Sept. 1, 2015 01:14 PM

Remember when football wasn’t like the Arctic sun, never dipping before the horizon and out of sight?

Remember when football had an offseason? Before televised spring games, three-day NFL drafts, and middle school commitments? Remember when football wasn’t like the Arctic sun, never dipping before the horizon and out of sight? Before the NFL Network carried round-the-clock coverage of Bountygate, Deflategate and Roger Goodell?

Offseasons once gave fans a few months to put the past season in perspective as the next one came slowly into view. Those days are gone. Rested or not, recovered or not, ready or not, the next season is here. Time to watch a high school game from the bleachers, tailgate outside Cajun Field or hunker down for an NFL season that will extend deep into winter making August a faint memory.

And who can’t wait for that? For Acadiana fans of the Cajuns or the Tigers or the Saints and especially for fans of all three, the 2015 season promises more than the usual intrigue. UL and LSU feature running backs with national profi les, Elijah McGuire and Leonard Fournette, and will be led by quarterbacks yet to be announced. Both teams will have new defensive coordinators who will inevitably be compared with their predecessors.

The Saints only a year ago were Super Bowl contenders, but after a summer spent retooling their offense to improve their running game and grabbing as many defensive draftees and free agents as they can afford, a playoff season seems the best a rational Saints fan can hope for. But for “true” Saints fans only a Super Bowl will do.

Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth enters his fifth season after four straight 9-4 seasons and a perfect 4-0 in bowl games. He recruited every player on this year’s team, and a first-ever 10-win season predicated on sweeping home games and splitting on the road plus another bowl win is a real possibility.

Les Miles and Sean Payton co-hosted “An Evening at the Governor’s Mansion” in June to celebrate the kickoff of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s presidential campaign. Given the early poll numbers for Jindal, LSU and Saints fans hope their coaches are more successful in their day jobs. Tough early season games may mean the Tigers and Saints suffer similar slow starts to their own campaigns.

Many questions to be answered week by week and a clean slate to start. Who needs an offseason?

Cajuns: Breaking the Nine-Win Ceiling

RB Elijah McGuire
Photo by Brad Kemp/UL
Ask a Cajun fan to pick the best of the last four UL football teams and you might wait a while for an answer. Each finished 9-4, tied the school record for most wins in a season and ended the year with a New Orleans Bowl win. Together they won more games than any other Sun Belt team. Only four schools out of 61 in the Group of Five conferences won more. Clearly, under Mark Hudspeth UL football has attained a level of consistent excellence previously unimagined.

Ask that same fan his favorite and he might choose Hudspeth’s first. Picked 120th in the preseason out of 120 college teams, the 2011 Cajuns topped an exhilarating regular season with a miracle New Orleans Bowl win over San Diego State. Or maybe the 2012 edition and the emergence of Terrance Broadway. Only two Tuesday losses and a blocked punt with two seconds left at Florida marred the season. Surely, the 2013 Cajuns, probably the best Hudspeth team and therefore the best in school history, would be the favorite of many fans. They were riding an eight-game winning streak when Broadway broke his arm. After losing the last two regular season games, the Cajuns recovered for a dramatic win over Tulane in the Superdome.

That leaves last year, and despite its considerable accomplishments, the 2014 UL squad would probably finish fourth in a popularity contest of Hudspeth’s teams. One word explains the lack of love: expectations. In addition to designating UL an overwhelming preseason lock in the Sun Belt, many observers saw the Cajuns surprising Ole Miss or Boise State and winning 10, even 11 games. Instead what they witnessed was a dispirited 1-3 start, a listless loss on Senior Day with a Sun Belt title still possible and a morning kickoff to a win over a boring Nevada team in New Orleans.

Wide receiver Jamal Robinson
Photo by Brad Kemp/UL
Quite often those who tried to explain away their poor predictions blamed “senioritis,” a malady similar to burnout afflicting college athletes who are in sight of the end of their demanding 10-to-15- year amateur careers. Then again it’s not like last year’s Cajuns didn’t have other things on their minds. During the 2014 fall semester (while going 9-4), the team posted the highest semester grade point average (2.93) in school history. Sixty-five student athletes earned a 3.0 GPA, six made a perfect 4.0 GPA and eleven graduated. Let’s not forget what college is all about.

High expectations shouldn’t be a problem for the 2015 UL football team. Prognosticators slot them anywhere from 2nd to 5th in the Sun Belt. Replacements must be found for QB Broadway, UL’s No. 2 all-time passer, and RB Alonzo Harris, third leading rusher in Cajun history. Junior Brooks Haack best offers what UL needs most at quarterback: an efficient, accurate passer. Last year the Cajuns finished 10th in the Sun Belt in passing offense, above only Georgia Southern who barely tried to throw at all. Haack’s two years in the program, game experience and exceptional accuracy give him the edge. But he can’t run.

Leave that to Elijah McGuire, the 2014 Sun Belt Player of the Year. McGuire led the Cajuns in rushing and over the past two years averaged 7.9 yards a carry, the best in the country for backs with over 100 carries. He also averaged over 10 yards a reception, which is important since he was the Cajuns’ leading receiver. As good as he is, McGuire would not have led in catches if WR Jamal Robinson had not been lost for the 2014 season after four games. The full recovery of the 6’4” Robinson is essential since currently the other receivers offer more in potential than past production.

Up front the Cajuns will be solid and reliable as usual. In each of the past three seasons all five starters have started all 13 games. This year another Quave shall lead them. He’s Mykhael, who will take over for his All-Sun Belt brother Daniel. If Mykhael has an opportunity to start 13 games, he will tie his brother’s school record for consecutive starts at 52.

There are also holes to fill on defense, big ones. Gone are defensive tackles Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton, both first team All-Sun Belt selections. Also missing will be three starters at linebacker and both cornerbacks. Statistically last year’s defense was symmetrical, in a way: first in the Sun Belt in rushing defense, and last in passing defense and right in the middle (6th) in total defense.

Enter new defensive coordinator Melvin Smith, a veteran SEC assistant coach who specializes in defensive backs and coached nine years under the legendary Joe Lee Dunn. On UL’s Media Day Smith repeated several times his preference to play man coverage, instead of the zone UL employed last year. He also said his defense would be “fast, simple, smart and physical” and he would put “11 on the line” if necessary to stop the run. He compared 6’3” Simeon Thomas to Jonathan Banks, the 2012 Jim Thorpe Award winner (nation’s best DB) he coached at Mississippi State and noted his two sophomore safeties Tracy Walker and Travis Crawford “have great futures.” Smith mentioned two other DBs without prompting, speedster Jeryl Brazil and JUCO transfer Savion Brown. Smith agrees with most observers: The Cajuns have some talented defensive backs.

What does all this mean? Dunn developed the 3-3-5 defense that lead the nation while he and Smith were at Miss State. According to Chris Brown in The Essential Smart Football, Dunn’s defense “emphasized movement, disguise, aggressiveness and extreme focus on speed… [In] almost every game a player blitzed at least once — and typically much more often. Dunn didn’t hesitate to put defenses in press [man] coverage, and he’d sometimes overload one side with seven or eight defenders.”

During Media Day Smith said, “I coached a No. 1 defense so I know what it looks like.” Wouldn’t Cajuns fans love to see one themselves?

Tigers: Back to Double Digits?

On paper LSU’s offense will be better than last year. Is it enough to secure 10 wins and success in a major bowl game?

Linebacker Louis Lamar
Photo by Steve Franz/LSU Sports Information
After 10 years in Baton Rouge and 132 games as LSU’s head coach, Les Miles has name recognition that rivals his good buddy Bobby Jindal’s. Following a Tiger loss, their disapproval ratings are similar as well. Both profess love for all things Louisiana with the zeal of newcomers, notable in a state where more than 80 percent are native born. Both owe their current high offices to disasters occurring in 2005: For Jindal, Katrina and Rita; for Miles, the departure of Nick Saban. Finally, and this is where auditoriums and Tiger Stadium begin to empty, the governor and the coach exhibit similar steadfast loyalties to rigid, conservative philosophies. Jindal never wavers from “no taxes, less government” while Miles insists on “no passes, more running.” Jindal’s second term ends the morning of the 2016 National Championship game, but his administration’s box score will be analyzed long after his governor-playing days are over.

Les Miles is not term-limited. He serves until a popular uprising demands a new leader. Critics of LSU’s smash-mouth, run-centric offense could be change-agents, especially if the Tigers don’t return to double-digit wins in 2015. Uncertainty over a quarterback competition complicates preseason predictions that bunch in the upper range between 7-5 and 10-2. Maybe a comparison to LSU’s last team with a QB controversy would enlighten prognosticators.

To be honest, the 2011 quarterback controversy remains unresolved in many diehards’ minds to this day. Let it rest and note that Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson combined for 2,135 yards on a 62 percent completion percentage with 20 TDs and seven interceptions. Last season Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris completed exactly 50 percent of their pass attempts for 2,118 yards, 17 TDs and nine picks. But wait, 842 yards were completed in non-conference play. It gets worse. Not counting Mississippi State, over the last seven conference games the Tigers averaged 112 passing yards a game, culminating in 8/26 for 76 yards against Alabama, a game lost in overtime. Rest assured the LSU QBs will be better in 2015. It’s statistically inevitable.

The strength of the offense is 6’1” 230-pound running back Leonard Fournette, LSU’s first legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate since Tyrann Mathieu, the Tigers’ brightest star in 2011. After a gradual introduction to college play, including a premature Heisman pose against Sam Houston State, Fournette averaged 144 yards over his last two games, not including a 100-yard kickoff return. He’s backed by three big, highly recruited backs and his little brother, freshman Lanard. All will benefit from an offensive line that returns three starters. The wide receivers, physically impressive and covered with recruiting stars, include Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre and freshman Tyron Jackson. But since only Dural caught more than 17 passes in 2014, further accolades are on hold at least until the QBs warm to room temperature.

In 2011 LSU ran on 68 percent of its snaps, in 2014 on 69. Factor in an 8-10 percent increase in pass completions for two returning QBs and the running skills of a potential All-American and, surprisingly, the 2015 offense looks to be more potent than the last Tiger team that finished the regular season undefeated. Starters return for all special team positions from punter to kicker to long snapper. No problems there. Defense will determine the Tigers success in 2015, as it should at LSU.

The 2011 Tigers were +20 on turnovers, and in 2014 they were +3. LSU was outgained five times in 2014 and lost each game. Five opponents gained more yards than LSU in 2011, but the Tigers won four thanks to key turnovers. Results like these explain why Miles is likely to consider the extenuating circumstances surrounding a bar fight more favorably than those involving a fumble by a Tiger running back.

The number of quarterback sacks is where the 2011 and 2014 defenses differed most. Last year the Tigers registered 19 sacks, the lowest total in the Miles era. Seven of them came against Sam Houston State. In 2011 LSU sacked opposing QBs 39 times. The defensive ends accounted for 20 sacks alone. In 2014 two defensive ends accounted for all of the position’s 5.5 sacks. Both are gone. So is defensive coordinator John Chavis, a coveted coach, but whose inability to hold leads and get his defenses off the field after third down goes all the way back to his days at Tennessee where the cries of “Third and Chavis!” were first heard. Bet on a more aggressive pass rush under the new leadership of coordinator Kevin Steele and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. With one of the best defensive backfields in the country, a high pressure rush package seems an obvious call. Three potential All-Americans, Tre’Davious White, Jalen Mills and Jamal Adams lead an experienced DB unit that is the strength of the team.

A rare opportunity to criticize Miles for a recruiting failure, other than quarterbacks, lies behind the problems LSU faces at linebacker. In the past three years LSU has signed five linebackers, including none in this year’s freshman class. Two have left the team, leaving seven scholarship players covering three, maybe four positions if Steele utilizes a 3-4 defense. As good as Kendell Beckwith is in the middle, and he may the best in the SEC, and as reliable as Lamar Louis has been as a starter, everyone else has played primarily on special teams. Any injury to any linebacker could lead to more nickel or dime coverages and a defense extremely vulnerable to the run.

And injuries are inevitable. A team’s record in the SEC depends on depth, the difference between the effectiveness of a starter and his replacement. Factor in the mental and physical maturation progress of teenagers over a 90-day season and whether everyone, coaches included, can keep it together in front of 100,000 screaming partisans. Then double the weekly dose to account for each opponent’s own variables and you have a college football season. It’s a great way to spend autumn in Louisiana. Too bad Les’s friend Bobby will miss it.

Firing four starters is not unreasonable for a defense that fell from 4th in the league to 31st. In fact, many Who Dats wondered why defensive coordinator Rob Ryan wasn’t the fifth casualty. Probably because the Saints were just as bad on defense the year before he arrived (2012) as they were last year.

Expect Stephone Anthony, drafted in the first round with the pick obtained from Seattle for Jimmy Graham, and second round pick Hau’oil Kikaha to eventually replace Lofton and Galette. The Saints cashed in the third round selection they received from Miami for WR Kenny Stills on cornerback P.J. Williams and the fifth round pick received from Kansas City for OG Ben Grubbs on DT Tyeler Davison. If you are keeping track, so far that’s three offensive veterans traded for three defensive draftees. The Saints also signed 6’4” 224-pound cornerback Brandon Browner fresh off a Super Bowl win with the Patriots to fill the longtime vacancy opposite CB Keenan Lewis. The Saints added two other veteran free agents: DT Kevin Williams who played in 16 games and the Super Bowl for Seattle last season, and DE Anthony Spencer, a former first round pick from Dallas. LB Dannell Ellerbe, a Super Bowl winner with the Ravens, was the other player obtained in the Stills trade. With one or two exceptions, anyone listed above could start. Many Who Dats would say, “Start ’em all.”

Fans concerned about Drew Brees’ physical wellbeing should be encouraged by the changes coming to the offense. Former Pro Bowl center Max Unger was the other half of the Graham trade with Seattle. Unger will plug what was often a leaky middle in the offensive line last year. (Final count on Graham/Stills/Grubbs trades: three offensive starters lost vs. one offensive starter, one defensive starter, and three defensive rookies gained). RB C.J. Spiller, another former first round pick, was signed as a free agent to replace Pierre Thomas. Here’s hoping he can catch a screen pass half as well as Thomas. The departure of Graham and Stills, the Saints two leading receivers in 2014, coupled with the re-signing of RB Mark Ingram, the signing of Spiller and the trade for Unger indicate a greater emphasis on the ground game. Last year the Saints threw 62 percent of the time. Any increase in even the threat of a New Orleans running attack will take some pressure off Brees, by reducing the pass rush and the frequency of passing down situations.

The best thing the Saints have in their favor in 2015 is the NFC South, by far the worst division in the NFL. An 8-8 record would have won the title outright last year. Carolina finished 7-8-1, New Orleans 7-9, and Atlanta 6-10. One odds maker has all three at 22-1 to win the NFC in 2015, and all three at 40-1 to win the Super Bowl. Since the same book has each of their over/ under for wins at 8/8.5 it’s very possible a .500 record means a Division title. Talk about deflating.

Trigger Warning (the following information might cause unhealthy levels of distress): A 1-4 record over the Saints’ last five HOME GAMES would have won the NFC South Division title. The Saints went winless. The last home win was Oct. 26, 2014. New Orleans’ home opener is Sept. 20 against Tampa Bay. The Who Dat Nation waits anxiously.

Saints: Fine, Whine

Grousing about lost players and Drew Brees’s advancing age won’t help the Saints in 2015.

Rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony
Photo by Michael C. Hebert/Saints
Watching a vigorous person you love and admire become limited by age is painful. Over time the increasing physical inability to do what once seemed effortless happens to everyone. Observing that decline in someone dear can dominate our thoughts. We think of the past and future opportunities lost. These feelings help explain the anxious mood of the Who Dat Nation as it counts down the seasons remaining for Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Of course there are other feelings to consider as well. The ones about New Orleans fielding the second-worst defense in the NFL and losing twice last year to the team with the worst, the Atlanta Falcons.

Truth be told, Brees is holding up rather nicely. Granted he’s 36 and entering his 16th NFL season, but in 2014 Brees started all 16 games for the fifth consecutive year. Statistically, Brees remains an elite quarterback. Last season he led the league in pass attempts, pass completions, tied for the lead in passing yardage, was second in completion percentage, and sixth in passer rating. Only Brees and three draft picks from Sean Payton’s first team in 2006 are still Saints: Jahri Evans (4th round), Zach Strief (7th), and Marques Colston (7th). Count on Drew to be the last one to leave the Dome.

On defense the senior member is Cameron Jordan, the first-round pick in 2011. And the defense is about to get even younger. Gone are leading tackler LB Curtis Lofton, DT Brodrick Bunkley (11 starts), cornerbacks Corey White and Patrick Robinson (15 starts combined), and the defense’s best player Junior Galette. Firing four starters is not unreasonable for a defense that fell from 4th in the league to 31st. In fact, many Who Dats wondered why defensive coordinator Rob Ryan wasn’t the fifth casualty. Probably because the Saints were just as bad on defense the year before he arrived (2012) as they were last year.

Expect Stephone Anthony, drafted in the first round with the pick obtained from Seattle for Jimmy Graham, and second round pick Hau’oil Kikaha to eventually replace Lofton and Galette. The Saints cashed in the third round selection they received from Miami for WR Kenny Stills on cornerback P.J. Williams and the fifth round pick received from Kansas City for OG Ben Grubbs on DT Tyeler Davison. If you are keeping track, so far that’s three offensive veterans traded for three defensive draftees. The Saints also signed 6’4” 224-pound cornerback Brandon Browner fresh off a Super Bowl win with the Patriots to fill the longtime vacancy opposite CB Keenan Lewis. The Saints added two other veteran free agents: DT Kevin Williams who played in 16 games and the Super Bowl for Seattle last season, and DE Anthony Spencer, a former first round pick from Dallas. LB Dannell Ellerbe, a Super Bowl winner with the Ravens, was the other player obtained in the Stills trade. With one or two exceptions, anyone listed above could start. Many Who Dats would say, “Start ’em all.”

Fans concerned about Drew Brees’ physical wellbeing should be encouraged by the changes coming to the offense. Former Pro Bowl center Max Unger was the other half of the Graham trade with Seattle. Unger will plug what was often a leaky middle in the offensive line last year. (Final count on Graham/Stills/Grubbs trades: three offensive starters lost vs. one offensive starter, one defensive starter, and three defensive rookies gained). RB C.J. Spiller, another former first round pick, was signed as a free agent to replace Pierre Thomas. Here’s hoping he can catch a screen pass half as well as Thomas. The departure of Graham and Stills, the Saints two leading receivers in 2014, coupled with the re-signing of RB Mark Ingram, the signing of Spiller and the trade for Unger indicate a greater emphasis on the ground game. Last year the Saints threw 62 percent of the time. Any increase in even the threat of a New Orleans running attack will take some pressure off Brees, by reducing the pass rush and the frequency of passing down situations.

The best thing the Saints have in their favor in 2015 is the NFC South, by far the worst division in the NFL. An 8-8 record would have won the title outright last year. Carolina finished 7-8-1, New Orleans 7-9, and Atlanta 6-10. One odds maker has all three at 22-1 to win the NFC in 2015, and all three at 40-1 to win the Super Bowl. Since the same book has each of their over/under for wins at 8/8.5 it’s very possible a .500 record means a Division title. Talk about deflating.

Trigger Warning (the following information might cause unhealthy levels of distress): A 1-4 record over the Saints’ last five HOME GAMES would have won the NFC South Division title. The Saints went winless. The last home win was Oct. 26, 2014. New Orleans’ home opener is Sept. 20 against Tampa Bay. The Who Dat Nation waits anxiously.



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