Last August, amid preseason practice, four LSU football players got in a bar fight. The Tigers' starting quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, was later arrested and suspended indefinitely. It was reasonable to assume the "distraction" would derail the preseason top five team's season. Instead, Jarrett Lee stepped in for Jefferson, LSU routed third-ranked Oregon in its season opener and the Tigers won 13 consecutive games.
One year later, off-field drama has again engulfed Les Miles' team. Only this time the center of attention is not a much-maligned, low-efficiency quarterback. Tyrann Mathieu, a.k.a. the Honey Badger, was a returning Heisman finalist, turnover-forcing machine and game-changing punt returner. And this time there's no possibility that the player will return in a month, like Jefferson did. Miles announced Friday that Mathieu is gone from LSU for good after violating team policy.
Coming off a 13-1 season, the Tigers garnered the No. 1 ranking in last week's preseason Coaches' Poll. Now, they face questions over whether they can overcome the dismissal of their star player and head back to the BCS National Championship Game. The short answer is, yes. The longer answer is that doing so will require some previously unheralded players to make an impact sooner than expected. And not just the backup cornerback.
LSU in recent years has produced an unparalleled assembly line of elite defensive backs. In 2010 it had to replace third-round safety Chad Jones. Last year it had to move on from Patrick Peterson, a first team All-America at cornerback and a top-five draft pick. The Tigers didn't miss a beat. One 2011 starting corner, Morris Claiborne, won the Thorpe Award and went No. 6 overall in last spring's draft. The other, Mathieu, was a consensus All-America. When Mathieu and backup Tharold Simon were suspended for last year's Auburn game, LSU simply called on senior backup Ron Brooks, a fourth-round pick this spring.
This year, there are no such experienced options behind Mathieu. Simon, a junior, replaces Claiborne at one corner. The other starter will now likely be a redshirt freshman, Jalen Collins. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Collins is yet another freakish LSU athlete, and he won the team's "Most Improved" award during spring practice. Still, it's unrealistic to expect a first-year player to excel at cornerback, a position where freshman mistakes tend to be magnified.
But with veterans at every other secondary spot, including potential All-America safety Eric Reid, and an absolutely stacked defensive line to pressure quarterbacks, pass coverage may actually be the least of LSU's concerns. Mathieu, after all, was not considered an elite cover corner. But he changed the game on defense and special teams, and LSU must find a way to replace the energy and big plays that defined the Honey Badger.
In just 26 career games, Mathieu notched a school-record 11 forced fumbles, recovered eight fumbles and intercepted four passes. Last year he delivered a seamless strip and touchdown return against Oregon and a backbreaking interception return to the one-yard line against West Virginia. And then there were the punt returns: On consecutive weeks against Arkansas and then Georgia in the SEC championship game, when LSU's offense stalled out of the gate, Mathieu took a punt return to the house, causing the floodgates to open.
Miles announced Friday that sophomore receiver Odell Beckham Jr. will take over Mathieu's return role. Maybe he will suffice. But in the wake of Mathieu's exit, the biggest onus may not be on the corners or returners, but on the Tigers' offense.
LSU was able to reach the national title game last season with such an anemic offense (86th nationally) in part because Mathieu provided so much offense of his own, scoring four touchdowns and creating the short field that led to many others. That security blanket is gone. The word all offseason has been that new quarterback Zach Mettenberger has the strong arm and pocket poise Miles' teams have lacked for four years. The coaches say they'll finally be able to stretch the field and generate more explosive passing plays because of it.
They better be right.
LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis can do any number of things to mask Mathieu's absence. Beckham Jr. can return a touchdown or two. But there's simply no replacing the rare and intangible impact Mathieu had on games. The Tigers don't need to reinvent themselves, but they do need to find new ways to swing momentum and break open games.
The SEC is too competitive to think LSU can repeat solely with stifling run defense and a powerful run game. Those strengths will allow LSU to overwhelm inferior foes, but against comparable competitors like Alabama, Arkansas and South Carolina, Les Miles' team will still need to do something to create separation.
This season, that something may be delivering big plays on offense. Doing so could be the difference between being No. 1 in the country or No. 4 in the SEC West.