ATLANTA — Alabama and Auburn have a stranglehold on the Western Division in Southeastern Conference football, combining to win the past six titles.
Which has relegated LSU to outsider status for far too long.
"That's a big challenge. They're both great teams," LSU junior defensive end Rashard Lawrence said Monday as SEC Media Days opened at the College Football Hall of Fame. "We were able to get Auburn last year, but we couldn't quite beat Alabama. It's something where we see the room for improvement, and to know we're that close is good to know."
LSU's high-water mark last year in Ed Orgeron's first full season as head coach was a 27-23 stunning of Auburn in mid-October, which was Auburn's lone league loss until the league championship game against Georgia. Yet Orgeron's Tigers were just 1-2 against teams from the state of Alabama, with Troy pulling off a 24-21 upset in late September and Alabama prevailing 24-10 during the first weekend of November in Tuscaloosa.
The outcome against Nick Saban's Crimson Tide was closer than the 21-point spread, but it was still LSU's seventh consecutive loss in that series. LSU won four SEC West titles from 2003 to 2011.
"Almost is not good enough against Alabama," Orgeron said, "but we feel that a couple of plays here and there — if we continue to be physical, we're going to be right in there with them."
Gaining ground on Alabama and Auburn this season will not be easy. The Crimson Tide appear to possess two quality quarterbacks with Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, while Jarrett Stidham returns at Auburn after throwing for 3,158 yards last season.
LSU's top returning quarterback from an experience standpoint is sophomore Myles Brennan, who threw for 182 yards last year. Only Kentucky returns fewer passing yards from last season among SEC programs.
The favorite for the LSU job is Joe Burrow, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, and it will be a different style of attack from what usually emerges out of Baton Rouge.
"We're going to be a spread offense mainly from three-wide-receiver sets and four-wide-receiver sets and sometimes five," Orgeron said, "and we'll be 50-50 as far as throwing the football and running the football."
Steve Ensminger is LSU's new offensive coordinator this season, replacing Matt Canada, while Dave Aranda is back at defensive coordinator. Orgeron has hired eight of his 10 assistants and has two recruiting classes under his belt, so he believes the program is on more stable footing than a year ago.
"There is no question about it," he said. "We have the staff that we'll go to battle with. I trust these guys. I've known Steve Ensminger since 1979. Obviously Dave Aranda is very well proven and can be a coach at any level.
"We're more equipped to be able to compete in the SEC. We have 10 analysts this year as opposed to five. We're giving our coaches more information and giving our players more information earlier in the week."
While LSU has its sights set on supplanting Alabama and Auburn atop the SEC West, there is also the potential of increasing the four-loss totals of the past two seasons. The Tigers face the two teams — Alabama and Georgia — that competed in last season's national championship game, and they face four teams coming off appearances in New Year's Six bowl games — Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Miami.
Throw in Mississippi State, which routed LSU 37-7 last September, and a trip to Florida, and suddenly 6-6 is not out of the question.
Orgeron is 15-6 in his brief stint with the Tigers. It's a winning clip, but it pales in comparison to what predecessors Les Miles and Saban attained in that role.
"At LSU, you're expected to win the West, go to the SEC championship and play for a 'Natty,' and it's as simple as that," Lawrence said. "There is a lot of pressure, but for us as a unit and as a team, we have to take it one day at a time. If you overlook anybody, as we saw last year, it can end up hurting you."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.