Hobbs: Opener will be strong indicator

Published 9:41 am Friday, September 3, 2021

PASADENA, Calif. — You add up things, try to analyze them, factor in a gazillion returning starters, both sides of the NCAA transfer portal, six new assistant coaches, another hurricane adjustment and …

Well, who the heck knows?

That seems to be the general consensus about LSU on the eve of the Tigers’ season opener against UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

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And we haven’t even brought up the effect that Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC sometime this century will have on the Tigers this season.

Or this year’s college football holy trinity — Name, Image and Likeness.

So many variables for a team that will begin the season ranked in the mid-teens by the various polls.

“You have a feeling you know what team you’ve got,” said LSU coach Ed Orgeron. “But you need to watch them play.”

He just may be on to something.

Particularly this season.

I can’t remember an LSU team that seemed to be more of a puzzle before it gets started. And it all should be pretty obvious given that, by one broad definition or another, LSU lists 24 returning starters of some flavor or another.

In a nutshell, the Tigers #think# they have a quarterback in Max Johnson because he won his only two starts last season as a true freshman, and the Tigers will never run out of wide receivers. They #ought# to have an offensive line since it returns virtually intact, but August reviews were mixed and LSU, of all places, hasn’t really found a go-to running back yet.

Mainly, though, they #have# to be better on defense — can’t be any worse — and better be #much# better if this season is to amount to anything.

This time they can’t blame it on fired defensive coordinator Bo Pelini.

Still, it’s a lot more fun when you find out early against a real opponent like UCLA, particularly on the road.

UCLA kind of pulled a fast one by scheduling a game for last week’s “Week Zero” festivities to address some of its own unknowns.

So the very veteran Bruins hit a few live fungoes while whipping up on Bishop Sycamore 44-10. Or wait. Maybe that was Hawaii that the Bruins tuned up with.

Same difference.

All that does is fuel the age-old argument of whether the real scrimmage was worth it, whether knocking off the rust offsets the filmed evidence they left behind for the Tigers to dissect, with no more of a clue than any of us what LSU will be up to.

Meanwhile, the game’s deep thinkers have decreed that it might be a big season for popular Coach O, who, less than two years removed from the 15-0 national championship, will risk kinda sorta flirting with the dreaded hot seat if it turns out anything like last year’s 5-5 disaster.

Win or lose, this will be totally Orgeron’s team.

Orgeron didn’t like last year any more than the fans did and he overhauled the coaching staff. None of the three coordinators were household names — Jake Peetz (offense), D.J. Mangas (passing game) or Daronte Jones (defense).

It was an obvious attempt to recapture the magic of 2019 on offense and erase the memory of Pelini on defense.

But how they mesh and operate — the really great unknown right now — will probably be the biggest factor for the opener and beyond.

None of them have ever run offenses or defenses on this big of a stage before, although they were carefully scrutinized by Orgeron (as opposed to the sight-unseen hiring of the bigger name in Pelini for last year).

So they’re his guys. Now it’s up to them to produce. Orgeron has raved about them, but he tends to get overly optimistic in August.

That, to me, is the big question going into Saturday.

None of LSU preseason skeptics have cited a lack of talent.

But don’t be afraid to overreact to a season opener, no matter how it turns out.

Recent history tells us that Saturday’s Rose Bowl opening act will offer a pretty fair indication about what’s in store for the Tigers.

No need to rehash last year’s 44-34 dumpster fire against Mississippi State — maybe the biggest eyesore ever by a defending national champion.

The 2019 opener was a soft touch with Georgia Southern. But with the precision and imagination on display, it didn’t take much of a leap of faith to imagine the perfect season that followed.

The previous year introduced you to Joe Burrow right out of the gate.

Conversely, in 2016 once LSU opened up with an opening loss to Wisconsin, with the same stale offense in that was supposed to be modernized, you knew Les Miles’ days as head coach were numbered.

This year?

The mystery will start to unravel on Saturday.

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at scooter.hobbs@americanpress.com