Thursday, October 1

Nobody knows anything: The LSU preview.

I guess placing a picture of the Golden Girls at the top of any post about LSU has pretty much become a Hey Jenny Slater tradition; it's either this or The Hat.

Hometown: Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Last season: Rolled over inferior competition on the way to 4-0 and a #4 ranking, but got a 51-21 brass-knuckling from Florida and failed to win back-to-back games for the rest of the season; losses included getting a 52-bomb dropped on them at home by Georgia, another home loss to Ole Miss, and a one-point upset by 4-7 Arkansas. Redeemed themselves in the Peach Bowl by burying Georgia Tech's triple-option attack in a 38-3 win, but still finished the season just outside the top 25; final record, 8-5, 3-5 in the SEC.

Hate index, 1 being Adam West, 10 being Kanye West: Four. Yeah, Les Miles is a nutcase, their fan base is exclusively made up of obnoxious drunks . . . you say all that like it's a bad thing.

Associated hottie: Jennifer Dupont was a Golden Girl at LSU and held the Louisiana state title in the Miss Teen USA, Miss USA, and Miss America systems. She fell just short of winning the 2005 Miss America pageant, ending up first runner-up to Miss Alabama (and former UAB medical student) Deidre Downs, but Jennifer clearly fought the good fight:

What excites me: On paper, at least, LSU has to be one of the least statistically impressive top-five teams in history, particularly on offense. The Tigers are only averaging 310 yards of total offense per game which is good for 105th in the nation and dead last in the SEC; that's a staggering statistic when you consider a) how much skill-position talent they brought back and b) the overall weakness of the defenses they've played (Vanderbilt is the only one that ranks in the top 20 nationally at this point). The rushing offense ranks 10th in the SEC, which has to be particularly disappointing considering that they've got a mobile quarterback, a thousand-yard rusher in senior Charles Scott, and talented speedsters in Keiland Williams and Trindon Holliday, both of whom averaged better than five yards per carry last season. The Tigers were held to a mere 30 yards rushing last week at Mississippi State and are averaging only 3.8 yards per rush as a team, which leads me to believe that the loss of offensive linemen Herman Johnson and Brett Helms hit them harder than anyone predicted. (LSU's team speed also makes it all the more perplexing that they're fourth-worst in the country on kickoff returns, averaging only 15.7 yards per return.)

And even in the areas where LSU's statistics are good, you have to take into account the spotty schedule that they've played. Coincidentally, every one of their first four opponents is 2-2 at the moment, with Vanderbilt, UL-Lafayette, and Mississippi State all counting wins over I-AA opponents. New defensive coordinator John Chavis certainly seems to have improved LSU's defense over what they displayed down the stretch last year -- just to recap, they gave up 400 yards and 35 points on average over their final four SEC games of 2008 -- but the statistical difference between Chavis's defense and that of the much-maligned Willie Martinez isn't nearly what Georgia fans probably think it would be. And that's after facing the #61, #70, #76, and #91 offenses in the country. (For comparison's sake, all of Georgia's opponents rank higher than #61 in total yardage save for Arizona State.)

Finally, there are the intangibles -- Les Miles has gotten the Dawgs at a neutral site and at Death Valley and still hasn't come within two TDs of us; the last time the Tigers came to Athens, of course (under Nick Saban), they got sent home with "45-16" tattooed on their ass cheeks. And as ESPN has fallen all over themselves to point out, the first month of the season has not been kind to teams at the very top of the rankings, with a top-five team having gone down each week so far:

WeekRankTeamLost to
1#3Oklahoma#20 BYU
2#5Oklahoma StateHouston
#4Ole MissSouth Carolina
4#5Penn StateIowa

With Florida and Texas both off, #5 Boise State getting a layup at home vs. UC-Davis, and #3 Alabama facing a Kentucky team demoralized after last week's shellacking, LSU certainly seems like the most likely candidate for a top-five hosing this week, particularly with pundits both mainstream and non having begun openly questioning whether the Tigers deserve their lofty ranking to begin with.

OK, that right there's a safety. I don't think he's supposed to have the ball. Please advise, over.

What worries me: LSU may not be doing many things all that well lately, but Georgia certainly isn't either, and what we are doing well we're not doing consistently. Since his opening-weekend dud at Oklahoma State, Joe Cox has looked pretty good, assembling a 173.89 QB rating and some beautiful deep balls against Arkansas's sieve of a defense, but he's still underthrowing receivers with regularity, and all but a couple of his interceptions so far have been completely inexplicable. For every terrific run that our RBs have managed to break off, there are three or four instances of them getting running tentatively and getting stuffed after only two or three yards. (Caleb King appears to be the most likely candidate to break out of that funk, but then he had an ugly fumble in the third quarter against ASU last week that started off our second-half turnover-fest.) On defense, we've performed reasonably well against the run, but there's not much evidence to indicate that we're performing all that much better against mobile quarterbacks than we did last year -- not a good sign when Jordan Jefferson is about to pay us a visit.

Then there's the turnover issue, which is just as ominous now as it was in week 1. I know I've harped on that issue here to a degree that's probably starting to drive some of you crazy, but the problem just gets more and more dire with each passing week: We've now handed the ball over three times in each game we've played, with the majority of those being either completely inexplicable interceptions or fumbles so random you could barely even call them "forced." Of our 12 giveaways, one has resulted in a blocked field-goal attempt, one resulted in a punt, and one came close enough to the end of the game that the opponent simply ran out the clock. The other nine have all resulted in points of some sort -- 55, to be exact, which becomes particularly infuriating when you consider that we've only outscored our opponents by a total margin of 123 to 119 so far this year. Georgia must be auditioning for Dr. Saturday's "Life on the Margins" Hall of Fame; those turnovers have singlehandedly transformed the Dawgs from a team that could be looking downright dominant at this point to one that's having to pull off Houdini-like escapes nearly every single weekend.

LSU, meanwhile, is sitting near the top of Division I-A in turnover margin (tied for fifth at +7 on the season), and the only reason they weren't able to convert more than five of their 10 takeaways into points is because their opponents at least waited to give up the ball until they were reasonably deep in LSU territory. All but one of Georgia's turnovers have been recovered on Georgia's side of the field, and two of them were inside our own 20. If you think handing over the ball in your own territory three times a game is a good way to beat a top-five opponent, whether or not you think that ranking is deserved, we need to have a long talk.

He's already broken Florida's national-championship trophy -- now he breaks defenses' hearts.

Player who needs to have a big game: Tight end Orson Charles. A.J. Green has been a shaolin assassin in every single game we've played, but the downside to that is that teams know he's coming and will put their best guys on him -- which, in LSU's case, will be cornerback Patrick Peterson, who had a pass breakup and a pick-six against Mississippi State and is one of very few truly dominant CBs we'll have faced so far this year (not to mention one of very few guys A.J. has faced who approach him in terms of size). If LSU tries to blanket Green as solidly as everyone thinks they will, that puts an even greater onus on the other receivers to step up, and I think our freshman tight end is going to have to play a big part in the passing game this week. LSU's secondary (which also includes preseason second-team All-SEC safety Chad Jones) will do everything they can to take away the deep ball this week, which puts more emphasis on the short passing game; that'll mean more looks for Charles, who's done a very good job of turning relatively short passes into long ones so far (he leads the team with a 20.9 yards-per-reception average, which would be sick for any receiver, especially a tight end). Joe Cox is going to need to bounce back from a spotty performance against the Sun Devils, and that's going to require both Charles and fellow TE Aron White to magically turn some relatively safe passes into big gains.

What does it all mean? In submitting my official SEC Power Poll ballot for this week, I said I couldn't recall a single time when we'd been this far into a season and still been so completely clueless as to the strength of so many teams in the conference. Outside of Florida and Alabama at the top of the standings and Vanderbilt at the bottom, pretty much every team in the SEC could still be either pretty good or pretty awful at this point. And perhaps no two teams exemplify that better than LSU and Georgia: The Tigers have played a mediocre schedule, won every game, but never looked particularly dominant doing so; Georgia, meanwhile, has played a far stouter schedule and gone 3-1, but has made numerous stupid mental errors throughout and has needed comebacks in each of those wins. As tough as this game is -- particularly coming on the heels of four non-joke opponents -- I'm grateful for it simply because it may finally give us an indicator of whether the Bulldogs are actually any good or not.

That sounds like a pretty passive-aggressive way of talking about one's own team, but I don't think that even the most blinkered red-and-black Kool-Aid drinker out there could deny that we've been one of the most inconsistent teams in the country up to this point. We've clamped down on one very good offense (Oklahoma State) and one very bad one (Arizona State), but also been shredded by one very good offense (Arkansas) and one that wasn't supposed to be anything special at all (South Carolina). We've run up big points on both Arkansas's lousy defense and South Carolina's pretty good one, but also been kept in check by Arizona State's good defense and Oklahoma State's mediocre one. Thanks to our special-teams coach's lingering obsession with directional kicking, we can't even predict whether one of Blair Walsh's kickoffs will land in the back of the end zone or go flying out of bounds. If you've got any Georgia Tech grads in your circle of friends, ask to borrow the 20-sided die from their Dungeons & Dragons set this weekend; that'll be as good a way as any to predict Georgia's performance against the Tigers.

OK, you rolled a four, which means we'll commit three turnovers before halftime but make a fourth-quarter comeback in which Reshad Jones returns an LSU fumble for the winning touchdown, thereby gaining +5 charisma.

So now that I've said all that, I realize it's almost hypocritical for me to try to make any kind of prediction regarding this game. But even with multiple grain-of-salt disclaimers in force, I gotta tell you, my honest assessment is I don't think we match up particularly well against LSU here, if only because their weaknesses aren't in areas we've displayed any great capability to exploit. With three new guys on the defensive line, their run defense should provide some openings, but our RBs haven't demonstrated enough crispness to be able to consistently do anything with that. The LSU passing offense clearly isn't anything special, but as the Gamecocks proved, those statistics don't matter when we don't bother to put any defenders within 5 yards of the receivers. Caleb King could step up and provide a spark in the ground game, and Georgia's pass rush, which has improved (if only incrementally) over the past couple weeks, could rattle Jordan Jefferson enough to make some bad throws -- but these are only what-ifs without a lot of concrete backup.

Then there's the turnover issue. We've been extraordinarily fortunate to have won three games in a row despite our continuing predilection for handing over the ball, but as I've said repeatedly, that luck is gonna run out sooner or later -- and I can't think of a more likely time for it to run out than against a team with as much raw talent as LSU. Maybe we could minimize the damage by at least having the good sense to turn it over on their side of the field, but again, even that's not something we've been terribly adept at so far this year.

Now, as I've pointed out, there are plenty of intangibles that break in our favor, one of them being the spotlight glaring on LSU thanks to their high (and, depending on whom you ask, somewhat precarious) ranking, another being Georgia's recent history of big-time success against the Tigers. I'd like to think that another would be the potential for LSU to be looking ahead to next week's matchup with a Florida team that could be without Tim Tebow, but I think that'll be neutralized in large part by LSU's desire to get revenge on the team that dropped half a hundred on them in their own stadium last season. Both teams come into this weekend needing to quiet a fair bit of "Not sure I buy them just yet" talk, so I don't think motivation is a factor that particularly favors either team over the other.

Oh, if only we could get them to start Jarrett Lee at QB again. I think I'd really enjoy that.

Really, there aren't a lot of factors period, tangible or intangible, that swing heavily in any one direction, so I think we'll have a fairly close, evenly matched game on our hands in which Georgia is, for the most part, able to match LSU blow for blow. But once the turnovers start -- and don't tell me you don't know it's going to happen, whether it starts early or late -- I think LSU starts to put some distance between them and the Dawgs that we can't make up. I can't honestly give you a reason why I'm getting that our-luck-runs-out feeling other than pure hunch, but that's what my gut is telling me right now, and if we don't get the turnovers fixed for this game, my guess is a final margin of -1 or -2 would be enough to send us to a loss by seven or eight points.

Naturally, though, I'd be happy to be wrong -- happy enough to make a fairly cut-and-dried wager below.

If you're trash-talking: Georgia's won six of their last eight against the Tigers, including the last three in a row (by an average of three TDs). After last year's game, you could also ask LSU fans if Darryl Gamble is going to lead the Tigers in receiving yardage for a second straight game. I cannot recommend whipping out the "LSU fans smell like corn dogs" jab because I have never experienced this particular phenomenon myself, but I sure would be interested in finding out how it got started.

Nevertheless, this remains hilarious to me, even if I don't really understand why.

I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment wearing nothing but a Georgia flag wrapped about my nether regions if: Georgia wins, period. A home win over a top-five opponent for the first time in a quarter-century? I'll take it, and I honestly don't care how many turnovers we have or how lucky we need to get. We're still a deeply flawed team, and more than likely will continue to be one regardless of Saturday's outcome, but a deeply flawed 4-1 team is always preferable to a deeply flawed 3-2 one. And since I've openly picked LSU to win, simply being proven wrong (no matter how it happens) is enough to merit some publicly humiliating atonement.


Jerry Hinnen said...

I believe the connection between LSU fans and corndogs started with a popular Auburn message board post by a mysterious user named "Deep Blue." It's reprinted here in its entirety:

Joshua said...

Wrong, it was started by some fans in the Big 12. I think about Oklahoma St, but maybe it was Iowa St or Nebraska or somebody. Whatever the case, it's unoriginal and lame. Auburn fans just plagiarized it, proving the only thing they are good at on their own is chopblocking.

And besides, everyone knows we smell like sweat, bourbon and jambalaya.

Stupid jokes aside, damn fine write up Doug. The best so far I have read about this game. Solid work.

Dr Bundy said...

I've been looking forward to your write-up all week. However, call me a "nega-Tiger", but the only way we beat the Dawgs is if GA turns over the ball 3 times. This is Georgia's game to lose, and with the LSU O-Line as suspect as it is, I don't see us pulling this one out unless Lesticles has been playing possum thus far in the season. Have fun on your flag run.