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Now that LSU's football season is over, let's take a look back at 2015 and see what things we can look forward to in 2016.
(1) THE TEXAS BOWL WAS JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED
Like many people, I kind of yawned when LSU's postseason destination was announced. The Texas Bowl didn't even exist roughly 10 years ago and the Tigers would be playing an unranked team with five losses in Texas Tech. Little did I know it would be the best bowl atmosphere LSU has been in since the 2011 BCS national championship against Alabama. And, obviously, with a much better result.
Many bowl games announce sell-out crowds, only for us to witness seas of empty seats on game day. This was hardly the case in Houston, as all 71,307 tickets were purchased and certainly everyone showed up. It was a spirited and boisterous blend of LSU's purple and gold, with the Red Raiders' red and black. There was a big game atmosphere in the air and eventually, the Tigers totally thrived in it.
After all of the negativity surrounding LSU head coach Les Miles's job status and the tremendous disappointment caused by his team's three-game losing skid in November, the Tigers needed to explode on somebody and end the 2015 season right.
And that's exactly what happened.
Smiles could be found on all of the LSU faces - from the players and coaches to the Tiger faithful in the stands. The 56-27 rout of Texas Tech gives the program a "feel good in the belly" that's certainly been lacking in recent bowl trips, even LSU's ho-hum 21-14 victory over Iowa in The Outback Bowl to complete the 2013 season.
This was a throwback to Miles's earlier years at LSU, say from 2005-2010. In each of those seasons except one, the Tigers pounded their bowl opponent and ended the year on a high mark. And that finally happened again in Houston.
(2) LEONARD FOURNETTE RETURNS TO EXHILARTING FORM
Yeah, Texas Tech is REALLY BAD on defense. The Red Raiders are so bad that head coach Kliff Kingsbury fired three of his defensive assistants at the end of the regular season. There are 128 teams in FBS football and the Red Raiders' defense ranks 125th or so in most major statistical categories.
But man, it was great to see LSU sophomore superstar Leonard Fournette galloping free again.
Fournette pounded the Red Raiders for 212 yards rushing on 29 carries with four touchdowns, while also rumbling 44 yards for another score on a swing pass from Brandon Harris. After being left off the Heisman finalist list and not getting invited to New York City, Fournette clearly put himself back into the national spotlight entering 2016.
Now, LSU must utilize him correctly.
Look no further than one Tigers' offensive possession vs Texas Tech in the third quarter. On 3rd down and 8 at the LSU 27-yard line, Harris hit John Diarse (who since I started writing this has decided to transfer) on a hitch pass. Diarse then spun away from defenders to rumble for a 30-yard gain. On the very next play, Fournette was handed the rock and hit the hole hard, leaving the Red Raiders in the dust for a 43-yard scoring jaunt and a 28-20 LSU lead. The Tigers would never be threatened in the game again.
The point? That little pass to Diarse backed Texas Tech up just a tad and actually made the defense respect LSU's passing game. It's like pitching in baseball - mix up your fastballs and curve balls. On the next play, Fournette exploited the Red Raiders' weakness and likewise took advantage of getting a slight bit of aid from the air.
Fournette can win the Heisman Trophy next season. But LSU must create other successful, reliable, offensive options around him, even if the engine is "pretty stinkin' good." It's not about the number of carries, especially when defenses had 10 men in the box. It's about a large amount of quality carries that are called at the right time.
(3) BRANDON HARRIS STILL HAS A WAYS TO GO, BUT THE TOOLS ARE THERE
I like Brandon Harris. I believe the guy really wants to succeed and do well for LSU. Getting him truly comfortable and less mechanical is the challenge moving forward.
Harris clearly did some things this season that Anthony Jennings was incapable of the year before. For example, Harris' beautiful 46-yard strike to Trey Quinn in the third quarter vs Texas Tech was a tremendous play and exhibition of his powerful arm. From day one, no one has ever questioned this guy can really zing it.
Harris can clearly run, too, as we saw on a 26-yard scoring jaunt to give LSU a 42-20 lead in the third quarter. He is dual-threat, no question.
Now, Cam Cameron, or whoever is LSU's offensive coordinator next season, finally needs to fine tune Harris' mechanics and delivery on the short to intermediate throws. Five yard passes don't need to be fired at Mach 5. If some touch and confidence can be developed in that regard, LSU can be much more dangerous offensively. And, while Fournette says he would rather run the football than catch it, "Buga" became a dangerous threat on swing passes late in the year and can certainly continue to be in the future.
Now, there's the trust factor. To be a national contender again, LSU needs to truly trust Harris. The quarterback hasn't done interviews with the media since the Tigers 35-28 win over Florida in Tiger Stadium back on October 17. He was very impressive that night - 13-19-0 passing, with 202 yards and two touchdowns against a very good Gators' defense. But LSU wasn't thrilled with Harris's "we showed them" attitude towards national and local skeptics, regarding the Tigers' ability to throw the football.
Personally, I didn't have a huge problem with it. Quarterbacks need to be a bit brash and show a little moxie from time to time when representing their teams in the media. They're supposed to be the face of the team or at least one of them. But not Harris. Not right now anyway.
The tone was a tad too angry and defiant for LSU and Coach Miles. They still don't trust Harris with microphones in front of his face, even after passing for 254 yards and quarterbacking the Tigers to a whipping of Texas Tech.
Some of you may shrug and say big deal. But in covering LSU football for many years, faces like Rohan Davey, Matt Mauck and Matt Flynn were always out in front as Tigers won SEC and national championships. Even Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson were allowed to speak frequently for LSU's 2011 powerhouse.
So, in closing on this subject, I'm not for kicking Brandon Harris to the curb. I believe he has all the tools necessary. Here's hoping he and the LSU coaching staff can finally all get on the same page and trust each other moving forward.
(4) ALEXANDER AND JONES REPRESENT LSU WITH CLASS
Two LSU seniors took to the podium following the Tigers' rout of the Red Raiders - offensive lineman Vadal Alexander and linebacker Deion Jones.
"Both guys were terrific representatives, not only for our team but also our university," said LSU sports information Michael Bonnette. "They did everything we ever asked of them and did so with a big smile on their face."
No argument here.
In an age where any small off the field misstep can become big news - and the media is certainly guilty of fueling the problem sometimes - Alexander and Jones have never caused a hint of trouble. And both are darn good football players.
Alexander was named first team All-SEC by both the Associated Press and league coaches this season. He was also a Second Team All-American by at least three national publications - Walter Camp, Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. In his final game in the trenches as a Tiger, LSU ripped Texas Tech for 638 offensive yards.
"It really couldn't get better than this," Alexander said following the win. "As far as the game goes, we dominated up front and as an offense as a whole. Couldn't be a better feeling."
Jones, or "Debo," as he's nicknamed, slowly grinded his way to stardom with the Tigers. After starting only one game in his first three seasons, Jones was great as a full-time guy this season, leading LSU with 92 tackles. Against Texas Tech, he led the Tigers again with eight stops (fellow linebacker Kendell Beckwith also had eight tackles), while also making a quarterback sack and two tackles for loss.
"This year has really been a blessing," reflected Jones. "It's kind of hard to leave it all behind, but this year has been special. A lot of lifelong dreams have been fulfilled. Playing for the LSU defense, getting after it and being the team's leading tackler. That's what I dreamed of, all the time, when I was young watching LSU."
Best of luck to these two great LSU Tigers. We'll miss covering them.
(5) THANK YOU, JIM HAWTHORNE
Over the years, I've impersonated Jim Hawthorne some. Scratch that. Over the years, I've impersonated Jim Hawthorne A LOT.
I tried the impersonation for the first time around the year 2000 and people laughed. A monster was then created. It then became an ice breaker for me at many speaking engagements and other functions. My, oh my.
But seriously, Hawthorne will forever be an LSU legend and firmly entrenched in the history of Tiger athletics. His voice, delivery and resonance are unmistakable and iconic. When you hear him speak, you know what you're listening to. The man is part of so many LSU memories - wins and losses, the highs and lows. He's always been there, whether we're listening in our car, our bed, out on a boat fishing, a hunting camp...wherever we might be.
Tuesday night in Houston, "The Voice of the Tigers" called his final LSU football game over the radio. It was a triumphant finish for a man who's devoted well over 30 years of work to this university and the Fightin' Tigers. People don't realize how much concentration and energy is needed to be on live radio, calling major sporting events for three to five hours at a time. The great ones make it look and sound easy. And Jim always did that.
Hawthorne has always been gracious and kind to me. I'm very appreciative for his endless work and historic calls. Off the top of my head, "The Earthquake Game" in 1988 is one of my favorites. "How about that, ole ball coach?!!" a jab directed at South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier following a perfectly executed LSU fake field goal for a touchdown in 2007 was also fantastic.
Now, hopefully the LSU basketball team will get its act together and help Jim reach the NCAA Tournament, as he calls his final sport and season.