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No. 9 Texas set for historic showdown with No. 6 LSU

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Can Texas take a major step towards validating an offseason of hype with another win over an SEC power?

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

History will be made in Austin on Saturday evening.

When the No. 9 Texas Longhorns and the No. 6 LSU Tigers step foot on the field at Darrell K Royal - Texas Memorial Stadium, it will mark the first time ever that top 10 foes from the Big 12 and SEC have squared off for a regular-season showdown. When that much-anticipated moment arrives, the general expectation is that LSU will deal the Longhorns their first loss of the season, as evident with the Tigers entering as 6.5-point favorites and owning an 80 percent chance to come out on top, per ESPN’s FPI.

Historically, when LSU is elite, it’s because the Tigers are able to lean upon a tremendous defense, and coordinator Dave Aranda’s unit is expected to be exceptional this season, as well. But this time around, much of the hype and much of the reason the Longhorns are considered home underdogs is because LSU boasts a new-look offense under the guidance of second-year coordinator Steve Ensminger and first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady.

Quarterbacked by senior Joe Burrow, who orchestrated LSU’s offense fairly masterfully in a 55-3 season-opening win over Georgia Southern, completing 23-of-27 attempts for 278 yards and five touchdowns in the first half, the Tigers boast a bevy of weapons, especially at receiver.

“To me, he’s very similar to [Ehlinger],” Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said of Burrow. “Very gritty, confident, complete control, can make all the throws. It’s going to be a hell of a challenge for us.”

The most notable name among Burrow’s options is junior slot Justin Jefferson. After totaling 875 yards and six scores on 54 receptions last season, Jefferson picked up right where he left off to begin the 2019 campaign, leading LSU with five catches for 87 yards and one touchdown. Jefferson is pretty close to a complete package at receiver and he’s LSU’s top option to that end, so how Texas elects to matchup with him will be key, as sophomore and starting nickel back B.J. Foster is more of a downhill, hard-hitting presence than a true coverage option at this point.

After missing some time last season due to leg and ankle injuries, the early signs suggest that sophomore Terrace Marshall Jr. may emerge as an equally lethal option on the outside at Z, and maybe even more so in the red zone. The former five-star prospect caught just four passes last week, but three of those put points on the board.

On Saturday, however, Marshall will be tested against Texas’ top corner, sophomore Jalen Green, who’s established an early reputation as a physical talent who allows very little space in coverage.

Opposite of Marshall at X is sophomore and former four-star talent Ja’Marr Chase, who hauled in a pair of passes for 21 yards and one touchdown in the opener. Senior Derrick Dillion, freshman Trey Palmer, and freshman and former four-star Devonta Lee each got involved in Week 1, as well.

The Tigers also present a trio of threats at tight end in junior Thaddeus Moss, the son of NFL legend Randy Moss, 6’5 senior Stephen Sullivan, and 6’5 junior TK TK McLendon. Moss, who missed last season with a foot injury, is the potential star of the bunch, and he put that on display last week, totaling 61 yards on just two receptions courtesy of an explosive 44-yard pickup.

Quite unlike the norm in Baton Rouge, the Bayou Bengals don’t feature an elite running back this season, at least not at this early stage. Rather, LSU will rely upon a running-back-by-committee approach, as evident last week with five different options receiving carries, and head coach Ed Orgeron said the Tigers will need each of them against Texas.

There isn’t yet a headliner in the backfield, but 5’8 junior Clyde Edwards-Helaire, to notched nine carries for 45 yards and a touchdown against Georgia Southern, is the starter. Senior Lanard Fournette, the younger brother of LSU great Leonard Fournette, and five-star freshman John Emery Jr. combined for 39 yards and 12 attempts, while four-star freshmen Tyrion Davis-Price (RS) and Chris Curry added seven carries for 34 yards. Maybe more notably, especially as it pertains to the LSU’s offensive identity as a whole, the group collectively hauled in 12 catches for 102 yards as the Tigers utilized them early and often through check downs and dump off passes, allowed them to operate in space.

All told, whether it be a receiver, running back, or tight end, 14 Tigers caught a pass against Georgia Southern — 14 Tigers caught a pass all of last season.

“I just like the fact that we have a lot of speed on the field; that’s number one, so if we make a mistake, we can cover it up,” Orlando said of the task of slowing LSU’s weapons offensively. “Then we have a whole bunch of guys that at the end of the day are really good playmakers.”

The question as far as Saturday is concerned is, pitted against a speedy Texas defense and specifically, a coordinator who certainly isn’t shy about sending several extra bodies during blitzes, can LSU’s offensive line provide Burrow with ample time to find his multitude of options?

The Tigers return four starters across the offensive line, with left guard Adrian Magee being the exception, but the unit was especially sub-par last season, allowing 35 sacks and 89 tackles for loss. Bearing that in mind and the reality that LSU wasn’t exactly tested in the trenches against Georgia Southern, expect Orlando to implement Texas’ Lightning and Cowboy packages early, which will afford the Longhorns the opportunity to send multiple bodies in blitzes without sacrificing much if anything from a coverage standpoint.

And from an individualistic standpoint, if there’s ever an opportunity for senior defensive end and senior Rover Jeffrey McCulloch to make their name on a national stage, it’s now.

For as much that’s been made of the revamped, up-tempo spread offense, LSU’s defensive looks the part of what it almost always is: Elite.

As Texas head coach Tom Herman said on Monday, “This will be as talented of a defense as we have seen in our time here. And it’s not just heavy in one area… They’ve got NFL players at pretty much every position.”

To that end, is there is an area that LSU is heavier in than others, it’s the secondary; one led by elite safeties in junior Grant Delpit and JaCoby Stevens. The former is quite arguably the top safety in all of college football and the frontrunner for the Jim Thorpe Award, and likely a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft. For obvious reasons, Longhorns field general Sam Ehlinger will need to be well aware of where Delpit is at all times, which will include his impact as a blitzing threat.

The latter, Stevens, is more of a hybrid safety-linebacker whose size and versatility allows him to often serve as LSU’s nickel. Stevens typically operates around the line of scrimmage, where he’s a sure tackler and an imposing presence overall. His impact will likely be most notable against Texas’ ground and screen games.

Junior safety Todd Harris is the new starter in the secondary at safety, where the former top 100 national prospect is now aiming to fill the void John Battle left behind.

Senior Kristian Fulton is a returning starter at corner, and tremendously talented one, at that. He’ll be pitted against Longhorns 6’6 star receiver Collin Johnson, making for one of the most intriguing — and potentially decisive — matchups of the evening.

Texas offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Delpit and Fulton are “as good as we’ve seen.”

True freshman and top-ranked 2019 corner prospect Derek Stingley Jr. will set up shop opposite of Fulton.

Is safe to assume that Ehlinger will look towards Stingley’s side early to test the true freshman in what’s far-and-away the biggest game of his young career, though the consensus is that whether it’s sooner or later, Stingley will prove to be an elite defensive back, as well.

Given that, much like the Longhorns, LSU will often send six defensive backs out at one time — Beck said Texas and LSU have similar defenses and similar players — nickel back Kary Vincent Jr. will see the field quite a bit. A former key Texas target, Vincent totaled 10 starts in 24 appearances throughout his first two seasons in Baton Rouge, He, too, will be tested if Texas’ season opener was a sign of things to come from Devin Duvernay in the slot, as he led the Longhorns with nine receptions against Louisiana Tech.

As is the case with the running back position, LSU’s linebacking corps will be by committee, though that’s largely due to an abundance of talent deserving of reps.

After tallying 87 tackles in 2018, junior Jacob Phillips picked up where he left off with 10 tackles to open the season, and his backup, sophomore Damone Clark, contributed nine of his own. After sitting out last week due to a suspension, senior Michael Divinity Jr. will start at the middle linebacker spot alongside Phillips as he looks to build upon a 54-tackle junior campaign. He’ll share reps with junior Patrick Queen, who’s presence was most notably felt in Phillips’ absence last week in the form of a near scoop and score.

The lone true outside linebacker in junior Ray Thorton, a Killeen native who’s stepping into his first season as a true starter.

The same can be said of sophomore K’Lavon Chaisson, and he’s a name Texas fans are already quite familiar with for a number of reasons. Prior to sitting out virtually all of last season with an ACL injury, Chaisson was a priority Texas target in 2017 before ultimately taking his talents to The Boot, where he’s now a starting hybrid edge rusher, and one Herman described as elite.

The praise hasn’t been mutual, though, as the Houston native not only said Ehlinger isn’t a threat through the air, but said he doesn’t think Texas has a chance on Saturday.

Alongside Chaisson in the trenches will be three massive bodies in the form of 6’3, 345-pound nose tackle Tyler Shelvin, 6’4, 309-pound defensive end Glen Logan, and 6’2, 308-pound defensive end Rashard Lawrence.

The former two earned praise from Ed Orgeron earlier this week for their efforts in the season opener, combining for nine tackles, while Lawrence is projected to end his collegiate career as an All-SEC selection. He’s the unquestioned headliner of the trio, which will provide Texas with a tall test in the trenches.

The good news as far as Texas is concerned, is that though Lawrence is nothing short of a handful to handful up front, he’ll be tasked with attempting to impose his will against the left side of the Longhorns offensive line, which is its strength and features a grad transfer and two-time All-ACC selection at right guard in Parker Braun and a former freshman All-American and budding star at right tackle in Samuel Cosmi.

The latter, after allowing zero quarterback pressures in 47 pass-blocking snaps last week against Louisiana Tech, earned recognition with a 91.3 grade from Pro Football Focus.

Though it’s evident throughout, LSU’s front line and linebacking corps are largely why Beck described the Tigers’ defense as “big, fast, aggressive” earlier this week.

As if the sheer amount of talent that will be on hand didn’t make it apparent, Texas will have its hands full with LSU on both sides of the ball on Saturday. But Texas, too, boasts an abundance of fast, physical talents on defense, and the Longhorns’ offense may prove to be the better of the two, despite the hype and praise being pointed towards Burrow’s offense.

Such is why, just like LSU, Texas is currently regarded as one of the top 10 teams in the nation, setting up the most anticipated showdown of the weekend, and arguably of the entire non-conference slate this season.

If Texas can come out on top while on this national stage, with ESPN’s College GameDay on campus and a primetime television slot on ABC, it will mark the Longhorns third win over an opponent ranked among the top 7 nationally in the past 11 games.

Prediction: Texas - 34, LSU - 31