One year ago, the LSU Tigers were 8-0 and on the verge of heading to Tuscaloosa to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide. From the blend of a nigh-unstoppable offense and a good-enough defense, the Tigers were able to overtake the Crimson Tide, sweep the remaining regular-season games, and eventually win the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship.
Leap ahead to one year, and the Tigers are yet again preparing over an off-week for a bout against Alabama. This time, however, is much, much different, and not in the smoothest way for LSU fans out there.
After an exodus of player and coaching personnel, the 2020 LSU Tigers are cut from a different cloth when compared to their 2019 counterparts. However, while going undefeated again definitely seemed like a stretch, competing with a .500+ record seemed reasonable. Instead, the team currently sits at 2-3 as the second half of their season prepares to get underway.
While the lack of player personnel and a global pandemic could be reasons for the underperformance, a more direct reason can easily be identified as the culprit.
After Dave Aranda departed the Tigers’ defensive coordinator gig for the Baylor head coaching job, former LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini made a return to the Bayou. A transition from the 3-4 defense under Aranda to the 4-3 defense, in Orgeron’s and Pelini’s eyes, would bring more aggression up front for the defensive core and, as a result, would be able to control the clock much more when combined with the modernized offense.
The transition to the 4-3, however, has been tough, and that is putting it bluntly.
Through five games, LSU’s defense has allowed 33.6 points per game, which ranks 82nd among 115 FBS teams heading into Nov. 7 action. Compared to last season’s defensive totals (21.9 points per game, which ranked 32nd out of 130 teams), this is a stark difference.
This is only the start of the problem, though. In three out of their five games this season, LSU’s defense has given up 40 or more points. For comparison’s sake, last season’s defense allowed 40 or more points once (Nov. 9, 2019 against Alabama). The three 40-point games are the most in a single season for LSU since they matched the total during the 1993 season. The 1993 total, however, was over the duration of the entire season. The 2020 LSU team still has five games to go, including games against Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida.
The three 40+ point defensive collapses stand out even more when looking at the opponent and game history between said opponent.
The three 2020 games where LSU’s defense has conceded 40 or more points were Mississippi State (44), Missouri (45) and Auburn (48). In 111 games played against Mississippi State, the 44 points conceded were the most by an LSU defense since Nov. 12, 1983 (45 points conceded). Among all 111 LSU-Mississippi State matchups, the 2020 matchup ranks third among all games in terms of points conceded by the Tigers (LSU’s 55 points allowed on Nov. 15, 1980 ranks first). In three games against Missouri, LSU’s 45 points conceded were the most in the three matchups (LSU’s 20 points conceded on Dec. 23, 1978 was the previous high).
Finally, there is Auburn. In 53 career games against Auburn, LSU’s 48 points conceded in the 2020 matchup were the most ever against them. The previous high came on Oct. 4, 2014, when LSU allowed 41 in a 41-7 loss.
Pelini’s aggressive mindset on the defensive side, while showing some signs of long-term upside, has not been an easy transition. Even with a loss of personnel from last season, coverages are still blatantly wide open — so open, in fact, that the team has already made history in some categories and has passed not-too-pleasant milestones in others.
As LSU prepares for their bout with Alabama on Nov. 14, the theme for the team will be anything but the 2019 counterpart. Instead, the theme will be how the defense can prevent what has already been a historically rocky season.