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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 14 LSU took its lumps last year, ready for a revival

Kevin Lyttle
American-Statesman Correspondent
LSU offensive tackle Dare Rosenthal, left, and wide receiver Kayshon Boutte pose for the camera during LSU's spring game in April. Boutte is expected to take over the alpha receiver's role in this year's Tigers' offense.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 14 LSU

The Tigers won the 2019 national championship, then lost a record 14 players to the 2020 NFL draft along with both highly regarded coordinators and returned fewer starters (3) than anybody else in the country. The baby Bayou Bengals flailed last year before rallying late to reach .500. Fast forward to 2021 and it's a completely different scenario. Now LSU flashes an experienced team crafted from a group of the best recruiting classes in the country. The Tigers took their lumps last year, but are poised to bounce back with a vengeance. One familiar face, spectacular CB Derek Stingley Jr., will be joined by a bevy of emerging stars like WR Kayshon Boutte, QB Myles Brennan, DE BJ Ojulari and LB Mike Jones Jr. Three offensive linemen have made All-SEC preseason teams. What can tame the Tigers? Well, the SEC West, of course, where Alabama is still Alabama and Texas A&M is likely No. 2.

LSU was ranked No. 8 in our preseason poll last year. The Tigers finished unranked in all three major polls.

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About the Tigers

2020: 5-5, all in the SEC — fourth place in the West Division behind Alabama, A&M and Auburn. No bowl game. But not because of COVID-19; LSU decided to forgo participating in a bowl as part of self-imposed sanctions stemming from an NCAA investigation.

Coach: Ed Orgeron, 61-41 in nine seasons at Mississippi, USC and LSU, including a 45-14 mark with the Tigers (five years). He led the Tigers to the 2019 national championship.

Returning starters: 21 (10 offense, 11 defense)

Shoes to fill: Three WRs were drafted — Ja'Marr Chase, who had opted out (5th overall pick, Bengals), Terrace Marshall (Panthers, 2nd round) and Racey McMath (Titans, 6th); LB Jabril Cox (Cowboys, 4th); DT Tyler Shelvin (Bengals, 4th); S JaCoby Stevens (Eagles, 6th); CB Kary Vincent Jr. (Broncos, 7th); TE Arik Gilbert (transfer, Georgia); QB TJ Finley (transfer, Auburn); LT Dare Rosenthal (transfer, Kentucky); RB Kevontre Bradford (transfer, Oklahoma); and DL Siaki Ika (transfer, Baylor)

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LSU quarterback Myles Brennan and wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. celebrate a touchdown in the first half of last year's game at Vanderbilt.

Catching up

After enduring their worst season since 1999, the Tigers made sweeping changes, replacing a half-dozen assistant coaches, including both coordinators. Jake Peetz, previously the Carolina Panthers QBs coach, is the new OC, replacing Steve Ensminger (offensive analyst). Peetz must resurrect a running game that sputtered to 3.3 yards per carry last year. Daronte Jones moves in from the Minnesota Vikings, where he coached the DBs, and Bo Pellini is out. The staff's average age dropped from 54 to 45. ... Although the transfers of TE Arik Gilbert and LT Dare Rosenthal will hurt, incoming transfers LB Mike Jones Jr. and DB Major Burns will have an impact. Jones, a starter at Clemson, already is a team leader, and Burns, from Georgia, could shore up a safety position. LB Navonteque Strong, a JUCO transfer, is a huge hitter with speed. ... Myles Brennan and TJ Finley were to battle for the starting QB gig until Finley transferred to division rival Auburn. Pro Football Focus loves Brennan, ranking him the ninth-best passer in the country.

LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. is one of this year's key players for the Tigers. He's expected to be a top prospect in next spring's NFL draft.

Returning leaders

Passing: Myles Brennan 79-131-1,112, 11/3 (led team); Max Johnson 88-150-1,069, 8/1 (2nd)

Rushing: Tyrion Davis-Price 104-446-3 (led team), John Emery Jr. 75-378-3 (2nd)

Receiving: Kayshon Boutte 45-735-5 (2nd)

Tackles: LB Damone Clark 63 (T-1st), LB Micah Baskerville 55 (4th)

Sacks: OLB Andre Anthony 5.5 (led team), LB BJ Ojulari 4 (2nd)

Interceptions: CB Eli Ricks 4 (led team), CB Jay Ward 3 (2nd)

Returning all-conference

Offense: WR Kayshon Boutte (all-freshman)

Defense: DB Derek Stingley Jr. (1st), DL Ali Gaye (2nd), LB BJ Ojulari (all-freshman), DB Eli Ricks (all-freshman)

Special teams: K Cade York (1st)

FYI

How the pandemic affected LSU: There were opt-outs, most notably preseason All-American WR Ja'Marr Chase. Then, in late summer, Orgeron startled reporters, saying "most of our players already have had COVID-19." The coach said the vast majority had contracted the virus at bars and other public gatherings. Perhaps he was right because LSU did not have major problems during a 10-game season. 

Lockdown corners: Stingley and Ricks are "not just the best returning corner duo in college football this year, but arguably the best we've ever seen," writes Pro Football Focus. In 2019 Stingley posted the best single-season coverage grade by a freshman CB in the PFF College era. In '20 Ricks posted the fourth-best single-season coverage grade among that same group. In his career Stingley has only allowed a catch on 40.3% of his targets and is a sure bet to go in the top five of the next NFL draft.

Recruiting juggernaut: LSU's last three classes ranked Nos. 5, 4 and 3. Over the five-year cycle that makes up current rosters, only Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State have racked up more recruiting points in 247Sports' composite ratings. There are nine five-star players still on board, including Stingley, Ricks, Boutte and RB John Emery, who could break out this fall. The 2022 class is currently No. 4. So it's no surprise LSU has had 39 draft picks the last five years, third-most in the nation. LSU's 41 active NFL players also is third, behind Alabama (56) and Ohio State (50).

2020 national stat rankings

Where LSU ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Tigers ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 39th (2019 — 1st, -38 spots)

Scoring defense: T-98th (32nd, -66)

Total offense: 35th (1st, -34)

Total defense: 124th (31st, -93)

Passing: 15th (2nd, -13)

Pass defense: 127th (59th, -68)

Rushing: 109th (60th, -49)

Rush defense: 67th (21st, -46)

Sacks: 52nd (43rd, -9)

Interceptions: 13th (2nd, -8)

Red zone offense: 66th (2nd, -64)

Red zone defense: 51st (26th, -25)

Turnover margin: 15th (15th)

Time of possession: 34th (53rd, +19)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 13 team. Want a hint?

This basketball school hadn't had a winning season in football since 1994 — until last year, that is.