Authors: By RALPH D. RUSSO
Tyrann Mathieu was a game-changer for LSU last season. The definition of a ball hawk, the Honey Badger turned games in the Tigers' favor with an uncanny ability to make big plays when they were needed most.
Now that Mathieu, an All-American cornerback and Heisman Trophy finalist, has been kicked off the team, what does it mean for LSU's national championship hopes?
Let's answer some questions:
WHO REPLACES HONEY BADGER?
Like Mardi Gras beads on Bourbon Street, it's not hard to find a blue chip cornerback at LSU. Still, the Tigers don't have as much depth at the position as they had last season.
One of two Jalens will likely take Mathieu's spot opposite Tharold Simon as the starter in the secondary. Redshirt freshman Jalen Collins is a big corner at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds. Rivals.com rated him a four-star prospect out of Olive Branch (Miss.) High School. He won LSU's most improved player award after spring practice.
Freshman Jalen Mills is only a few months removed from high school in DeSoto, Texas, but has impressed coaches in the preseason.
YEAH, BUT CAN ANYBODY REALLY REPLACE MATHIEU?
Probably not. Mathieu wasn't a lockdown corner in the mold of former teammates Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson. Versatility was his trademark skill.
Often he was listed as the nickel back and LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis lined him up all over the field. One down Mathieu was a corner. One down he was a safety. One down he was - all 5-9 and 175 pounds of him - a linebacker.
Finding a player who can do all that as effectively as Mathieu will be difficult.
WHAT ABOUT ALL THOSE TURNOVERS?
Mathieu forced 11 fumbles in two seasons at LSU, setting a school record and tying an SEC record. It will be almost impossible for another player to replicate that production. Then again, the nature of turnovers being a bit fluky, it would have been unrealistic for LSU to expect Mathieu to keep up that pace.
AND THE PUNT RETURNS?
Mathieu averaged 15.6 yards per return last year and scored two touchdowns. The touchdowns came against Arkansas and Georgia and both happened when LSU was trailing.
Mathieu returned 27 punts last year. Would he have gotten that many opportunities this year with teams more leery of him bringing one back? That's hard to say. LSU's defense forces a lot of punts, but it's a good guess that a lot of them were going to be angled toward the sidelines this year.
Coach Les Miles mentioned receiver Odell Beckham as a possible replacement. The Tigers have a bevy of fast, agile players. Maybe one of them will turn out to be as elusive as Mathieu. Maybe not.
CAN LSU WIN A NATIONAL TITLE WIHOUT MATHIEU?
Absolutely. As talented as Mathieu is, he is not irreplaceable. Not for a team such as LSU.
LSU has NFL prospects all over the field. The Tigers' defensive line is arguably the best in the country. Maybe what they lose in the secondary, they make up for with ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo rushing the passer.
With strong-armed quarterback Zach Mettenberger leading the offense this season, maybe LSU won't need to score as many points off turnovers and special teams as it did last year.
The Tigers also play an easier nonconference schedule (Washington at Tiger Stadium is the only real test), and get Alabama at home.
BUT LOSING HIM DOES HURT, RIGHT?
Of course. The Honey Badger was a playmaker for LSU, and a few plays can be the difference between playing for a national championship or not - just ask Oklahoma State.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP