Can LSU Be Competitive in the SEC?

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Can LSU Be Competitive in the SEC?
Head Coach Ed Orgeron of the LSU Tigers pumps up his team. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images/AFP

The SEC remains a hyper-competitive and deep conference each year. Having Alabama ever-present to push their competition into overdrive to keep up helps, but it also makes it difficult for the next-tier of contenders like LSU to overcome them. The Tigers are trying to get back to competitiveness in 2021 after a down 2020 rebuilding year.

The Tigers’ 5-5 season after winning the National Championship with arguably the best offense of all time wasn’t shocking. Rotating through three quarterbacks exacerbated the offensive issues despite their talented group of playmakers around them. Losing Joe Brady to the Carolina Panthers and breaking in a new offensive play-caller was a difficult transition in itself.

Turning the page to 2021 is a good thing for a young roster and coaching staff that had to reshuffle. Head coach Ed Orgeron will be under pressure again as the monster that comes with running an SEC program rears its ugly head. Many around the country felt he struck a lucky pot of gold in 2019 and can’t sustainably run LSU at a high enough level despite some quality recruiting classes. 

I’m skeptical of LSU’s ability to compete for more than third place in 2021 as well. The biggest positive the program has going for it is the talent on the roster, and that’s a massive plus. Getting 20-of-22 starters back from the end of last year gives sorely needed experience. We’ll also see a cast of talented first- and second-year recruits get more playing time.

Talent absolutely matters, but we’ve seen it not be the difference-maker for this program for a long time. The coaching situation must improve with these up-and-comers. Having all five starters along the offensive line and four defensive line incumbents gives them an advantage in the trenches. 

There should be optimism with so many returning starters. Not having to force a five-star defensive tackle recruit, Maason Smith, into a starting role is massive, for example. The Tigers didn’t have a great chance against upper-echelon programs last year because that luxury didn’t exist.

Their 2021 foes include UCLA, Auburn, Florida, Alabama, and Texas A&M. It’s possible they’ll be favored in as many as four of those matchups, thanks to new quarterbacks at Florida and Florida A&M. Staying healthy with Myles Brennan will be critical, barring a big breakout from Max Johnson or Garrett Nussmeier.

Seeing the offense go back to a full spread under Jake Peetz and D.J. Mangas as offensive coordinator and passing game coordinator can be a plus. Both departed with Brady to the Panthers for a year, but they came back to LSU this off-season. Their impact will be closely scrutinized.

The surrounding cast for the quarterback will be improved over last year even as Terrace Mitchell departed. John Emery is a skilled back, who should get more of the workload this year, and the receiving talent ready for a bigger role is tantalizing. The Tigers remain one of the best programs in the country at identifying incredibly athletic receivers.

It’s disheartening to see the program without a preseason Heisman contender. Emery has the upside to put his name into the mix with a hot start to the season. The reality is there’s not a tremendously high ceiling compared to Alabama’s likely dominance. But the floor of this team is much better than the 5-5 outcome we saw last year. 

LSU can be competitive in the SEC as long as the term is used relatively. They can’t go toe-to-toe with Alabama’s returning star power and expected dynamic ability at quarterback, but they can be a strong second-place team if everything goes well. If that’s the hope and definition of competitive as they fight for a New Year’s Day bowl game, then absolutely that’s the expectation.