LSU has wrapped up its 2023 regular season at 9-3 after a home win against Texas A&M. Entering the season as a top-five team, LSU finished with a solid, yet unfulfilling season. Although the Tigers were seen by some as playoff contenders, there were questions going into the season that were proven significant enough to limit the potential of this team. To succinctly recap the LSU season, the defense was simply not good enough.
“Good enough” could sound vague or subjective, but it perfectly defines the need for this year’s team. LSU showcased one of the most prolific offenses in NCAA history. The 2019 version of the Tigers showed that a team does not have to have a dominant defense to win big. An unstoppable offense needs an opportunistic and competent defense that can manage not to be a liability.
On a brighter note, the games were spectacular. Most conference games were shootouts where one turnover or defensive stop could decide the winner. The 2023 season was a rollercoaster of expectations in which viewers waited for the defense to get its bearings at the beginning of the ride. After a couple of loops and likely motion sickness, the debate shifted to the likelihood of LSU outscoring opponents to reach a second consecutive SEC Championship game.
LSU Defensive Recap
Brian Kelly was well aware of potential issues in the secondary leading up to the season, even mentioning them at SEC Media Days. LSU took four transfer cornerbacks in the 2023 class after losing two starters from the 2022 team. JK Johnson was injured and lost for the season before playing a down. Denver Harris and Duce Chestnut did not impress before Kelly relegated them to the bench for perceived disciplinary reasons. Zy Alexander was LSU’s most consistent cornerback but was lost for the season due to an injury in the Army game. LSU missed with this group after hitting on the previous group of cornerback transfers, which further emphasizes the importance of recruiting high school players at a higher level.
The main reason the secondary looked so incapable at times was the underwhelming play of the defensive line. The line was expected to be the strongest unit on the LSU defense. Mekhi Wingo was impressive, but Maason Smith struggled to reach the form pre-injury that led to NFL evaluators projecting him as a first-round pick. Defensive Line coach Jimmy Lindsey stepped away from coaching due to health issues before the season. One has to wonder how the line would have fared had he been a part of the program.
LSU attempted to strengthen its linebacking corps by moving Harold Perkins inside and adding transfer Omar Speights. In short, Perkins was more effective as a Sam linebacker. This allowed him to rush at times and drop into coverage. Even though he graded out better than the other LSU linebackers in coverage, Perkins is too valuable as a pass rusher to not use him in that capacity more often. LSU rushing the passer without sending Perkins is akin to putting a spoon down to eat soup with a fork. The tool usage is inefficient, to say the least.
LSU Offensive Recap
The preseason projections for LSU included the assumption that Jayden Daniels would improve on a good season in year two. Nobody expected him to join Joe Burrow in the conversation of the best LSU quarterback ever. Daniels has fewer interceptions, more total yards, and more touchdowns than Burrow had in the regular season.
Daniels currently leads all players in total offense by almost 900 yards. He’ll be invited to the Heisman Trophy Presentation in New York, and there is constant debate regarding the winner. One cannot debate that he held up his end in efforts to take the Tigers as far as they could go.
The 2023 Tigers have also enjoyed one of the most prolific receiving tandems in school history. Both Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas have over 1,000 receiving yards. Nabers leads the country in receiving yards, and Thomas leads in receiving touchdowns. One cannot overstate how masterfully and consistently Mike Denbrock incorporated their abilities within play designs. This allowed Nabers and Thomas to play to their strengths.
Most were expecting a “running back by committee” approach, but Notre Dame transfer Logan Diggs was an unexpected bellcow at running back for LSU. Diggs’ one-cut style was decisive and effective. He rarely went down and first contact and seemingly never lost yards. Josh Williams was as dependable as ever, and Kaleb Jackson showed the potential to be an LSU great in the future.
The Tigers have a chance to win 10 games in their bowl game, which is commendable considering their schedule. In the meantime, the staff will prioritize retaining valuable players who are draft-eligible and/or considering transferring. This is all while finishing up a currently 14th-ranked recruiting class for 2024. With further evaluations in-store and the removal of the 25-player limit, this ranking could easily improve.
Kelly has some decisions to make on his staff. Whether there are major changes to come or not, his future is tied to those decisions. LSU is undoubtedly in a better position now than it was before Kelly’s arrival. There will soon come a day when the pre-Kelly era is forgotten, and donors will only consider what he’s done lately.