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LSU’s due for a setback, but it probably won’t happen against Ole Miss

The advanced stats say the Tigers aren’t really the No. 5 team in the country.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in what felt like ages, preseason expectations surrounding LSU felt reasonable and not overhyped. Roster turnover, in addition to recent performance, had Bill C. projecting them to finish 16th in S&P+ and win about seven or eight games.

But after just four weeks of play, most of the college football world is already slipping back into bad habits when it comes to evaluating this team. Opening the season on the national stage, the Tigers thumped Miami, 33-17, and jumped from 25th to 11th in the AP poll. Two weeks later, they were up to No. 5 after taking down then-No. 7 Auburn on the road.

There’s more to the story, though, and LSU’s current S&P+ ranking of 19th suggests they’re not quite as good as their AP spot would tell you. The numbers suggest they’ll be exposed sooner rather than later, though it probably won’t happen this Saturday against Ole Miss.

LSU is off to a strong start, but only in terms of wins and losses.

Nothing Miami did on the field suggested they should have won, but LSU did enjoy an average starting field position of their own 40-yard line, covering up an inefficient offensive performance. The Tigers’ second-half drives consisted of four punts and two field goals.

As meaningful as the win over Auburn may be, Bill C.’s Five Factors suggest that they would have just a 17 percent chance of winning in a rematch. With a 42 percent success rate, Auburn was far more efficient than LSU that game, but a few turnovers and an inability to finish drives killed them in the end. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow completed just 15 of his 36 attempts, and the LSU backs averaged just over three yards per carry. The win bolstered their resume, but didn’t suddenly make them a better team.

Last Saturday, the Tigers led Louisiana Tech (ranked 78th in Overall S&P+) just 24-21 at one point in the fourth quarter. They pulled away with two unanswered touchdowns, but were still outgained in terms of both total offense and yards per play. They got to start drives at an average of their own 37-yard line.

If LSU had already gotten through the toughest part of their schedule, whatever luck they enjoyed early on would be considered a lot less relevant, but they still have to face some pretty formidable SEC opponents. Ole Miss is decidedly not on that list of teams.

The Tigers’ offense may be mediocre, but does it really matter against the Rebels?

Ranking 50th in S&P+, this looks like it may be the worst offense Baton Rouge has seen since before S&P+ existed. This could in part be attributed to coordinator Steve Ensminger having to work in new pieces at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, returning just 39 percent of last year’s offensive production (124th nationally). Regardless, the numbers aren’t good.

The running game hasn’t gotten going behind lead back Nick Brossette—LSU is dead last in the SEC in opportunity rate (percent of carries that gain five-plus yards) and fourth-worst in highlight yards per opportunity. With Burrow under center, the Tigers are in the bottom three of the SEC in both passing success rate and yards per attempt.

Burrow fits an adage that has applied to countless SEC quarterbacks over the years: force them into passing downs, and their production will take a big hit. His stat line broken out by down shows that dip, but it’s also worth noting he’s been a pedestrian passer even in easier situations.

Joe Burrow, First 4 Games of 2018

Name Down Completions Attempts Yards Yds per Attempt Yds per Completion Success Rate TD Int
Name Down Completions Attempts Yards Yds per Attempt Yds per Completion Success Rate TD Int
Burrow Total 52 113 702 6.2 13.5 35.4% 3 0
Standard 33 65 487 7.5 14.8 40.0% 2 0
Passing 19 48 215 4.5 11.3 29.2% 1 0
Passing Downs are defined as second down with 8 or more yards to go or third/fourth down with 5 or more yards to go. Everything else is a standard down.

Fortunately for LSU, Wesley McGriff’s group has a knack for allowing offenses to stay on schedule, with a standard downs success rate of 50.3 percent, second worst in the SEC to South Carolina. On top of that, they’ve done a poor job leveraging obvious passing situations to get a stop or force a turnover, ranking 100th nationally in marginal efficiency and 114th in marginal explosiveness on passing downs. Burrow could end up looking like a stud on Saturday.

This is the second-best defense Jordan Ta’amu has ever faced.

While Ole Miss’ offense has generally looked like the world-beating, explosive unit we figured they’d be, their lackluster showing against Alabama fed the narrative that this group simply piles up numbers against bad defenses.

Whether or not that merits a broader discussion, there is a fairly modest ceiling to what even the most potent offenses can do against elite defenses (unless you’re 2017 Oklahoma). The Rebels are going to have to confront that truth again this Saturday, as nothing about Dave Aranda’s LSU defense suggests they’re overrated.

Despite having to replace most of his major contributors on the line, at linebacker, and cornerback, Aranda has leveraged the young talent there to deploy what may be the most balanced LSU defense in at least a few years. They’ve done a good enough job keeping offenses off schedule with a success rate of 37 percent, and they’ve limited the explosive plays, ranking 10th nationally in IsoPPP.

Their only potential weakness is that despite putting up solid efficiency numbers, they haven’t excelled at forcing offenses into outright passing downs. Teams have still maintained leverage against LSU in this way, staying in standard downs 66 percent of plays (Auburn’s defense is tops in this category at 57 percent). Considering 22 of the Rebels’ 31 plays of 20-plus yards have come on standard downs this season, they’ll have to do damage on first-and-10 to make a difference in this game.

It’s entirely possible that the Tigers figure things out midseason—growing pains can yield a product not representative of a team’s real potential, and they may be better than what they’ve shown so far. Either way, it wouldn’t require a huge lift to take care of things against an Ole Miss team with a handful of its own glaring flaws (Vegas favors LSU by 12). There’s a modicum of upset potential here for the Rebels, but not enough to invest a ton of hope in.