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LSU Tigers preview

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Davon Godchaux, right, has helped solidify the LSU defense. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LSU … the dark horse SEC West pick? The Tigers are usually the hunted, not the hunters, but the perennial front-runners dipped in the win column last year, falling short of the 10-win mark for the first time since 2009. If Les Miles can solve his QB riddle, LSU will be a contender for the West—and the playoff.

Offense

How the Tigers beat you: Wide-open offenses are college football’s mode du jour—just not in Baton Rouge. Miles has leaned on I-formation power back since taking over at LSU, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue lining up soph RB Leonard Fournette behind a feisty fullback and veteran O-line (Ethan Pocic, Vadal Alexander, Jerald Hawkins: 73 starts combined). Even if the Tigers incorporate spread elements to diversify last year’s one-dimensional attack, the ground game—and most of all Fournette—will be Miles’ go-to call to move the chains: Fournette accounted for nearly a quarter of LSU’s offensive production (1,161 total yards) and a fifth of the team’s first downs (54) in ’14.

How you beat the Tigers: Only nine teams outpaced LSU’s 621 rush attempts in ’14, a reality born from strength (Fournette) and weakness (shaky quarterbacks). Neither soph Brandon Harris (one start) nor junior Anthony Jennings (12 starts) could get the pass game humming (162.9 ypg, No. 114 in the FBS; 46.5 QBR, No. 86), but each will vie for the starting nod again. At least the two seem to know that reliable quarterback play is the team’s missing puzzle piece. Says Jennings: “Sixty percent passing [completion], I think, in this offense will win a national championship.”

Defense

How the Tigers beat you: Early last season, opponents found success running up the gut against LSU— Mississippi State and Auburn rushed for 600 yards combined—but then junior Christian LaCouture and soph Davon Godchaux settled in at defensive tackle and, well, that was that. After LSU faced Auburn on Oct. 4, opposing SEC teams gained just 102.7 ypg on the ground, and none totaled more than 137 in any outing. The pair’s emergence also helped LSU shut down long runs: 51 opponent rushes gained 10-plus yards, and 22 of those came in two contests alone.

How you beat the Tigers It wasn’t easy to throw against the Tigers in ’14 (5.5 ypa, No. 3 in the FBS), but if there is success to be had, the blueprint is to dink and dunk. See Alabama, which drove for the game-tying points late in the fourth quarter on a drive that included four completions gaining an average of 12.5 yards. Or Notre Dame, which owned time of possession (37 minutes to LSU’s 23), despite averaging almost three fewer yards per play (5.8, versus LSU’s 8.4). And even Arkansas, which looked for—and hit—tight ends over the middle for 90 yards on eight catches. So while the Tigers ceded only 29 pass plays of 20-plus yards (No. 16), a patient quarterback can still find success underneath.