The first week of college football season usually features top teams playing lesser competition as a means of working out various kinks in the system, shaking off cobwebs from the long offseason, and just tuning up for the tough in-conference competition that will come later in the year.
That is, most teams except the LSU Tigers have that, which means that sophomore star running back Leonard Fournette is going to be thrown right into the fire this coming weekend.
This isn’t entirely Fournette’s fault.
LSU was set to begin its 2015 season at home last Saturday against the Southland Conference’s McNeese State Cowboys, an FCS program that plays 125 miles west in Lake Charles, but Mother Nature had other ideas. The game was delayed for hours due to torrential rains and lightning in the area before being canceled outright and rather than just play the next day, it was decided that the contest would just not take place.
As a result, rather than having a game to freshen his legs and get his body ready for a full season in the hard-hitting and ever-competitive SEC, Fournette will now be tested immediately on Saturday night when LSU takes a trip to Starkville to face Dak Prescott and the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Needless to say, this game is something of a must-win for the Tigers, who then play Auburn in Baton Rouge on the 19th.
That isn’t to say that Fournette is definitely in for a rusty and subpar performance. As a freshman in 2014, the former five-star recruit from New Orleans appeared in all 13 games and ran for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 136 carries as LSU went 8-5 (4-4 SEC) and lost to Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl. On the whole, that’s a fine year for a freshman.
But it should also be noted that when LSU played Mississippi State last year, Fournette did not have a very good game. In fact, he did not play well at all. In the Tigers’ 34-29 loss, Fournette rushed for just 38 yards on a mere seven carries. Granted, a lot of that could have had to do with the fact that LSU was down 17-3 at halftime and 31-10 entering the third quarter and the offense thus turned to the air to play catch-up, but the fact that Fournette wasn’t more involved down the stretch is a bit disconcerting. It’s as though Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron did not trust the stud freshman to jump-start the team’s scoring attack at all.
It should also be noted that though LSU has gone 5-1 against Mississippi State since Dan Mullen took over as coach of the Bulldogs in 2009, the Tigers have gone 5-1 against the boys from Starkville. But the rosters of teams change, and with them the team’s overall abilities. This time around, given how Mississippi State could only manage to beat Southern Miss 34-16 last weekend, LSU’s tough defense should be ready to hit hard and take full advantage of a Bulldogs’ squad that seemingly eked out a victory against a team it should have manhandled on the scoreboard from start to finish.
And a strong defensive effort would only be pushed harder to succeed if Fournette is able to play well and take a step forward with his overall production, and LSU’s extra week off will result in one of two things likely happening regarding Fournette and the team as a whole. Either he and his teammates will be better rested and all the more determined to open the season with a win following a rainout, or the extra rest will have an opposite effect and Fournette will struggle against a Bulldogs squad that ranked 22nd in the nation in run defense last season.
But what can and will happen remain to be seen, and neither takes away from one simple truth: Fournette is one of the top running backs in the country and is in a position to make a case for the Heisman Trophy this year, and certain circumstances dictate that he is a player to watch during Week 2.
If he can turn in a solid performance against Mississippi State and show that the week off helped him and teammates get stronger, then he will be hard to ignore as the season progresses.
*Featured Photo (above) credit to USA TODAY Sports