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LSU midseason review

BATON ROUGE, La. – Since we’ve just passed the midway point of the season, our college football blog team assembled midseason awards lists for all of FBS football as well as the individual conferences.

Let’s get even more specific and break down the good and bad for LSU (5-2, 1-2 SEC) now that the Tigers are halfway through the 14-week regular season.

Offensive MVP: Travin Dural. LSU’s offense has had its ups and downs, but Dural has been a consistent playmaker. The sophomore receiver has 24 receptions for 626 yards and six touchdowns, and he has been one of the SEC’s top home run hitters. He logged a school-record 94-yard touchdown catch against Sam Houston State, caught an 80-yard scoring bomb against Wisconsin and also has catches of 49, 41 and 40 yards. His 41-yard grab against Florida came on a third-and-25 situation in the fourth quarter and set up his one-handed, 11-yard touchdown catch that gave the Tigers a 27-24 lead. Dural leads the nation in yards per catch (26.1) among players with at least 20 receptions.

Defensive MVP: Kwon Alexander. In his first season as the Tigers’ starting weakside linebacker, Alexander has been one of their most consistent tacklers. His 10-tackle performance last Saturday against Florida marked the fourth time he either led LSU in tackles or tied for the team lead (the others were eight against both Wisconsin and New Mexico State and 13 against Mississippi State). He stripped Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott early in the third quarter of that game, creating a fumble that defensive end Danielle Hunter returned for a touchdown and has a team-high two forced fumbles. Alexander leads the Tigers with 46 total tackles – his average of 7.7 tackles per game is tied for ninth in the SEC – and is second on the team in tackles for loss (3.5) and quarterback hurries (four).

Biggest surprise: Offensive line play. Last Saturday’s 30-27 win at Florida was probably the offensive line’s most consistent performance of the season, with the Tigers rushing 50 times for 195 yards – their best rushing output thus far against a Power 5 defense. Overall, though, LSU’s veteran offensive line has sometimes struggled to impose its will the way we might have expected prior to the season. They’re second-to-last in the SEC and tied for 73rd nationally by allowing 2.14 sacks per game (15 in seven games). And nine SEC teams have a better yards-per-carry average than LSU’s 4.4. The Tigers’ quarterbacks could take some heat off the line by throwing the ball more consistently, forcing defenders to reconsider loading the box, but that hasn’t happened much yet. Until it does, LSU’s line and running backs share the burden of carrying the Tigers’ offense.

Biggest disappointment: Run defense. Prior to this season, it has been highly unusual for opponents to successfully run it right up the middle against John Chavis’ LSU defenses. That has been a successful formula for several teams this year while the Tigers struggled to identify consistent performers at defensive tackle. Out of four Power 5 opponents this season, three (Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn) have run for at least 260 yards against LSU, with State posting a season high against the Tigers with 302 yards on 49 attempts. Another bright spot from the Florida game was that LSU handled the run better than it had in previous games, with the Gators running 32 times for 123 yards. The Tigers are going to face several more teams with powerful rushing attacks, so this will remain a story line worth watching in the second half of the season.

Newcomer of the year: Leonard Fournette. Receiver Malachi Dupre deserves some attention for his outstanding play in a couple of games, but tailback Fournette is the obvious choice here. Fresh off a 27-carry, 140-yard performance against Florida, Fournette leads the team with 504 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 93 attempts (team-high 5.4 yards per carry and 72.0 yards per game). Fournette also handles kickoff returns and has 16 runbacks for 368 yards (23.0 ypr). His average of 136.9 all-purpose yards per game ranks third in the SEC. He got off to a quiet start against Wisconsin, but Fournette has been the Tigers’ leading rusher in each game since and seems poised for a big second half.

Game of the year: Tie, Wisconsin and Florida. Take your pick. The Tigers’ comeback for a 28-24 win against Wisconsin – after trailing 24-7 early in the third quarter – was a great way to start the season. The defense shut down the Badgers after their third-quarter touchdown and generated multiple turnovers to pave the way for a comeback. But the Florida win feels like a more important victory at this point of the season. The Tigers desperately needed to stop the bleeding after dropping their first two SEC games, and winning at The Swamp is almost always a challenge – even when the Gators aren’t the Eastern Division force that they were a few years back. The Tigers trailed 17-7 in this one before rallying behind three defensive takeaways and the power running from Fournette. They can achieve bowl eligibility and get back to .500 in SEC play by beating Kentucky on Saturday.

Biggest games of the second half: LSU vs. Ole Miss (Oct. 25) and LSU vs. Alabama (Nov. 8)