A week off from playing with the postponement of LSU’s game against Florida on Saturday looks in the moment like a gift for the Tigers’ defense after the way they flailed through two of the first three games against Mississippi State and Missouri.
But barring some coronavirus onslaught that grinds the entire Southeastern Conference schedule to a halt — fingers crossed that doesn’t happen, though it looks like more of a threat now — LSU will have to play again. And when it does, Bo Pelini will still be the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, the Tigers will still be themselves, and both with still have the first three games worth of issues to overcome.
The question is, can things get better?
We look to history to find the clues, and the makings of an interesting parallel between Pelini’s first stint at LSU to his second.
In 2005, Pelini was defensive coordinator on Les Miles’ first staff when LSU opened at Arizona State in a game that was moved because of Hurricane Katrina. For most of the night, Sun Devils quarterback Sam Keller carved up the Tigers’ defense for 461 yards passing and four touchdowns. Only a miraculous 39-yard, fourth-down scoring pass from JaMarcus Russell to Early Doucet with 1:13 remaining allowed LSU to escape with a 35-31 victory.
Sixteen days later, in a home opener pushed to a Monday night by Hurricane Rita, LSU blew a 21-0 halftime lead and lost 30-27 to Tennessee in overtime. Again, the defense hardly looked great.
But great is how the Tigers played the rest of the season. In 10 of LSU’s last 11 games, Pelini’s defense held opponents to 17 points or fewer, including single digits six times, to finish third in the nation in total and scoring defense. Pelini’s defenses would finish No. 3 nationally in total defense the next two seasons, and fourth and 17th, respectively, in scoring defense, before he left to be head coach at Nebraska.
Pelini’s seven seasons there were a mixed bag with two exceptional defensive seasons. In 2009, the Cornhuskers finished seventh nationally in total defense, ninth in scoring and, somewhat comically given LSU’s current pass defenseless plight, first in pass efficiency defense. In 2010, Nebraska was 11th in total defense, ninth in points allowed and third in pass efficiency defense.
But over the next four seasons, the Huskers trended toward mediocre on defense: 37th, 35th, 40th and 52nd in total defense, 42nd, 58th, 50th and 59th in scoring defense. Despite that, Nebraska won at least nine games every season, recording 10 wins three times. In the next five seasons (Nebraska, now in the Big Ten, has not started playing yet this year), the Cornhuskers went 9-4 once and have had four other losing records.
The negative view is that the defensive success LSU had under Pelini from 2005-07 was from a completely different era of college football. But offenses have defenses on the run these days across the map. The Tigers, who led the FBS in total and scoring offense last season, are still averaging a potent 467.3 yards and 38.7 points per game so far this season but that ranks 17th nationally. Alabama and former LSU coach Nick Saban is a defensive legend, but his Crimson Tide gave up more yards (647) and points last Saturday in a 63-48 win over Ole Miss than LSU did in losing 45-41 to Missouri (586 yards).
Overall, LSU has been on a slow defensive slide in recent years. Under Dave Aranda, Pelini’s predecessor as LSU defensive coordinator, the Tigers’ rankings got worse each year as well:
• 2016: 10th total defense, fifth scoring defense
• 2017: 12th total defense, 14th scoring defense
• 2018: 25th total defense, 26th scoring defense
• 2019: 31st total defense, 32nd scoring defense
The other knock on Pelini isn’t numbers but being numb to change. Former Saints and Alabama defensive back Roman Harper said on the SEC Network the night of the Mississippi State game that LSU did not appear to make any in-game adjustments. It’s a charge also levied by former Saints and Nebraska linebacker Scott Schanle in an article in The Athletic after the Missouri game.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron vowed a simpler, more streamlined defense after the Missouri loss. But it isn’t all on Pelini. Defense isn’t just about scheme but about effort and intensity, and former Georgia All-American and ESPN analyst David Pollack said the Tigers have lacked it this season.
“A couple things I took away from LSU’s defense,” Pollack said. “A ton of finger pointing. A ton of, ‘What happened, bro? Where were you? What’s going on?’ And then a lack of effort.
“To me, LSU looks like they’re pretty content. Like, ‘We won a championship. We were awesome. We might not be good this year, but you know what? We won a championship.’ That’s frustrating to watch, from a standpoint of a defense that should be so much better.”
Maybe not so much better, but considerably more so than what it has shown so far. Perhaps the road back under Pelini, like after those first two shaky games in 2005, starts back against South Carolina.
But if it’s more of the same for LSU against a good but not overwhelming Gamecocks offense, it is likely to be a dark omen for the Tigers.