickoffresult
2018Florida 3:30Florida 27, LSU 19
2017Florida 3:30LSU 17, Florida 16
2016LSU12:00Florida 16, LSU 10
2015LSU 6:00LSU 35, Florida 28
2014Florida 7:30LSU 30, Florida 27
2013LSU2:30LSU 17, Florida 6
2012Florida 3:30Florida 14, LSU 6
2011LSU2:30LSU 41, Florida 11
2010Florida 7:30LSU 33, Florida 29
2009LSU7:00Florida 13, LSU 3
2008Florida 8:00Florida 51, LSU 21
2007LSU7:30LSU 28, Florida 24
2006Florida 3:30Florida 23, LSU 10
2005LSU2:30LSU 21, Florida 17

In 2005, LSU scored the go-ahead touchdown with 12 minutes left and held the Gators to 17 total yards over the next four drives to hold onto the win.  In 2007, LSU went 5 for 5 on fourth downs (one of them a fake field goal) and also added 8 third-down conversions to dominate time of possession.  The Tigers scored the winning touchdown with 1:09 left after a drive of over 8 minutes.  In 2010, in his last game against LSU, Meyer nearly had a meltdown after an over-the-shoulder pitch to the kicker on a fake field goal was ruled a lateral rather than an incomplete pass.  The Tigers scored the winning touchdown in that one with only 6 seconds left.

Jacob Hester scores the winning touchdown in Baton Rouge in 2007. Hester had converted two fourth downs earlier in the drive. The Tigers entered the fourth quarter down by 10 but possessed the ball for more than 10 minutes in the quarter and won by 4.

The Florida wins in the Miles-Meyer era were relatively comfortable.  Meyer’s three wins were the only Florida wins by more than one possession since 2003. LSU has only beaten Florida by more than one possession once since 2002. 

Additional Background

This isn’t really key information, but I think it helps explain why this series is probably second to Alabama when it comes to motivating the LSU fans and also a little bit more about why I’m doubtful LSU will win big.

I’ll finish with years before the Miles-Meyer era and then fill in the gap between that era and 2016.

Going into the 2002 game, Florida had beaten LSU easily four games in a row and 8 games of 9.  LSU only had two close games against Spurrier-coached Florida teams, both 28-21 final scores.  The Tigers lost in Gainesville in 1992 and won in Baton Rouge in 1997.  In the 2002 game, the first season without Spurrier, LSU won 36-7, its first win in Gainesville since 1986 and its first win over Florida by more than 11 since 1980.  LSU has won by more than 11 only once since then, in 2011.  Florida would 5 games in 2002 and 6 in 2011, so that’s why I’m skeptical of a big LSU win in this one.  I’ve been wrong about LSU lines before, but I would lean toward taking Florida and the points.

The 1997 LSU win (the Gators’ first loss since winning the national championship in the previous season) was the Tigers’ only over the Gators from 1988 to 2001  Spurrier was hired before the 1990 season and left after the 2001 season.  That was when LSU’s fortunes in the series began to change, not when Nick Saban arrived.

Saban went only 2-3 against the Gators as LSU head coach and also went 2-3 against Spurrier for his career (0-2 at LSU, 1-0 at Michigan St., and 1-1 at Alabama; of course the Alabama games were against South Carolina, not Florida).  2001 to 2004 was also a weird stretch because road teams won every game, none of the games were between top-15 teams, and the game was decided by one possession only once.

Anyway, I mentioned that in 2011 (the first game after Meyer left) LSU won easily.  Florida won a close defensive struggle in 2012 when somehow former LSU coordinator Will Muschamp would lead the Gators to the Sugar Bowl.  LSU would win the next three games before Les Miles was fired. The 2014 game was a rollercoaster; but it turned out to be two mediocre teams, so I won’t go into detail again.

LSU/Vanderbilt Series and Final Week 3 Notes

In College Football, General LSU, Post-game, Preview, Rivalry on September 18, 2019 at 9:22 AM

Neither LSU’s nor Kansas’s games last week had an effect upon the top 25, but as a fan of both LSU and Les Miles, obviously I have some interest there. When LSU has a big national game like the one against Texas, I’m probably going to cover it along with my rankings (unless I can’t wait until the next day, which happens sometimes); but when the only reason I’m writing about something is because I’m a fan, I prefer to do that in a separate blog. I will cover the LSU/Vanderbilt series in depth below.

Kansas @ BOSTON COLLEGE

The Jayhawks only scored three offensive touchdowns in their first two games and had gone scoreless in the last 57 minutes of Game 2 against Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers did win five games against an FBS schedule last season, so it wasn’t the most ridiculous upset; but KU still should have won.

It wasn’t something that was drastically out of character for the Kansas football program in the last few years.

When you’re trying to turn a program around, there may be some bumps in the road like that in the first year at any given school.  Even Nick Saban lost to UAB in his first year at LSU and to ULM in his first year at Alabama.

Anyway, given the offensive struggles, it was remarkable that the Jayhawks managed more offensive touchdowns in one half than they had scored in two full games.

It was out of character to win a road game against a Power 5 opponent, which the Jayhawks had not done since 2008 (and that was against a bad Iowa St. team).  It also wasn’t a very normal Kansas thing to beat the spread by over 40 points.

Until his last couple of seasons at LSU when the Tigers struggled after losing to Alabama, you never wanted to play a Les Miles team after a loss. I’m glad he seems to have brought that attitude to Kansas so quickly.

Kansas RB Khalil Herbert ran for 187 yards on 11 carries in Chestnut Hill, MA, Friday.

NORTHWESTERN ST. @ LSU

Before getting to the LSU-Vanderbilt series, I wanted to comment about the last LSU game.  This is the only preview of sorts I’m going to write.  I’m not saying the win is guaranteed, but I’m not going to give in-depth information about every opponent.

LSU’s first half last Saturday was ugly, I’m not going to lie, but there were positives in the game.  First of all, Joe Burrow and Myles Brennan combined set the LSU home record for most passing yards in a game with 488. Rohan Davey, who contributed in the previous home record, still holds the overall record (that one is by himself) with 528 at Alabama in 2001.  That Tommy Hodson individual home record (which I mentioned last week) also still stands, but Burrow did set a new single-game record for completion percentage with at least 20 attempts (87.5).

Brennan looked better than he did against Georgia Southern, with a QB rating almost as good as Burrow’s, and he was given more of the playbook to work with.  If  the one incompletion of his had been completed, he would be in the LSU record book individually for being one of only two quarterbacks (Fred Haynes in 1968) to go 9/9 in a game. 

I don’t think that 528-yard record will be broken in Nashville Saturday; but if there isn’t any kind of record in that game, the home game against Utah St. in three weeks might be a good opportunity to update some records.

The defense – no matter what was going on – should not have allowed 14 points in a half and should not have needed a drop to avoid giving up 21, but it is important to note that at least six important defenders, including three starting linemen, did not play.  This obviously contributed to Northwestern St.’s ability to sustain drives.  The defense made good adjustments in the second half though, so it’s at least encouraging that they can respond well to the proper guidance.  The Demons only gained about 80 yards in the second half.

Burrow did throw a silly interception, but I think he just got a little too confident in the ability to complete a sideline throw regardless of coverage for a moment there.  I don’t think he would have tried the same throw against Alabama, for instance.  I can’t think of another bad decision all night though. 

LSU still needs to work on the run game, but Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Tyrion Davis-Price, and Lanard Fournette (not to mention the quarterbacks) did find some running lanes on key plays, especially after the passing game got to be more consistent. Burrow said after the game that he doesn’t want to run the ball at all; but we didn’t hire Mike Leach, and even he runs it sometimes.

RIVALRY SERIES: LSU vs. VANDERBILT

I wasn’t going to write too much about the LSU-Vanderbilt series, but there were more close games than I realized even though LSU has dominated the series in the last 60+ years (winning 11 of 12).

This will be the second game in a row in the series to be held in Nashville.  The last time Vandy had consecutive home games in the series (1985 and 1990), they won the second contest, so this is very scary information. None of the historical problem areas stopped LSU from beating Texas though, so hopefully it will be the same here.

[Updated after game] LSU leads the all-time series, 23-7-1, and leads in Nashville, 12-5. In this 2019 game, LSU won 66-38. Even Vanderbilt’s total points were fourth in the series history and the second-most for the Commodores. LSU broke its single-game record (49-7 in 1985) by 17 points. The only other teams to score more than VANDY did was LSU in 1945 (39-7) and Vandy in 1948 (48-7).

See here for previous installments of my rivalry series. If you’re a Vanderbilt fan who stumbled across this blog, I did write about the Vanderbilt series with Ole Miss last year.

EARLY GAMES

Senator Huey Long, who was still the de facto governor, stands in front of the Vandy Express in 1934. Long would not live to see another football season.

Sorry for the older people reading, but I consider anything before 1988 an early game since it’s before I remember football. I only felt the need to elaborate slightly about one of the games that took place between 1957 and 1990 anyway.

The Commodores won at least 70% of their games, playing at least 7 games per season, between 1902 and 1912.  LSU had started playing football earlier, in 1893, but sometimes played three games or fewer in a year and often posted losing records or records at or around 50%.  With this in mind, it’s not surprising that Vandy won two games during this period by a combined score of 49 to 5. 

LSU would continue to have strong years occasionally surrounded by mediocre seasons. 1931 would be the first time in several years that the two teams would even finish with the same record. Vanderbilt’s four losses came to teams with a combined 4 losses while LSU’s four losses came to teams with a combined 8 losses, but the gap was narrowing. Vanderbilt would be the superior team again in 1932; but with the creation of the SEC the next year, LSU would get to see how they stacked up on the field for the first time since 1910.

LSU would play 10 games in the 1933 season and not lose a single one; whereas it was more of a rebuilding year for Vandy, who would suffer three losses after losing only one game (at Alabama) the year before.  And yet the game in Baton Rouge ended in a somewhat demoralizing 7-7 draw. 

The U.S. Senator (and still de facto governor) of Louisiana, Huey Long, was very insistent that since LSU would not play the Commodores in front of a home crowd the following year, they would bring the home crowd with them.  To facilitate this, he though the students should be given a 70% discount.  When the railroad was not so fond of that idea, he threatened to reassess the taxes that the railroad might owe.  According to one report I read, the railroad was only being taxed at about 2.5% of its actual worth.  He also gave “loans” to students who claimed to still be unable to afford the trip.  I imagine similar “loans” were given to players back then, but that’s another topic.

The Tigers had already been tied twice in four contests to begin the 1934 season, but the Commodores were undefeated. LSU may have gotten the upset anyway, but the enthusiastic fan supported probably contributed to the impressive 29-0 score in favor of the Tigers.  This was a clear turning point in the series.  The Tigers would remain undefeated until a one-point loss to Tulane denied LSU a berth in the inaugural Sugar Bowl, but LSU did finish with a better record than Vanderbilt for only the second time since 1914.  The Tigers would make the Sugar Bowl the next three years, so it was clear they were now part of the hierarchy of the new SEC.

Due to Long’s interference, head coach Biff Jones would resign following the season. The good news was his replacement Bernie Moore was one of LSU’s longest-tenured and most successful LSU head coaches. In this way, Long may have contributed to many LSU victories after his death.

Although Vanderbilt would host the next three contests in the series as well, the Commodores would only win one of them (by 1 point in 1937).  By 1947, the Tigers had built a 9-3-1 lead in the series. 

LSU head coach Bernie Moore (pictured in 1939) went 8-1 against Vanderbilt over 13 seasons. Les Miles, 3-0, is the only other LSU coach to have coached at least three games against the Commodores.

Moore, after whom the track stadium is still named, retired after the 1947 season.  The Tigers suffered only two losing seasons in his 13 years. He was replaced by Gus Tinsley, whom he coached to a claim of the national championship in 1936.  (Minnesota won a split decision in the AP poll, but LSU is recognized as the best team that year by Jeff Sagarin.)  Tinsley, who still went to LSU games until shortly before his death in 2002, proved to be a better player than coach though.  He posted only three wins in his first season and would never lead consecutive teams to winning records. 

Vanderbilt won two of the four contests against LSU with Tinsley as the head coach.

Although the series has been sporadic since the 1940s, only one of the last 12 full-time LSU head coaches who coached a game (Jerry Stovall) avoided a game against Vanderbilt.

For the LSU program overall, things eventually turned around under Paul Dietzel, Tinsley’s successor, but Dietzel’s first three years was the worst three-year stretch for the Tigers since the early 1920s.  LSU would lose 7-0 in Nashville in 1957 for the third loss in five games in the series.  The series would not resume until 1976.

LSU won the next four games easily… apart from the 1984 contest.  LSU led the whole game in that one but let the Commodores back into the game with three fourth-quarter turnovers that reduced the lead from 28 with about 12 minutes left to 7 with just over 2 minutes left.  All LSU had to do after that (in hindsight) was recover the onsides kick and hand the ball to future Saints star Dalton Hilliard, but I imagine there were some nervous moments in the final minutes.

1990: Vanderbilt Ends Four-Game LSU Winning Streak for First Win in Series Since 1957

Even when Vanderbilt won in 1990 (the first game in the series I remember), the Tigers were quickly going downhill as a program.  They had gone from 10-1-1 in 1987 to 8-4 in 1988 to 4-7 in 1989.  LSU would score a huge upset over Texas A&M in the following week, but once again the Tigers would finish with a losing record.  After  Vandy was a running team the whole game in 1990 (2 completions on 13 attempts to that point), LSU took the lead with 4:06 remaining, 21-17. 

Apparently forcing the ’Dores to throw was the worst thing to do.  Five completions and two quarterback runs (along with two incompletions and a third-down handoff) would give Vanderbilt the lead with 1:09 left and soon thereafter the win, 24-21.  That would be Vanderbilt’s only win of the season.

Neither LSU HC Mike Archer nor Vanderbilt HC Watson Brown would make it until the next season.

1991: LSU Begins a New Winning Streak

The Tigers did get revenge by winning a close game in 1991.  Vanderbilt out-gained LSU and got more first downs, but the Tigers won with a combination of forced turnovers and special teams.  LSU had 117 turnover-return yards to Vanderbilt’s 0 as the Tigers won the turnover battle 4 to 1. 

The Tigers took their first lead on an interception-touchdown early in the third quarter, but the Commodores responded with a 15-play, 80-yard drive to go back up, 14-10.  LSU had a long drive of its own to complete the third quarter, but it resulted only in a field goal.  Vandy still led 14-13 at the start of the fourth.  The ’Dores were forced to punt after going backwards on their next drive, and LSU QB Jesse Daigle was able to engineer another FG drive.  He passed for 44 yards and ran for another 5 on the drive, which put LSU ahead, 16-14.

In the nest drive, it looked as if Vanderbilt would both take the lead and nearly run out the clock.  After 7 plays, the Commodores already had the ball at the LSU 16.  Three straight running plays gave Vandy a first and goal from the LSU 5 with 2:13 to go in the game.  After two more runs, the Tigers took their last timeout with 1:18 to go and Vandy facing a third and goal from the 2.  As LSU had not managed a touchdown drive the whole game, a Vanderbilt score on the next play might have essentially ended the game.  Even if LSU forced the fourth down, the ’Dores could have run down the clock to well under a minute before kicking the go-ahead field goal.  Neither of those happened though, as LB Ricardo Washingon would force a fumble, returned 76 yards by DB Wayne Williams. 

It was LSU who would run out the clock and hold onto the two-point win. Both teams would finish 5-6, which was thought to be solid beginning for the two new coaches Gerry DiNardo and Curley Hallman.  DiNardo turned out all right for a Vanderbilt head coach, but Hallman turned out to be the worst modern head coach of LSU.

1996 and 1997: The Gerry DiNardo Bowls

LSU would not post another winning record until 1995, the year after Hallman was fired, but one coach was the same in 1996, the next time the Tigers faced the ’Dores.  That was Gerry DiNardo, who was in his second year with the Tigers after winning a whopping 18 games in four years at Vandy.  The LSU fans were so excited to see him face his former team, it was one of the largest crowds in Tiger Stadium history at the time. 

The Tigers wore gold jerseys (which were especially popular in light of the baseball team’s success in the 1990s) in protest of the Commodores’ refusal to allow LSU to wear white, the traditional home color.  For some reason, white was allowed at home but only with the visitor’s permission at that time.  I’m not sure how premeditated this was, but it was sort of like promoting a boxing match by engineering a big feud between the boxers.

In the following June, the baseball team would win its fourth College World Series in 7 years.

Vanderbilt QB Damian Allen throws to the flat to avoid a sack in Baton Rouge on October 5, 1996.

The ’Dores almost got some amount of revenge in 1997.  Both teams had chances to score in the first quarter, but LSU would miss a 44-yard field goal attempt, and Vanderbilt would fumble at the LSU at the LSU 24.  Vanderbilt dominated the second quarter, but the Commodores could not score.  This time Vandy would miss a 38-yard field goal.  On the following offensive drive, the ’Dores fumbled again at the LSU 11.  LSU finally recorded the game’s first score late in the third quarter to go up 7-0.  Before that 53-yard touchdown drive, the Tigers only had 96 net yards for the game.  Vanderbilt had gained more yards than that in the second quarter alone.   

After both offenses struggled for most of the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt was forced to punt to LSU with just under 6 minutes left.  The Tigers seemed intent to either score or run out the clock.  This strategy was bolstered by a 23-yard run on first down to the Commodore 38.  After being penalized for a hold, the Tigers would to advance to the 32 on a third and long.  Since it was too far to feel comfortable with a field goal, the Tigers went for it on 4th and 4.  LSU QB Herb Tyler dropped back to pass but was sacked, giving Vandy the ball at their own 41.  After an incompletion and a run for no gain, the ’Dores were forced into a third and long with just over 2 minutes left, but then the passing game came alive.  Fourteen-, 31-, and 11-yard passes were completed (with a negative rushing play mixed in) to give Vandy the ball at the LSU 12 with 21 seconds left and no timeouts.  The first-down pass fell incomplete, but the Commodores scored on the ensuing second down.  They elected to go for the tie, but lineman Arnold Miller blocked the extra point to give the Tigers the 7-6 win. 

The Tigers would finish 9-3 on the season following the 10-2 campaign the year before, but DiNardo would win only two more SEC games after the 1997 season. The silver lining in his struggles was the hiring of Nick Saban of Michigan St. (whom DiNardo had ironincally beaten in the 1995 Independence Bowl) after the 1999 season.

Vandy finished the 1997 season only 3-8, so even a tie would have been an upset of sorts.  LSU has won the four subsequent meetings by at least 14 points apiece (and the ’Dores didn’t score double digits in any of them).

DiNardo’s replacement at Vanderbilt, Woody Widenhofer, was also fired before getting to coach in this series again. 

2004 and 2005: Jay Culter and More Vandy Defense

I mentioned how DiNardo’s tenure went downhill after the 1997 season, but LSU did not play Vanderbilt again until 2004, the year after Saban won the BCS championship at LSU, the Tigers’ first recognized by a major poll since 1958.  It also happened to be Saban’s last season.  Vandy had only gone 2-10 the year before, but the Commodores drew some attention by having a quarterback throw for over 2300 yards in that season.  That QB, Jay Cutler, also was the third-leading rusher on the team, so there was a glimmer of hope in the early years of Bobby Johnson, but 2004 would be another 2-win season. 

LSU had more problems at the QB position that year, alternating between a talented but rough-around-the-edges JaMarcus Russell and the more experienced but often lackluster Marcus Randall.  So the Tigers weren’t known for their offense that season to put it nicely.  It was only 10-7 at the half, but the Tigers pulled away in the third quarter, and the ’Dores didn’t have an answer.  LSU would only manage 102 passing yards (in just 11 attempts) for the game.  Cutler was not very good either with 111 yards in 20 attempts, but he did run for 39 yards not counting yards lost on a sack.

LSU Safety Jessie Daniels sacks Vandy QB Jay Cutler in Nashville on October 8, 2005.

In 2005, Les Miles’ first year, it was another defensive stalemate until late in the third quarter.  The Tigers offense scored a touchdown early in the first quarter but would go scoreless for the next 2 ½ quarters.  The LSU defense helped out with a safety later in the first quarter, but Vanderbilt would respond with a field goal late in the first quarter and another early in the third.  In a reverse of the 1997 game, it was actually LSU who had multiple long drives and no points to show for it for most of the game.  At halftime, the Tigers held a 303 to 41 advantage in net yardage but only led 9-3.  The Tigers turned the ball over 4 times over the course of the game and missed two field goals. 

After the third-quarter field goal to get within 3, things were starting to look good for the Commodores.  LSU was forced to punt on their ensuing offensive drive, giving Vandy QB Jay Cutler a chance to give his team the lead. It looked like that might happen when he completed a 15-yard pass on first down.  An incompletion and a 6-yard run set up a 3rd and 4, but Cutler would throw his second interception of the game.  The other one had led to a missed field goal, but the Tigers took advantage of this one to extend the lead to 6 points.  Although it was close on the scoreboard for a few more minutes, the momentum shift would prove to be irreversible.  From that point until the final play of the game, Vanderbilt would only get one more first down that was not due to a penalty, and LSU would score touchdowns on its next three offensive drives.

Russell, who was the full-time quarterback in 2005, managed 285 total yards, many of them in the fourth quarter, when he threw his only touchdown pass.  Cutler barely threw for more yards than he had in the 2004 game but with 10 more attempts, so you can see why the Commodores could not get a scoring drive going unless they took over in field goal range.

LSU would finish 11-2, and Vandy would barely miss a bowl game at 5-6, which was a good record at Vanderbilt since the ’Dores at that time had not had a winning record since 1982.  They would not finally end the bowl drought until 2008 (while Johnson was still there).

2009 and 2010: LSU Maintains Dominance

LSU got lucky and did not face Vandy again until the twin rebuilding years of 2009 and 2010 (both 2-10 seasons).  2009 was the closer of the two at the final whistle, with the Tigers only winning by 14; but LSU led from late in the first quarter until the end of the game, and Vanderbilt never led.

In 2010, due in part to a lackluster passing attack, LSU didn’t pull away until the fourth quarter; but the Commodores never looked likely to win since they only managed 2 yards per carry to LSU’s 5.6. LSU won, 24-3.

LSU RB Stevan Ridley ran for 159 yards on 17 carries the last time LSU played Vandy (in Nashville on Sept. 11, 2010).

Week 1 Top 25 and LSU/Texas Series and Preview

In College Football, General LSU, History, Preview, Rankings, Rankings Commentary, Rivalry on September 3, 2019 at 6:01 PM

TOP 25

rank/team/last

1Clemson1
2Alabama2
3Georgia3
4LSU4
5Ohio St.6
6Michigan5
7Notre Dame7
8Auburn9
9Florida8
10Wash. St.10
11Oklahoma11
12Texas A&M12
13Utah13
14Washington14
15Texas15
16C. Florida17
17Michigan St.18
18Syracuse20
19Penn St.21
20Appy St.23
21Cincinnati24
22Boise St.
23Oregon16
24Iowa St.19
25Stanford

Out of top 25: (22) Florida St., (25) South Carolina

Top 25 Comments

I know it’s late for many of you, so I only used one picture. I usually try to avoid walls of text, but it couldn’t be helped.

I covered most of what I had to say about the games over the weekend on Sunday

I thought Michigan struggled too much to stay ahead of Ohio St., who dominated.

I think Auburn barely beat a much better team than Florida barely beat, so I switched the two.

I dropped Oregon close to the bottom just because they’re 0-1, but they can bounce back pretty quickly. 

Boise St. was a late cut from my list of potentials, so it was easy to put them in.

As for the other new team, I’m not in love with Stanford being that they only scored 17 points and will probably rely on the backup quarterback in the next game, but sometimes that helps teams.

Florida St. and South Carolina deserved to fall out for obvious reasons.  It may be a while before I consider South Carolina again, but Florida St. showed some good things.

If you need three overtimes to beat a FCS team like Iowa St. did (although it’s worth noting Northern Iowa has had a lot of success in recent history), that’s almost like a loss to a top-10 team.  A win is a win for the most-part (giving credit for strength of schedule of course); but with only one game to consider, you have to look at how easily the win came. 

Oklahoma and Notre Dame, who played since my last blog, took care of business.  

Notre Dame probably let Louisville hang around too long, but the Irish don’t typically have an offense that leaves the opposition in the dust right away anyway 

Oklahoma let Houston score a couple of touchdowns to get within two possessions late, but I don’t hold it against them.  I’m still skeptical about how the Sooners will do against Power 5 competition though.  It could be that the Big XII will make them look good even if they aren’t.  Texas looked all right, but nobody looked great. Speaking of the Longhorns…

LSU @ Texas

Texas QB Sam Ehlinger looks to throw against TCU last season. LSU HC Ed Orgeron said preparing for Ehlinger was similar to preparing for Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.

All-time series: Texas leads, 9-8-1 (updated after the game)

The first game of the series was way back in 1896, LSU’s 11th official game as a program (and 10th intercollegiate game), but 10 of the 17 games in the series were clustered between 1935 and 1954, the last regular-season matchup (Texas won 20-6 in Austin).

The (January) 2003 Cotton Bowl (Texas 35, LSU 20) was the only matchup since 1963 (also the Cotton Bowl, which LSU won 13-0), so LSU fans shouldn’t despair too much about these facts.  The more-recent Cotton Bowl was the highest-scoring game of the series, beating out the 35-14 Texas win in 1952.  In the 2003 game, Texas entered at 10-2, and LSU entered at 8-4.  LSU would win the BCS national championship in the following January though.

The third-largest point total and largest margin of victory is also owned by Texas, 34-0 in 1941.  Other than the tie in 1936, the closest game was the 5-0 LSU win in San Antonio in 1902.

Texas leads the series in Austin, 7-2-1, the other LSU win coming in 1938. (updated after the game).

The Tigers lead 2-1 at “neutral” sites (two in Dallas, one in San Antonio) and 4-1 at home. 

Added after the game: Both teams scored more in 2019 (45 to 38 final in favor of LSU) than either had in this series before. LSU more than doubled its previous high of 20 (in the loss in Jan. 2003 and in wins in 1938 and 1953).

After Saturday, the next game is scheduled for Tiger Stadium on September 12 of next season with no future plans thereafter; although LSU plans to return to Big XII country (if the Big XII is still a thing) in 2027 to face Oklahoma.

Preview

Speaking of the Longhorns, there was a debate on the College Football Nerds YouTube channel (formerly known as SEC Fans) about whether Texas will beat LSU.

They absolutely can…  I’m not going to suggest for a moment it’s going to be as easy to stop Texas’s mobile quarterback as it was to stop the Georgia Southern quarterbacks.  I’m not a big fan of the Texas defense even before the loss of all but two or three starters, but I’m reasonably sure LSU will go scoreless on more than one drive with the first-team offense in the game. I also don’t discount the degree of difficulty in playing in Austin.  I don’t know if it’s the same as the best SEC stadiums, but we’ve had some of our best teams lose at home (like in the 2003 season) or lose at less-intimidating SEC places like Commonwealth Stadium (the sponsor isn’t paying me) in Lexington (like in the 2007 season).

.. But I don’t think they will.  LSU has a clear advantage in returning starters; but even if they didn’t, I think last year’s LSU team would have beaten last year’s Texas team even in Austin.  Oklahoma played terribly on defense and only lost by a field goal, and that was Texas’s best game.  The Longhorns only won the Sugar because Georgia was going to be the team that blew the lead to Alabama in the SECCG whether they beat Texas or not.  A month of relatively little motivation can make a big difference.  LSU in their worst game wouldn’t have lost to Maryland like Texas did.

Anyway, in the video, I don’t know if the guy arguing for Texas was advancing weak arguments on purpose or he was just trying hard to sell the only arguments he could come up with; but they weren’t very persuasive.  One was “we’ve heard it before that the offense is different.”  There were changes when Cameron was fired, there were changes when Canada came in, and there were changes last year; but there weren’t wholesale changes like this.  Neither Etling in 2015 and 2016 nor Burrow last year were ready for anything crazy anyway. 

Shea Dixon had some good stats on differences from last year.  In all of last season 14 players caught passes, four of them running backs.  On Saturday, 14 players caught passes, 5 of them running backs.  He also included a special teams stat: LSU had 52 yards in punt returns Saturday compared with 99 in all of last season.

Another one is “Texas doesn’t rebuilt, they reload.”  Charlie Strong (who still recruited a lot of the players) would be surprised to know that.  They’re not Alabama or Clemson all of a sudden because of one year with double-digit wins (which with 14 games isn’t what it used to be).  LSU has done a bit of reloading over the years as well.  It’s still an advantage to have more players back, especially from a successful year.  Speaking of Alabama and Clemson, they both had successful years in 2017; but Clemson had a lot more players back in 2018.  I think that helped the Tigers win the championship as easily as they did.  Even if Texas “reloads” an exact replica of last season on defense (though I’m not sure Louisiana Tech gets 340 passing yards last year), that’s probably a good sign for the LSU offense.  To be fair, the La. Tech scoring was all in the fourth quarter, but they had several earlier opportunities.  In short, I’m not convinced.

Another point I’m not buying is that Texas can handle the SEC based on the Georgia game.  If LSU played Georgia and that was LSU’s only SEC game last year, that wouldn’t mean LSU would beat every SEC team this year with.  LSU played a Georgia team that still had a potential national championship run in front of it too.  Also, bowl games are a lot different.  You don’t get the same players.  LSU had a patchwork team in the bowl game last season and looked pretty good, which is part of the reason I rank them so highly now; but I don’t know how different the Texas-Georgia game would have been if it had been a playoff game.

There was another point that might have been good had Texas had its defense back from last year, and that was that LSU’s new offense is more similar to what Big XII teams run.  Being used to scrimmaging against the Texas offense isn’t the same thing as a season of Big XII opponents.  When you’re up 42-3 at the half and take most of your starters out shortly thereafter, you’re not going to show everything anyway.  So we can’t be sure this would be so easy for an experienced Big XII defense anyway.  Also, let’s not forget even in the best team game for the Longhorns they allowed 45 points.  Do I think LSU will score 45?  No.  Do I think they’ll allow 48 like Oklahoma did?  That’s not even a serious question in my mind.

My final thoughts: I don’t want to discount the fact that Texas has a chance to win at home. It just seems less likely.  Maybe 60-40 odds in LSU’s favor.  If you point a gun to my head and make me bet, I’d take Texas and the points (5.5 according to ESPN), but it’s a close call. If someone wins the turnover battle 4-0 (as was the case when LSU beat Georgia last year), that team could win by 20+ though. I don’t think feel like I know enough about either team under pressure to even venture a guess as to over/under.

Last topic, speaking of turnovers, both teams were +2 in turnovers in the first game, but stats from last year indicate LSU might do better.  LSU was tied for 7th in turnover margin last year (with an advantage of 0.8 per game).  Georgia Southern’s turnover margin was more than twice as much though (1.7, 1st), so that makes the first game more impressive for the Tigers.  Texas was close behind LSU last year (0.6, tied for 18th), but Louisiana Tech was barely positive (0.2, tied for 43rd).

2019 Preseason Top 25

In College Football, Preview, Rankings, Rankings Commentary on August 28, 2019 at 2:29 PM

This could probably be a little shorter, but I don’t have the energy to edit it down today; and I don’t want to be in a rush to get it out before the games start tomorrow (if you didn’t know, I have a day job and live on the West Coast).  I made all the preliminary comments as well as comments about teams that didn’t make the list in the last blog.

Key: CB = cornerback(s), DL = defensive lineman(/men), HC = head coach, OL = offensive lineman(/men), QB = quarterback, RS = returning starter(s), RB = running back(s), SECCG = SEC championship game, TE = tight end(s), WR= wide receiver(s).

The Top 15

(# 1) Clemson – This is not a pick of Clemson to beat Alabama if they are to play again. Last year the Tigers had a big advantage in returning starters, and once they got their QB situation sorted out, I don’t think anyone could have beaten them in hindsight. These are without question the top two programs, so I just assume they can overcome losses in personnel. The tiebreaker went to the Tigers due to last season.

Trevor Lawrence will attempt to lead the Tigers to a repeat.

(# 2) Alabama – The Tide looked unbeatable most of the time last season with 10 returning starters. A season of wear and tear exposed a few vulnerabilities in the last two games, but they increase to 12 returning starters this season.

(# 3) Georgia – The Bulldogs were one of the teams to expose those vulnerabilities before the Tide pulled away late in the SECCG. I don’t hold the Texas loss against them since the goal was playoff and national championship, and the bowl prep and motivation may have been relatively lackluster. The Longhorns were excited to be in a big game and would have gotten the same bowl had they won the Big XII. For them, the playoff was likely off the table in September.

(# 4) LSU – I didn’t want to pick another SEC team so soon, but there is a very poor correlation this season between success last year and experience this year. A top-10 finish and NY6 bowl win with 16 returning starters (RS), 8 on each side, made it impossible to pass up the Tigers. LSU does lose a bit more from the defense than this indicates as they lose more of the tackles than Georgia (who has 14 RS, 7 each side) and have a less proven secondary in my opinion. But as I’ll explain, the other teams that seem like good candidates to make a playoff run have much less obvious talent coming back. Someone may go undefeated while LSU will most likely lose to someone, but if that does happen I think that other team will be exposed by Clemson or an SEC team.

(# 5) Michigan – I’m not sure I’ve ever been less excited about a #5 team.  I’ve always liked Shea Patterson, and he’s a senior who will be leading an offense with 8 returning starters.  That gives me slightly more confidence than another inexperienced Ohio St. team (albeit with the same number of RS).  This could be the year the Wolverines finally beat the Buckeyes, although they were favored last year and didn’t come close.  It’s also possible that Michigan will lose that game and Ohio St. will drop more games to lesser teams, which seems to be a recurring issue for the Buckeyes.  I wouldn’t necessarily trust the Wolverine defense though, especially not against one of the better Big Ten offenses or in an elite bowl game.

(# 6) Ohio St. – See above, but it’s worth noting that the majority of the Ohio St. RS will be on defense instead of offense.  This may be more of a rushing Ohio St. team since the Buckeyes do not return their quarterback.  I’m also not sure if the nine returning starters on defense are a good thing unless they learned how to tackle a lot better.  We’re only to #6, and it already sounds like I’m talking about #20.

(# 7) Notre Dame – The Irish also have 13 RS, but they lose their top RB, WR, and TE.  The defense has one fewer RS than the offense and also loses some of the top playmakers.  HC Kelley has shown some resiliency and ability to recruit depth over the years though.  It seems extraordinarily unlikely that the Irish will go undefeated (both Georgia and Michigan are road games); but if they win one of those and suffer no other losses, a return to the playoff would not be surprising.

(# 8) Florida – The Gators also have 13 RS (that’s four teams in a row if you’re keeping track).  Imagine LSU didn’t have to play Alabama or Texas A&M last year.  I can see Florida having a similar year.  The Miami win was too close for comfort (I’m not factoring that in); but if they can pull a couple of upsets like LSU did without the close losses, the playoff isn’t out of the realm of possibility.  He’s not outstanding, but QB Feleipe Franks seems capable of leading such a team. 

(# 9) Auburn – The Tigers (who break the trend with 14 RS) are often better when they can sneak up on people.  2004 (which followed Tommy Tuberville nearly getting fired) and 2013 (which followed the apparent end of Gene Chizik’s head coaching career) come to mind, although this wouldn’t be as dramatic as 2013. The schedule (they get Florida along with the yearly Georgia game) may make representing the West in the SECCG nearly impossible, but I’m only picking them third in the division after all.

(# 10) Washington St. – Although the Cougars have a lower ceiling (the Rose Bowl is the best realistic outcome), I see them as similar to LSU.  If they were able to do what they did last year with a relatively weak team on paper, I see no reason they can’t at least be about as good (if not better) this season.  It’s another team with 13 RS, but a couple of notable transfers (at QB and DL) make that misleading.  Wazzu won 11 games last year, so they may be even better than some of the teams above with 13.

(# 11) Oklahoma – A lot of people see the Sooners as a playoff team – and I do begrudgingly consider them most likely to win the Big XII – but they’re just too inexperienced for me to believe that.  Alabama transfer Hurts is a good QB, but he’s going to be playing behind 4 new OL and will only have four RS on that side of the ball overall.  The Sooners have a total of 12 RS, which isn’t terrible, but when you look more in depth they’re not even in the top 100 in terms of experience.  I’m not sure the 8 RS on defense are a good thing given how porous the unit was last year.

(# 12) Texas A&M – The Aggies have 11 RS.  HC Fisher got away with that type of team at Florida St. before Clemson got so good, but I think that’s a lot harder to do in the SEC West (and this year he has to face Clemson as well).  Since it’s only Fisher’s second year, he didn’t recruit most of the starters.  If Sumlin were still the BC they wouldn’t even be ranked, so I think making them 12th (a lucky number for the Aggies) is giving Fisher the credit he’s due.  Maybe even too much given what happened at Florida St.in 2017, when the Seminoles barely became bowl-eligible.

(# 13) Utah – The Utes are not the most experienced team in the Pac-12 – UCLA and Oregon have more experience – but I had Utah as the better team last year, and I think with a typically solid defense (3 first-team all-conference players) and experienced seniors at QB and RB (though both were injured late last season), Utah may even have an outside shot at the playoff.  They will have 14 RS, 7 on each side.

Utah QB Tyler Huntley is a running and throwing threat who can keep defenses off-balance.

(# 14) Washington – The Huskies are widely picked to win the Pac-12 again, but after losing their QB, their RB, and all but two defensive starters, let’s just say I’m skeptical. Another strong Pac-12 season still wouldn’t be shocking given that the Huskies have won 14 straight conference home games though.

(# 15) Texas – Tom Herman enters his third year, but I would not be surprised if the team took a step back given only 8 RS.  I couldn’t find another team in the Big XII to challenge Oklahoma though. Maybe someone will be a surprise. The Longhorns do have a pretty good quarterback and a couple of good WR from last season. 

Numbers 16 to 25

I like many teams toward the bottom of the top 25 more than #5 to #15, but these are programs that I don’t trust as much to produce a good team even though the potential is there.  Sometimes an unranked team (in particular) that has a lot of players back stays an unranked team, but some of these could also be in NY6 bowls.

(# 16) Oregon – As I mentioned under Utah, the Ducks are one of the most experienced teams in the Pac-12 and with Washington vulnerable, they may have a reasonable shot at taking their place.  17 starters are back, 10 on offense.  Oregon does lose 3 of its best tacklers on defense though.  QB Justin Herbert should lead the best offense in the conference, but WSU HC Mike Leach may have something to say about that..

(# 17) Central Florida – Like many of those above, the Knights have 13 RS, mostly on offense.  Surprisingly, UCF is only slightly less experienced than last season, so another top-11 finish (it would be the fourth since 2013) is not out of the question.  UCF has a new QB, and I’m not sure Wimbush, the Notre Dame transfer will keep the offense going as well.  The defense will probably have holes having lost 5 of the front 7 and 4 of the top 6 tacklers.

(# 18) Michigan St. – Like Oregon, the Spartans have a lot of experience (17 RS), but the experience is from a team that was barely in the top 50 last season.  Two years ago, State won 7 conference games, so if things go well they could return to that level.

(# 19) Iowa St. – The Cyclones have been a pest for the top teams in the Big XII the last few years.  With 16 returning starters, ISU may have a chance to compete for the conference title.  Brock Purdy returns after leading the offense to over 30 points per game in his 9 games.  The Cyclones still haven’t won a conference title since 1912 (they only played two conference games that year), although they did tie for the Big XII North in 2004.  Even a conference-championship game would be a first for Iowa St.

(# 20) Syracuse – The Orange will likely improve defensively (with 7 RS there) but may take a step back on offense.  Six starters return on offense, but that does not include the quarterback, and part of the reason for the proficiency last year was the experience.  I wouldn’t bet on anyone challenging Clemson in the ACC this year, but if Syracuse competes in years like this that will be a good sign for the future where maybe Clemson isn’t a defending national champion and there is a clear advantage in RS.

(# 21) Penn St. – The Nittany Lions barely snuck into the top 20 last season and with fewer RS (12, evenly split) than the vast majority of the top 25, I don’t think predicting them to be about the same is an insult.  They will have a new QB and a new primary RB, although the OL look good.  The defense had the same or fewer RS the last two years and was very good nonetheless, allowing 16.5 and 20.5 points per game in the last two years respectively. 

(# 22) Florida St. – It’s weird that this was one of the last teams I even thought to add to consideration.  The Seminoles had the third toughest schedule last season, and that’s just not a good situation to try to implement a new system that hasn’t been really established at the major-conference level.  Not to mention that HC Fisher (see Texas A&M) didn’t leave on a very good note.  FSU should have beaten Miami and does deserve some credit for beating Boston College when they were getting beaten up against a ranked team every week at the end.  There were some games that should have been closer, but I think reports of the program’s demise are greatly exaggerated.  Anyway, they have EIGHT starters back on both sides of the ball.  I’m taking the mediocre couple of years into account or they would be in the top 10, but I think top 25 is warranted.

Florida St. RB Cam Akers ran for over 1000 yards as a freshman in 2017 and, with an improved offensive line and possibly more carries, will look to do so again.

(# 23) Appalachian St. – The second team in a row with 16 RS.  Nearly the whole offense is back from a team that scored over 37 points per game last season.  The major area of concern on defense is CB, so there may be a few more points allowed.  It’s hard to do much better than last year’s mark of 15.5 points per game.  I know the schedule hasn’t been great, but if you win 11 games and have that many guys back, you can beat some people.  The only conference loss last season was to Georgia Southern in a game where the QB was injured and the backup was turnover-prone, so they could be undefeated in conference.  The only nonconference loss was to Penn St. in overtime, so the Mountaineers could go undefeated overall too.

(# 24) Cincinnati – The Bearcats also suffered only two losses last year, and one was also in overtime.  The more substantial loss (by 25) was to UCF, so that’s hardly disqualifying.  That game may be closer this year.  Cincy has 7 RS on each side of the ball.  Three of the 4 major passing targets along with last year’s QB and RB are returners.   OL and DL are the only two areas that seem weaker.

(# 25) South Carolina – The Gamecocks are by far the biggest impediment to Appalachian St. possibly having an undefeated run. HC Muschamp says this is his best team at South Carolina, but I’m not sure that’s saying a whole lot.  Carolina had a decent year last year, but going the last 6 quarters without a point wasn’t a good look.  They also have 7 RS on each side of the ball.  The Cocks aren’t picked in some top 25s due to schedule (Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Florida), but like I said in the intro, I don’t factor that in.  They need to figure out how to beat ranked teams (0 wins in the last 10 attempts) to justify being widely ranked regardless.

Changes in Rankings

Finally, I made a chart of the teams that are ranked above as well as the teams that are not on the list above but were in the top 25 at the end of last season. I use two different ratings systems, one that essentially gives bonus points for quality opponents (“weighted” toward better schedules) and another that treats every game equally (which I call unweighted). That’s what W and UW stand for below. The overall ranking is determined by averaging the two (adjusting for how different the range in numbers is); therefore it is in the column under “Avg.”


2019 Preseason Rankings Intro

In College Football, Preview, Rankings Commentary on August 26, 2019 at 5:27 PM

I’ll publish the top 25 in a couple of days, but I’m going to keep you in suspense while I talk about my philosophy and some of the turnover that you may notice from the end of last season.

There are a few things I want to say about my philosophy when it comes to preseason rankings.  Although I do pride myself on a team having a good season after I started them unusually high or a bad season after I start them unusually low, I’m not trying to have the exact top 25 that will be in place at the end of the year. 

I’m also not trying to have the exact top 25 that will be in place before the bowls.  It sounds strange, but a lot of people will make the top 4 the teams they think will be in the playoff.  If there is a close call at #4 and #4 loses to #1 by 40 while #5 wins a big bowl, #4 going into the playoff is not going to stay #4.  There could even be a #6 or #7 that pass them up.  But if I were still on a site with a lot of comments, people would show up and tell me I’m crazy for thinking three SEC teams will be in the Playoff.  I wouldn’t even want that to happen if I honestly believed the best three teams were in the SEC.

Anyway, what I do believe in is a best guess as to who is going into the season with the toughest team.  So with that in mind, I don’t care how easy your schedule is.  Some people seem to think rankings are a list of most likely teams to go undefeated.  For instance, I read something that touted Nebraska as a potential ranked team since they don’t play any of the best teams in the Big Ten.  That tells me nothing about how good Nebraska is, so I don’t care.  Maybe they’ll get fewer injuries that way and will therefore be harder to beat in the bowl than they would have been otherwise.  But that’s one reason this isn’t as much about who’s good later in the year. 

Nebraska didn’t win its first game last year until October 20 (pictured). The Huskers finished the year 4-8 (a couple of plays from 6-6), but I’m still skeptical of a drastic improvement.

However, I do expect some correlation between the best teams going into the season and the best teams at the end of the season.  And by going into, I mean those with the best prospects on paper, not necessarily the teams who will have the most successful first few weeks.

For a while I focused just on returning starters and how good a team was last year, but I’ve been led astray too many times recently and decided to look more in depth.  If Alabama only had 9 returning starters (RS), for instance, I’d still have them in the top 5.  In past years I may have expected a team like that to fall from 14-1 to 10-4, but I don’t know if any number of returning starters no matter how small would cause Alabama or Clemson to lose four games this season.  Last year, the Tide only had 10 RS.

Tua Tagovailoa (pictured during the 2018 national championship) may feel spoiled as Alabama increases to 12 returning starters from 10 last season.

Such programs just get too many great recruits, and their coaches are attentive and hardworking enough to make even recent high-school players elite college players in just a few months. Teams like that seem most vulnerable early in the year (which I maintain is why Alabama has lost to Ole Miss recently but not LSU), so I guess that’s one caveat to what I said about who’s best going in, but Alabama has also lined up against some decent teams in the first game and blown them out.

Conversely, the two teams with the most RS are UCLA and Texas St.  If you put all of their returning starters on the same team, I still wouldn’t put that team in my top 25.  UCLA could be in the top 25 at the end of the year for all I know, but it would take a lot of improvement that I’ve seen no evidence is forthcoming from that particular program.  I had the Bruins 95th at the end of last season, so even if they improve 65 spots (jumping over half the teams in FBS football), they still wouldn’t be in the top 25.

The worst team last year that I’m ranking here is Florida St. (whom I had #61 in the final ratings), but since their schedule was so tough last year, their record wasn’t very indicative of talent level.  The Seminoles finished the year against five consecutive ranked opponents (beating one). The only loss to an unranked opponent was to Syracuse, which finished ranked #15 in both major polls and which nearly beat Clemson.  I decided that was as low as I was willing to go though.  I had Virginia Tech many spots lower and after some consideration opted to leave the Hokies unranked despite 16 returning starters.

Florida St.’s one-point loss to Miami, in hindsight, resulted in the Noles’ first season without a bowl game since 1982.

There were three other teams I considered moving into the rankings now despite not finishing last year ranked, but I’ll wait and see for now (last year’s final ranking), Mississippi St. (30), Baylor (47), and Wisconsin (48).

The only ranked teams from last season that I ruled out immediately were in the Mountain West. Boise St. has lacked consistency in recent years and only returns 13 starters, which do not include last year’s quarterback.  Fresno St. and Utah St. return only 9 starters apiece.  The “mid-major” teams can have difficulty with continuity even with a large number of returning starters.  I did decide to give Appalachian St., which returns 16 starters, the benefit of the doubt though.  By the way, RS numbers do not include kickers. 

Other ranked teams that fell out between the final ratings of last season and now are Kentucky (#12, 8 RS), Army (#14, 11 RS), Stanford (#24, 9 RS), and Iowa (#25, 10 RS).  Kentucky has improved or maintained its record from the previous season every year since 2014, but all good things must come to an end.  I considered keeping Army as the Black Knights have responded well in the past to personnel turnover, but there were too many talented major programs that have more potential to reach major bowls.

I’ve given you a few hints, but check back for the preseason top 25 in the coming days.