We are back from a small break with another stat dive article. This time, we will be looking at the 25th ranked LSU Tigers, who are hoping to play spoiler to Tennessee’s undefeated start. The Volunteers head to Death Valley for this game, which kicks off at noon (EST) this Saturday.
LSU was a big mystery heading into this season. The falling out of Cajun legend Ed Orgeron, combined with the shock hiring of distinctly not Cajun legend Brian Kelly, had many people questioning what was going on in Baton Rouge. The Tigers aren’t blowing past expectations, but they are proving themselves to be another decent SEC team that you can’t overlook.
We’ll try to paint a good picture of what they excel at and what they struggle with. This stat dive will be a bit longer than past iterations, since we finally have Football Outsiders Line Stats to analyze. I also went a bit long because, frankly, I think it’s hard to make heads or tails of this LSU team. I’ve given it my best attempt.
You’ll notice something about these numbers: The ratings systems love LSU. The Tigers resume to this point is decent—they are 4-1 overall, with their main wins being against Mississippi State and Auburn, and with the one loss being a decent FSU team. That would seem to suggest a good, but not great team. So why is LSU a top 10 squad in multiple systems? Let’s dig in.
FEI (Fremeau Efficiency Index)
Overall: 12th (Last Week: 14th)
Offense: 5th (Last Week: 6th)
Defense: 50th (Last Week: 36th)
Keep in mind is that these numbers from last week were not including the Florida game. We took a break from this series because of the bye week. With that game included, some expected movement. Tennessee’s offense continues to climb into the elite category (if it isn’t already). Meanwhile, the defense is getting punished quite heavily. But at least the special teams has benefited!
We’ll start with the defense, since I think the numbers and the eyeball test align pretty well. The Tigers have a ton of talent on this side of the ball, especially in the front seven. Even with some injuries to key contributors like defensive tackle Maason Smith, LSU remains a stingy defensive unit, headlined by defensive end BJ Ojulari and linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. They’ve largely been able to shut down opposing run games. In each of LSU‘s three P5 contests, they have held the opposing team to under 3.5 yards per carry.
Through the air has been a different story. The Tigers’ weakest part of the defense is their secondary, which has limited depth. They were dealt a pretty big blow a couple weeks ago when starting safety Major Burns had to be sidelined with a neck injury.
While their pass defense had a very solid showing against Mississippi State and Mike Leach’s air raid system, they were oddly susceptible to explosive plays against Auburn and FSU. Last week against Auburn in particular, LSU was getting gashed by the backup quarterback Robby Ashford. He hit passes for 61 yards, 53 yards, 35 yards, 31 yards, 27 yards, and 25 yards. LSU did clean it up in the second half and held them scoreless—but there’s some signs that it wasn’t just an anomaly. Tennessee could have a field day passing the ball if LSU doesn’t get it straightened out.
FPI (Football Power Index)
Overall: 10th (Last Week: 8th)
Offensive Efficiency: 8th (Last Week: 13th)
Defensive Efficiency: 48th (Last Week: 20th)
Special Teams Efficiency: 47th (Last Week: 84th)
Offensive Efficiency: 27th
Defensive Efficiency: 10th
Special Teams Efficiency: 102nd
LSU’s offense is where I have a hard time agreeing with the rating systems.
To date, I would say LSU has put together exactly one complete performance. That would be the Mississippi State game, were they scored 31 total points—including a 21 point 4th quarter. Starting quarterback Jayden Daniels had to leave last week‘s contest, but he is expected back for the Tennessee game.
Daniels is interesting. He is pretty conservative as a quarterback. In the games against Mississippi State and FSU, he averaged 5.6 and 6.1 yards per attempt, respectively. You might think that’s very pedestrian. But he still threw the ball 71 times in total, and combined for over 400 yards. Perhaps more importantly, he has thrown zero interceptions. So while I think he is somewhat holding back the offense (which has a ton of talent at wide receiver), he’s also not putting them in bad positions. I don’t love this matchup for Tennessee’s defense, because they could easily get nickel-and-dimed down the field with the way they play in the secondary.
LSU‘s run game has been decent, but again I don’t think it’s an elite unit. The leading rusher isn’t a running back—it’s Daniels. He’s mobile and has burned almost every opponent this season. I wouldn’t put him in the category of elusive runners, however. He’s nothing special when he decides to run the ball. He’s not overly quick or fast or powerful. But he’s very smart and knows where he can pick up yards. If you’re a Tennessee fan and you’re wincing as you read this, you have reason to. Daniels seems almost tailor made to exploit the issues on the defensive side of the ball.
Football Outsiders Line Stats
They’re finally here! In case you need a reminder of what some of these stand for, here’s the link to the Football Outsiders page. I will mention that these numbers aren’t opponent adjusted. So Tennessee’s easier games against Akron and Ball State probably help it out in some regards. The same could be said for LSU‘s games against New Mexico and Southern University.
Programming note: I have shaded green any rankings which are in the top third of all teams rated. I have shaded red any rankings that are in the bottom third. The middle third have no color with them.
There’s some encouraging signs here for the offensive line, even with their slow start. The first is that the sack rate is improving from last season. The Volunteers were ranked in the 120s by the end of 2021. They have now improved to right inside the top 90. Which isn’t really anything to write home about, but it is noticeable and appreciated (probably by Hendon Hooker).
Secondly, the power success rate and stuff rates are much better than I would have anticipated. Essentially, when Tennessee needs to convert in a short yardage situation, they can do that. I imagine some of this is bolstered by Hooker’s running ability as well.
The defensive line numbers also align pretty well with what we’ve seen. The Volunteers have an actually imposing front seven that can completely clog up even a good running offense (see: Florida). But the pass rush has been underwhelming. For the record, some numbers I’ve seen suggest that Tennessee is getting pressure on quarterbacks. But they just aren’t converting that pressure into sacks right now.
Tennessee’s defensive line strength going up against LSU’s strength will be fun to watch. Considering the Tigers already struggle a bit in power success rate, Tennessee might have the advantage heading into the contest. We will also see what happens when a stoppable force (Tennessee’s pass rush) meets a movable object (LSU’s pass blocking). If I’m Tennessee, I might wait to blitz, and see if my line can do the job on its own.
LSU’s defensive line is its usual strong self. The passing down sack rate is worrisome, and the Tigers will be looking to rattle Hooker whenever they can.
SP+: Tennessee, 54% — Projected Score (31-29, Tennessee)
FPI: LSU, 58.3%
FEI: LSU, 54% — Projected Score (34.6-33.2, LSU)