Editor's note: The spectacle that is SEC media days ended two weeks ago. But with the newly-expanded four-day media event over, we're at a bit of a loss. Fall camp isn't here just yet; the regular season is even further away, with the 2014 campaign kicking off at the end of August. So what better time to roll out the preseason power rankings among teams in the SEC?
With that in mind, we'll count down the teams from worst to first. The format will involve a "best-case/worst-case" scenario for each team, taking our a page out of former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter's playbook from 2010. (One final note: Please, as Bitter said four years ago, remember all scenarios "are meant to be hyperbolic.")
No. 5: LSU
No team is more used to losing players early than LSU. After the 2013 season, the Tigers had 10 depart, and that was if one didn't count Tyrann Mathieu. After last season, seven more Tigers decided to end their college careers prematurely in search of the NFL's riches. Time and again, these personnel losses haven't hurt the Tigers, as they've won 10 or more games each of the past four seasons.
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This year, though, reaching that plateau might be a tough ask even for this program. Offensively, the Tigers still don't know who their quarterback will be, in addition to losing lead back Jeremy Hill. What's more, LSU lost its top two pass-catchers from last year in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. The defense should be fine, as per usual, under John Chavis' guidance.
Will the defense be able to keep things together long enough for the offense to find a rhythm, though?
Best-case scenario: The streak of 10-plus win seasons keeps chugging along. Miles raved about Brandon Harris at media days, and for good reason. The true freshman has talent to burn and it takes just a few practices into fall camp to seal his ownership of the starting quarterback spot. That helps immensely when LSU kicks off against Wisconsin at NRG Stadium in Houston on Aug. 30. Harris establishes an instantaneous synergy with fellow true freshmen Leonard Fournette (a running back) and Malachi Dupre; the Badgers have nothing to compare to the stunning trio, and the Tigers race to a 41-17 victory.
The trio continues to mesmerize the masses as they win their next four games, setting the stage for their first true test: on the road versus fellow 5-0 squad Auburn. LSU puts up a good fight, and even has a lead midway through the third quarter. Then the defending SEC champions put hammer down and pull away for a 45-30 win. LSU goes on to beat Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss before running into another stumbling block: Alabama. For the first time this season, LSU's phenomenal freshmen trio looks like, well, a bunch of freshmen. The Crimson Tide silences the Tiger Stadium crowd in a 28-17 slobberknocker.
But that loss energizes LSU for the remainder of the season. The Tigers blast Arkansas and Texas A&M to get to 10 wins for the fifth straight year. But they're not through. At 10-2, and with their only two losses coming to a pair of top-five teams, the Tigers clinch a spot for themselves in one of the "non-playoff" New Year's Day bowls. The Tigers are heading back Texas for the third time this season, when the selection committee slots them into the Cotton Bowl. There, Miles meets up with an old nemesis from his Big 12 days: the Baylor Bears.
It's an action-packed, back-and-forth tussle. What tips the game in the Tigers' favor is simple: While they may not operate their offense at the breakneck pace of the Bears, their players are every bit as quick. And after going through the rigors of the SEC, they are far more battle-tested. LSU takes a 34-28 victory, with Miles hoping to celebrate with a bite of grass. Alas, AT&T Stadium uses artificial turf, so it's a dream that will have to be deferred for Miles.
All in all, 11 wins and a major bowl victory qualify as a massive success. The trio of Harris, Fournette and Dupre give the Tigers offensive star power few teams in the SEC — or anywhere else, for that matter — can match . After the Tigers reel in another well-regarded recruiting class, the attention turns to 2015, when they're on the shortlist of favorites to reach the four-team playoff. Worst-case scenario: The streak of 10-plus win seasons ends at four. Neither Jennings nor Harris plays well enough to solidify their hold on the position, leading to uncertainty from week to week. In the season opener versus Wisconsin, Harris starts but struggles in the first half. When the Tigers come back out after halftime, Jennings is at the controls. Not that it matters to Wisconsin. No, they don't score much on LSU's defense — two touchdowns and a field goal — but it's enough to leave Houston with a 17-10 victory. In the next two weeks, the Tigers could play without a quarterback and still beat Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe. (Miles probably being the only coach in college football who's ever given this idea a second thought; alas, he decides against it.)
Dak Prescott shows the Tigers what a top-flight SEC quarterback looks like in Game 4, as the Bulldogs depart Tiger Stadium with a 34-20 win. And the rest of the regular season unfolds without any surprises. LSU loses to the equally talented/slightly superior teams (Auburn, Ole Miss and Alabama) and beats the teams it has no business losing to this fall (Florida, Kentucky and Arkansas). That is, until the season finale. Heading on the road to College Station, Texas, the Tigers square off against a team that was in a similar quarterback quandary at the beginning of the season. Like the Tigers, the Aggies had two inexperienced signal-callers fighting for the job. Unlike the Tigers, the Aggies had a clear-cut starter emerge immediately: true freshman Kyle Allen. It's a startling juxtaposition; Texas A&M's offense runs like a well-oiled machine. LSU's, on the other hand, looks like a machine that lost a cylinder. With flawless execution, the Aggies dismiss the Tigers 48-17.
At 7-5, it's the fewest wins for LSU in a regular season since 2008. That year, the Tigers went on to beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in a dominating 38-3 performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to end on a positive note. That's not the case in 2014. Traveling to Memphis, Tenn., for the Liberty Bowl is not what the players, coaches or fan base had anticipated. Texas Christian is a live opponent, sure. But not an exciting one for an LSU team frustrated about how its season turned out. The Horned Frogs' play is inspired — basically, the total opposite of the Tigers. TCU takes the victory 28-14, which hands Miles the worst season he's ever had in Baton Rouge at 7-6. The last time he won only seven games in a season was in 2004 at Oklahoma State, and the only time he's won less than that was his first season as a head coach, when he went 4-7 with the Cowboys.
As dismal as this season is, there's certainly hope for the future. Fournette and Dupre have already established themselves as stars and the Tigers bring in another top-10 recruiting class. Things should be better in 2015. Even so, it's not easy for LSU to watch the two teams it measures itself against in the SEC West — Alabama and Auburn — take part in the initial College Football Playoff.