Tennessee football: Getting to know LSU from a Tigers expert

Head Coach Brian Kelly and BJ Ojulari lead the Tigers onto the field as LSU Tigers take on Mississippi State at Tiger Stadium. Sept. 17, 2022. Mandatory Credit: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY NETWORK. Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.Lsu Vs Miss State Football V5 0386
Head Coach Brian Kelly and BJ Ojulari lead the Tigers onto the field as LSU Tigers take on Mississippi State at Tiger Stadium. Sept. 17, 2022. Mandatory Credit: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY NETWORK. Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.Lsu Vs Miss State Football V5 0386 /

This week, we caught up with site expert Gabe Henderson, site expert of the FanSided website Death Valley Voice, which covers the Tigers, to discuss Tennessee football’s opponent this week. Here’s our conversation about LSU and what Tennessee football will be facing..

1. It feels weird seeing a top 10 team, in this case Tennessee football, play LSU in Death Valley at noon, or 11 a.m. Baton Rouge time. What type of impact will that have on the fan involvement in the game, and will it create any lethargy among the players, particularly after such a tough win last week at Auburn?

GH: As far as the impact an early kickoff has on the fans, it’s going to be minimal. All it means is that fans have less time to drink, which they’ll more than make up for on Saturday morning, especially with Tiger Stadium starting beer sales at 9 a.m. Fans aren’t happy—nor should they be—because this is the best SEC game being played this weekend. Death Valley is known for its atmosphere on Saturday nights, it feels criminal to kick this game off before noon. I don’t think it’ll change the atmosphere much though, Georgia found out in 2018 (a 36-16 loss for the Bulldogs) just how brutal LSU can be during the day, as well.

Similarly, I don’t think it’ll have as much of an impact on the players. If Ed Orgeron was still coaching the Bayou Bengals, I’d predict some sluggish and undisciplined individual performances. As we know though, that’s no longer the case. Brian Kelly simply won’t allow any of that behavior, he’ll have the Tigers at their absolute best for this matchup. This team has grit, as Kelly noted last week, it’ll be ready for anything Tennessee throws at it on Saturday morning.

2. They don’t play often, but Tennessee football and LSU have had some legendary games, from the 1959 stop of Billy Cannon to the 2001 and 2007 SEC Championship games to the 2005 comeback post-Hurricane Rita to the 2010 13-men on the field. Which game with Tennessee football stands out the most to LSU fans and why?

GH: While the 2017 game had nowhere near the stakes that many of the aforementioned contests did, that was also memorable for the torrential downpour in Knoxville. I don’t know why, but that game sticks out to me solely for that reason. For most LSU fans though, it’s the 2010 victory that stands out because of the sheer absurdity of the ending. The Tigers have had their fair share of wild endings, the 16-14 win in 2010 might just take the cake though. It also came in the midst of the Bayou Bengals’ dominance and Tennessee is a rare foe. All of those things combined to make it a memorable moment.

3. LSU has always seemed like the easiest job in America given the talent in Louisiana, which explains how Ed Orgeron and Les Miles could win there. Given that, do fans see a potential dynasty brewing now that they finally have a competent coach in Brian Kelly? Furthermore, why wasn’t LSU this elite of a program before Nick Saban got there in 2000 given how incredible the talent is in the state? 

GH: I’ll actually answer the second part first before addressing the current state of the program. Honestly, it had a lot to do with the coaching at LSU and the parity around college football as a whole. As the game has evolved—especially recently with the transfer portal—the door has opened up for many teams to be a lot more competitive. The Tigers didn’t have the coaching (looking at you, Mike Archer and Curley Hallman) and they didn’t have the talent necessary at the time to succeed. It seemed like a rollercoaster ride following LSU before 2000. The Tigers would seemingly go 2-9 and 10-2 every other year, it was an absurd period of being consistently inconsistent.

However, as we’ve seen over the last two decades, LSU has the resources necessary to succeed in the upper echelons of the sport. Some of the coaching decisions haven’t been the best, especially as it relates to assistants, but I really do believe the university hit a home run with Brian Kelly. Kelly preaches accountability, consistency and discipline—all three of which this program desperately needed. If Kelly can recruit the state of Louisiana and coach as well as he did at Notre Dame the sky’s the limit for LSU.

4. The numbers suggest Jayden Daniels is very good. He’s leading the team in rushing and passing, completes 67 percent of his passes and has no interceptions. However, there seems to be a lot of criticism of him right now. What’s the main problem? 

GH: The main problems are the offensive play calling and the issues on the line. LSU has used four different offensive line combinations in five games, which is never ideal, especially not with two true freshmen in the trenches. Further, Mike Denbrock hasn’t been the best Offensive Coordinator thus far. He needs to do a better job at calling plays that sets the Tigers up to succeed. As it relates to Jayden Daniels, it doesn’t seem like he trusts himself right now. He’s trying too hard to not throw interceptions and he’s not taking risks.

LSU has one of the most talented receiver rooms in the entire country. Yet, they’re not getting the opportunity to succeed. Daniels and Denbrock need to work on finding receivers in the middle of the field as they can do damage in open space. Far too often passes are being thrown over to the sideline for minimal gains or incompletions. The talent is there, the Tigers just haven’t found out how to get the best out of everyone yet. Unfortunately, they’re beginning to run out of time.

5. Outside of Daniels and B.J. Ojulari, who are some LSU stars we should keep an eye on when they face Tennessee football Saturday? 

GH: I’ll talk briefly about a few. On offense, Malik Nabers and Josh Williams. Everybody knows—or should at this point—about Kayshon Boutte’s talent if he can get involved. Nabers has emerged as a top target for Daniels, especially on third downs. He’s a name to keep an eye on in the passing game. Williams is one to watch on the ground though. The former walk-on was given the start against Auburn with Armoni Goodwin out with a torn hamstring and he was excellent. LSU is really a three-headed monster right now in the backfield with Williams, Noah Cain and John Emery, it just seems like the coaching staff prefers to have Williams out there on early downs. He runs with a certain ferocity about him. Williams is excellent at reading (and hitting) the holes given to him by the young offensive line and he’s a nightmare to bring down.

On the defensive side of the ball, Harold Perkins is an absolute menace. The true freshman earned a bigger role in the team almost immediately following Maason Smith’s torn ACL versus Florida State. He can line up as a pure pass rusher or in the JACK position on Matt House’s defense (basically a lineman/linebacker hybrid that throws a confusing look at opposing offenses) with BJ Ojulari. They’re a nightmare for even the best quarterbacks in the country because of their speed when rushing the passer and their technical ability. An underrated player on the defense is safety Jay Ward. Ward epitomizes House’s defense as a whole. He flies to the ball and he’s such an intelligent player. Ward’s been with LSU for a few years now, so it’s incredible to see the transition he’s gone through in a short amount of time.

Lastly, watch out for Jack Bech. He hasn’t been involved much as a receiver, but when he’s got the ball in his hands—as a WR or PR—he’s a serious threat. Bech plays without fear and he’s such an instinctual player. Each one of the aforementioned individuals can be difference makers against Tennessee.

6. It seems like LSU plays a lot of tight man-to-man coverage in the secondary but also struggles to defend mobile quarterbacks. Why is that the case? Will that show up when they face Hendon Hooker and Tennessee football Saturday?

GH: I wouldn’t necessarily state that LSU struggles to defend mobile quarterbacks per se. The Tigers were very unprepared for what Auburn had to throw at them with Robby Ashford. House’s defense wasn’t beaten by Ashford’s legs, the safeties just had a tendency to crash when they saw him scramble and that left them susceptible to big plays through the air. House made the necessary adjustments at halftime—most notably bringing in senior linebacker Micah Baskerville to spy the quarterback—and that worked wonders. LSU went on to shut Auburn out for the remainder of the contest.

I believe Kelly and House will have installed the necessary adjustments to prevent that from happening against Hendon Hooker. They know what they’re going to get from the Heisman candidate. Even though it’s significantly easier to talk about stopping him than it actually is to contain him, Bayou Bengals fans have a lot of confidence in their experienced defense. If there is one weakness in the defense though, it’s the secondary. The defensive backs are almost all new to the team. Major Burns (Ward’s safety partner) will also miss the game, so that’ll be a huge miss for LSU.

6. What will be LSU’s biggest advantage on Saturday against Tennessee football? What about their biggest disadvantage? 

GH: LSU’s defense as a whole has kept it in every game this year. I believe that’ll be the biggest advantage that the Bayou Bengals have on Saturday. There have been little miscues here and there, but the growth on that side of the ball has been obvious since Day 1. The Tigers’ biggest disadvantage is the offensive production. LSU wastes A LOT of drives, be it because of poor playcalling or simple individual errors. Daniels and Co. are facing one of the worst pass defenses in the country, they just haven’t shown the ability to exploit opposing defenses through the air at this point in the season. Something has to give and with Tennessee football’s ability to minimize massive gains on the ground. I fear it could be LSU’s passing game that comes out on the losing end of things.

7. What is your prediction for the game?

GH: I genuinely have no idea what to expect with this team the rest of the way. I could see them finishing the season 10-2, but on the flip side, I could also realistically envision a 5-7 finish. The reality is likely somewhere in between. The betting lines have been all over the place before the game so that only adds to the uncertainty. I see a relatively low-scoring affair breaking out in front of a ruckus, sold-out crowd packed into Death Valley. I like the Tigers to shock the nation in this game and improve to 5-1 on the year. I don’t see LSU winning by any more than a touchdown though. Let’s say 26-23 to the hosts.