| FTBL How each top CFB contender can win the national title - LSU


Flash back to this time last year. Think of all the things we didn't know about the quarterback position alone. What was Clemson's plan regarding Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence? Georgia's plan with Jake Fromm and Justin Fields? Notre Dame's with Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book? Was Tua Tagovailoa truly ready to be a star at Alabama? How much might Oklahoma's offense regress with Kyler Murray replacing Baker Mayfield? The quarterback situation among contenders is a lot more stable this time around, but every team in the country still has questions to answer.

Granted, the magnitude or likelihood of some questions can change, but the pure number of questions we have about a team says a lot. If you simply count the "ifs" (if this happens, if that happens) it takes to turn a team into a true national title contender, that drops some major hints about the teams most likely to make deep runs.

Below are the 17 teams with title odds better than +10000 per Caesars Sportsbook, sorted by the number of "ifs" it takes to make each a true title contender.

A quick note: We're not going to waste time with things like "If their quarterback stays healthy" or "If the injury bug doesn't devastate a certain unit before a key game." Those things are obvious and apply to every team in the country. For the most part, we're not going to focus on schedules either. We're focused only on the quality of the team at hand.

LSU (+3000)


If ... Joe Burrow's late-season growth was real. In his first nine games as LSU's starting quarterback, Burrow, an Ohio State transfer, completed just 53 percent of his passes, had a 114.3 passer rating and took few chances. Not good enough.

Over the final four games of the season, however, Burrow blossomed. Completion rate: 67 percent. Passer rating: 173.5. Sure, two of those games were against QB-friendly Arkansas and Rice defenses, but two were against Texas A&M and UCF, too. Plus, even against Southeastern Louisiana and Louisiana Tech earlier in the year, he hadn't posted numbers like these. He returns this fall, as do his top five targets.

If this was a real breakthrough, and not just a product of limited defenses, then this could be the most exciting LSU offense since Zach Mettenberger was throwing to OBJ and Jarvis Landry.

If ... the LSU run game becomes the LSU run game again. Like Burrow's former team, Ohio State, LSU was strangely mediocre at one of the things it's best known for: running the ball. The Bayou Bengals were just 92nd in rushing marginal efficiency and 91st in stuff rate, frequently putting Burrow in awkward downs and distances. Leading rusher Nick Brossette is gone, but backup Clyde Edwards-Helaire was more efficient, and those responsible for all but nine of last year's offensive line starts return.

If ... Kristian Fulton and Kary Vincent Jr. can get greedy. Dave Aranda's defense returns four of its five primary linemen, seven of eight linebackers, and five of its top seven DBs. The Tigers do have to replace two top-50 draft picks, however, and while linebacker Devin White's production can probably be mostly accounted for by simply keeping sophomores Micah Baskerville and K'Lavon Chaisson healthy, considering how dominant LSU's pass defense was, losing corner Greedy Williams hurts.

Granted, Vincent and Fulton, a junior and senior respectively, are former blue-chippers and have been in plenty of battles. But the bar is high here.


THIBODAUX — Joe Burrow had trimmed his shaggy blond hair scalp-tight, and the LSU quarterback flipped up the brim of his tan sun hat as he sat down in a metal folding chair.

Why the hair style change?

"Have you been out there?" Burrow said, grinning as he gestured toward the fields at Nicholls State University, where he is a camp counselor at the annual Manning Passing Academy. "It's like 100 degrees out there. My hair was like if you put a bag over your head. I had to cut that."

It's just another level of comfort for the Ohio native, who arrived on LSU's campus as a graduate transfer from Ohio State just over a year ago.

Burrow said life in Baton Rouge is a "night-and-day" difference from last year, when he only knew about 10 peoples' names on the football team and was still getting used to Cajun culture and the Tigers' playbook.

Now, Burrow's the veteran quarterback for a potential top-10 team, the home-state hero doling out tips and advice to dozens of teenage campers.

The 6-foot-4 senior is also more comfortable in his skin.

Burrow said he lost about five pounds over the course of the 2018 season, because he "didn't know it was going to be 90 degrees until December." So he's bulking up to 220 pounds — five pounds heavier than his listed weight — by eating "five to six meals a day."

Family has been closer, too.

Burrow said his father, Jimmy, recently retired from 14 years as the defensive coordinator at Ohio University, came down for the weekend to watch the Manning Academy from the stands.

Foster Moreau, Burrow's trusty tight end in 2018, even flew in from Oakland, California. The Raiders' fourth-round pick in the NFL draft walked with Burrow into the passing academy media room, staying only briefly.

Burrow seems more comfortable in the spotlight, which he stepped into long before he officially was named the starter before the 2018 season and felt full strength after he threw the 71-yard touchdown pass that sparked LSU's crucial 22-21 comeback win at Auburn in Week 3.

That comeback win was when Burrow said he started feeling like "I was part of the team." Before coming to LSU, he hadn't played in any game of consequence since high school, and even back then, he'd never taken a snap under center.

"I was still learning how to play football that way," said Burrow, who'd last taken a snap under center in sixth grade. "I was just kind of scavenging, trying to win games any way that I could."

You know the rest.

Burrow finished his junior season with 3,181 yards passing, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions, and he led LSU to its first 10-win season since 2013 with a Fiesta Bowl victory over Central Florida in which he was named the offensive MVP.

Now, Burrow is at the center of LSU's new no-huddle, run-pass option offense, which is being installed by offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and first-year passing-game coordinator Joe Brady.

Both coaches have said they ask for Burrow's input when creating new plays. Burrow said he's "never really been a part of" such an environment, and so far it's "very efficient" and "very collaborative."

At its base, LSU's new run-pass option offense is a system that leverages a defense's alignment against itself by reading certain defenders during a play, and Burrow said he sometimes gives input on what the read is on a play.

"At the end of the day you can really believe in a scheme," Brady said at Monday's coaches caravan stop in Metairie, "but if the quarterback doesn't feel comfortable with it, are you really going to get what you want out of it?"

Burrow's command of the offense comes in handy during LSU's player-led 7-on-7 practices that happen twice a week during the summer.

Coaches' contact with players is restricted during the summer, per NCAA rules. Burrow said players started out the summer re-teaching one another the basic schemes they learned in the spring, then started to add on the more advanced pieces of the offense.

"We started catching on real fast," Burrow said, "and we'll be a lot faster in the fall."

Burrow said just about every wide receiver can excel in the new-look offense, where receivers are learning route concepts instead of specific positions.

The change is designed to seek out favorable matchups against defensive backs; a player like Justin Jefferson, the team's leading receiver last season, can line up in the slot on one play and go out to the sideline on another, depending on which defender he is matched up against.

Burrow said he's become "comfortable with the timing of the receivers" and is "throwing the ball two steps before they're out of their break."

"I think we're going to score a lot of points, and I don't think a lot of people are used to LSU scoring 40, 50, 60 points a game," Burrow said. "I think if we do what we need to do up until fall camp and continue our hard work in fall camp, we can be one of the best offenses in the country."
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