UPDATED on Sunday, 8/29/21, at 11:45 a.m. Eastern: With UCLA cruising to a 44-10 home win over Hawaii in Week Zero, most books have adjusted LSU from a four-point road favorite to -3 this Saturday at UCLA. Also, with Hurricane Ida bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the Tigers left Baton Rouge on Saturday for Houston. The normal four-hour bus ride took 10 hours with evacuation traffic. LSU will practice in Houston until Thursday when it departs for Los Angeles. And finally, since this piece was originally published, LSU QB Myles Brennan sustained an injury that’ll have him out until at least November.
After fielding one of the best teams in college football history led by Joe Burrow in 2019, LSU was set up to fail miserably in 2020.
The Tigers lost 14 players to the NFL Draft. They saw defensive coordinator Dave Aranda leave to take the Baylor head-coaching gig and offensive guru Joe Brady bolted to become the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers.
Then first-team All-American wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, in addition to several starters on defense, opted out of the season.
Quarterback Myles Brennan was playing outstanding football in the first three games, throwing for 1,112 yards with an 11/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, a shoulder injury in a 45-41 loss at Missouri ended his season.
Therefore, Ed Oregeron’s team was left with two true freshmen QBs to play out the final seven games against nothing but SEC opponents.
LSU hit bottom in a 55-17 blowout loss to Alabama at home that left it with a 3-5 record. At that point, star freshman TE Arik Gilbert quit the team and All-SEC WR Terrace Marshall opted out to star preparing for the NFL Draft.
Nevertheless, Orgeron’s bunch stuck together and finished the season on a high note. First, LSU went to Gainesville to face sixth-ranked Florida, which was favored by 23 points and brought an 8-1 record into its home finale.
After starting TJ Finley at QB for five straight games, Orgeron turned to Max Johnson, the son of former FSU, Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay QB Brad Johnson, as his starter. Johnson responded by helping the Tigers to a 37-34 upset win at UF.
In the regular-season finale, Johnson outdueled Matt Corral in a 53-48 home win over Ole Miss. Johnson finished the season with 1,069 passing yards and an 8/1 TD-INT ratio.
LSU opens the season at UCLA and as of July 16, most betting shops had the Tigers installed as 4.5-point road favorites. Anything at -7 or fewer is an absolute steal!
LSU returns 18 starters with nine on each side of the ball coming back. Orgeron signed the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, including a pair of five-star prospects in DL Mason Smith and DB Sage Ryan. Clemson transfer LB Mike Jones is also set to become a starter and Georgia transfer Major Burns, a former four-star recruit, adds depth to the secondary as a safety.
If Brennan’s shoulder is 100 percent, I believe in both QBs who combined for a 19/4 TD-INT ratio last year. As a true freshman in 2020, Kayshon Boutte hauled in 45 catches for 735 yards and five touchdowns. Phil Steele’s magazine has Boutte as a preseason second-team All-American.
John Emery and Tyrio Davis-Prince give LSU a pair of RBs with experience. Although the offensive line took a hit when Dare Rosenthal, a preseason second-team All-SEC choice in Steele’s mag, transferred to Kentucky last week, this group was 16th in Steele’s National Unit Rankings prior to Rosenthal’s exit.
Derek Stingley, a second-team All-American as a true freshman in 2019 and a first-team All-SEC selection last year despite dealing with a lingering ankle issue, is probably the nation’s best cover corner. The other CB spot belongs to Eli Ricks, a five-star recruit who had four interceptions and five passes broken up as a true freshman in 2020. Steele’s mag has LSU’s secondary ranked fourth nationally.
Steele ranks LSU’s d-line at No. 8 and its special teams at No. 16 in the country. Veteran kicker Cade York, who buried the game winner at Florida in the fog from beyond 50 yards, is a preseason first-team All-American.
Playing on the West coast is always a difficult task, but I don’t think it’s nearly as big a deal in a season opener compared to if it was in mid-October during the week-to-week grind.
When you’re perusing your preseason mags, you’ll probably see UCLA among the top teams nationally in returning starters and production. But don’t let those cute numbers get away from the facts about Chip Kelly’s disastrous tenure to date.
The Bruins are 10-21 straight up and 14-17 against the spread on Kelly’s watch. Thirteen of the 21 losses have come by margins of nine points or more.
Was UCLA improved last year? Sure. Did it post a winning record? Nope. The Bruins went 3-4 SU and 4-3 ATS. Instead of getting blown out consistently like in 2018 and ’19, they did lose four one-possession games. (Congrats!)
Is that really a lot to get excited about? Is that the basis of any argument that the Bruins are belatedly poised to explode in Year 4 under Kelly?
Remember, things went South on Kelly in his final year with the Philadelphia Eagles. Then he had a debacle of a one-year tenure with the 49ers. What’s his excuse at UCLA?
USC has been down recently. Hell, the entire Pac-12 has been (way) down. Is UCLA an impossible job these days?
It wasn’t for Jim Mora Jr., who took over for Rick Neuheisel after he went 4-8, 7-6, 4-8 and 6-7. Mora went 9-5, 10-3 and 10-3 in his first three seasons with the Bruins.
During Kelly’s tenure, UCLA is just 6-11 both SU and ATS in 17 home games. LSU, on the other hand, is 9-6 ATS in 15 games as a road ‘chalk’ under Orgeron.
I think the matchups in the trenches — the offensive lines vs. defensive lines — are complete mismatches in LSU’s favor. Turnovers and special-teams play can be equalizers to offset those advantages for the Tigers, but LSU was +9 in turnover margin last year and UCLA was -2.
We already noted LSU’s strong special teams. As for the Bruins, Steele ranks their ST units as seventh in the Pac-12 and they don’t even make the Top-63 nationally.
Now, I always say that potential suspensions for offseason shenanigans are potentially a huge concern in Week 1 games. Sometimes we don’t find out about them until less than an hour before kickoff.
There’s that possibility for LSU, but UCLA actually opens the season in Week Zero at home vs Hawaii on Aug. 28. Therefore, injuries for the Bruins in their opener could also be a factor.
Again, I think we’re getting a bargain with LSU at any number less than seven.
PREDICTION: LSU -4.5 at UCLA (for those with a FanDuel account, you could get LSU -3.5 at a -114 price as of July 16).