To say that LSU exceeded expectations in Brian Kelly’s first season in Baton Rouge would be like calling the humidity in Louisiana moderate.
The Tigers were picked fifth in the SEC West in the preseason. Instead, they finished first in a division that featured four teams ranked No. 21 or better in the AP preseason poll: Alabama, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. As it turned out, just one of those four teams – the Crimson Tide – finished the season in the AP Top 25, while LSU and Mississippi State (picked sixth in the preseason) joined Alabama as the SEC West representatives in the final AP poll of the 2022 season.
That all goes to show you that preseason expectations, especially in the SEC West, probably shouldn’t be trusted. But that won’t stop us from taking a very early look ahead to LSU’s prospects for the 2023 season.
As usual, Alabama will likely be the preseason favorite in the SEC West in 2023, but LSU will have high expectations after going 10-4 (including a loss in the SEC Championship game and a Citrus Bowl victory over Purdue) in their first season under Kelly.
LSU equaling – or surpassing – this year’s 9-3 regular season record in 2023 seems more likely than a step back for the Tigers, so let’s start with the case for another big season by LSU. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, for one, is high on next year’s Tigers — he has them No. 8 in his way-too-early 2023 Top 25.
Reasons For Optimism for LSU Football in 2023
The Return of Impressive Dual-Threat QB Jayden Daniels
Daniels played a massive role in LSU’s surprising success in 2022, and he should be even better in his second year under Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock. Daniels was efficient last year, even if his total numbers (2,913 yards passing and 17 touchdowns through the air) were unspectacular. The biggest pluses for LSU were how steady Daniels was – he completed 69% of his passes and boasted an impressive 17-3 TD-to-interception ratio – and what he offered as a runner. He led the Tigers in both rushing yards (885) and rushing TDs (11).
While he’ll miss Kayshon Boutte, Daniels’ leading receiver (over 1,000 yards on 72 catches), Malik Nabers, will be back after finishing the season with over 120 yards receiving in three of the Tigers’ last four games. Daniels will also bring back SEC All-Freshman tight end Mason Taylor and wide receiver Brian Thomas Jr.
Young OL Will Likely Improve
Daniels will likely have better offensive line play next season after he was sacked 43 times in 2022. He did, however, enjoy better protection as the season went along thanks to the growth of freshmen tackles Will Campbell and Emory Jones Jr.
If those two can help make the OL a strength instead of a weakness – the unit surrendered four sacks apiece vs. Florida State in the opener and Georgia in the SEC title game, and six against Alabama – LSU’s offense will improve considerably. Last season, the Tigers cracked 40 points twice in SEC play, but scored just 13 against Arkansas, 21 against Auburn, and 23 apiece against FSU and Texas A&M.
Maason Smith and Harold Perkins Jr. Will Wreak Havoc
Perkins exploded onto the scene as a true freshman. After finishing the year with 72 total tackles, 7.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and an interception, he was an All-SEC Second-Team selection. He’ll likely be a preseason All-SEC selection ahead of the 2023 campaign.
The other star of the LSU defense next year will be Maason Smith, who was unable to follow up on an impressive freshman season in 2021 due to a torn ACL he suffered against Florida State in this year’s season opener. Expect a big bounce-back next year from Smith, who flashed enough in four starts (he recorded 5 TFLs and 4 sacks) as a rookie in ’21 to earn Freshman All-SEC recognition.
Special Teams Can’t Get Worse
While freshman kicker Damian Ramos was a solid 10-for-14 on field goals, if the Tigers had one clear weakness in 2022, it was their overall special teams play, including several blocked extra points and field goal attempts. With a no-nonsense coach like Kelly at the helm, it’s hard to imagine LSU falling victim to so many special teams errors again next season
Potential Red Flags for LSU Football in 2023
Tigers to miss BJ Ojulari, Kayshon Boutte
As highlighted above, the Tigers will return plenty of stars next season, but they’ll certainly miss Ojulari, the team’s only first-team All-SEC honoree in 2022, even if the D-line figures to be in good hands with Smith and second-team All-SEC selection Mekhi Wingo at DT. Ojulari finished 2022 with 8.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks, and will hear his name called at this year’s NFL Draft.
Entering the 2022 season, Boutte was considered one of the most dangerous receivers in the country, but injuries hampered him, as he ended up with just 48 catches for 538 yards and two touchdowns a year after catching nine TDs. While Boutte is considered a top NFL prospect at his position, he led LSU in receiving yards in just three games last season. That probably means Daniels and the passing offense should be OK without him.
Newsflash: The SEC West is Always Tough
LSU will start the season against a Florida State team that may be top-10 next preseason. After a tough opener, LSU must face the usual SEC West gauntlet of Alabama, talented-but-unpredictable Texas A&M and – in all likelihood – two or three more top-25 teams.
That’s nothing new, but it’s always worth keeping in mind when considering LSU’s chances of another season with nine regular-season wins or more. One aspect of this schedule that could increase the difficulty is the Alabama game taking place in Tuscaloosa instead of Baton Rouge, but it’s not like there’s any easy place to take on the Tide.
AP Photo/John Raoux