- Week 1: at West Virginia (win probability: 33%)
- Week 2: Eastern Michigan (91%)
- Week 3: Georgia (33%)
- Week 4: Delaware State (100%)
As Delaware State is an FCS team (and a mighty shaky one at that — the Hornets ranked 244th out of 253 Division 1 teams last year, and S&P+ actually gives Mizzou a better than 99.95% chance of winning that game), we will forego a DSU summary until the actual week of the game. That means it’s time to talk about the trip to Baton Rouge.
I previewed LSU on Wednesday at SBN. I encourage you to read the entire piece, obviously, but here are some tidbits that I think are particularly pertinent to Mizzou. (I’m not really going to focus on Leonard Fournette here. You already know about him. He’s great.)
1. LSU was awesome for most of last season
For all of the drama surrounding Les Miles nearly getting fired late in the season, the Tigers spent most of the year playing like a top-10 team.
Make no mistake, though: These were three really, really bad weeks.
LSU in 9 wins: Average percentile performance: 90% (~top 13) | Yards per play: LSU 7.2, Opp 4.7 (+2.5)
LSU in 3 losses: Average percentile performance: 42% (~top 75) | Yards per play: Opp 6.5, LSU 5.1 (-1.4)
Now, most teams play better in wins than losses. That's not exactly uncommon. But the difference here was stark.
Quarterback Brandon Harris was awfully bad in November, but after the season it emerged that Harris was playing with a sports hernia he suffered against Alabama. When Harris was healthy, he was good enough, and LSU was excellent.
2. Harris wasn’t particularly efficient, but the passing game was explosive
And a lot of that had to do with what is basically a two-man receiving corps.
The main question: What happens if Malachi Dupre or Travin Dural get hurt? The top three backup wideouts are gone, and LSU got little from the tight end position last year.
Dural injured his hamstring against Ole Miss and then gained weight in the most understandable way (Popeye's addiction), but it appears he's fit and ready.
Dupre and Dural combined to average a solid 9.3 yards per target over about 11 targets per game. For their careers, they have averaged 19 yards per catch with 23 combined touchdowns. They are spectacular play-action weapons, but there will come a time when they need to make plays against a defense that is actually having some success against Fournette. Can they?
3. LSU’s run defense was very hit-or-miss last year
A new defensive coordinator (the awesome Dave Aranda) and one particular signee could change that.
[Newly-eligible JUCO transfer Travonte] Valentine gives Aranda flexibility. Other potential nose guards like Davon Godchaux and Greg Gilmore could flex to end if need be, and he could occupy enough blockers to free up not only linebackers but fellow lineman Lewis Neal, who emerged as a strong pass rusher last year.
Run defense will be the key, though. Linebacker depth has taken a hit, but if players like Kendall Beckwith and Duke Riley can flow to the ball well, and if LSU suffers fewer run glitches, a dominant pass defense will take it from there.
LSU is moving to a 3-4 structure and seems to have the right size to pull it off, but the Tigers are dealing with some injuries in fall camp, and in theory there might be some glitches here to take advantage of.
4. If you can’t run, you’re in serious trouble
With what should be a pretty strong pass rush helping out, LSU's secondary looks dynamite. Safety Jamal Adams is dynamic, and the top three returning cornerbacks (Tre'Davious White, Kevin Toliver II, and Dwayne Thomas) combined for 6.5 tackles for loss, one interception, and 18 breakups in 2015. And with Jalen Mills missing the first five games of the year, senior Rickey Jefferson got plenty of reps to prepare for succeeding him in 2016.
The LSU defense faces the opposite scenario as the offense -- if the run D holds up, the pass D will dominate. It might regardless.
Each of Missouri’s first two SEC opponents could have vulnerability against the run and awesome pass defenses. That could be the case with WVU, too. As important as Drew Lock’s development is, Alex Ross, Ish Witter, Damarea Crockett, and the line’s run blocking could hold the key to a good start in 2016.
5. LSU’s in a weird place right now
As I mentioned with Dana Holgorsen in the West Virginia preview, a home-field advantage can turn into a disadvantage if anxiety takes over. And LSU only a couple of steps from both a national title run and a head coaching search at the moment.
Miles was forced to come to grips with his coaching mortality last November, then survived.
He is beloved and embattled. He heads into 2016 with high expectations and excitement ... and he's basically one bad quarter away from ending up right back atop hot seat lists.
This is all very strange and, yes, very LSU.
As with WVU, a fast start could be immense. LSU has Fournette and what should honestly be a tremendous offense, and the defense could improve quite a bit under Aranda. But some early points could create an interesting atmosphere in a stadium that expects LSU to win handily. Still, S&P+ calls this the least likely win on the schedule. Even if by some happy twist of fate Mizzou is 4-0 or 3-1 heading to Baton Rouge, the Tigers will probably be 4-1/3-2 afterward.
S&P+ projection: LSU by 22.8 (9% Mizzou win probability).