THE BIG PICTURE
As Les Miles (85-21 at LSU) enters his ninth season coaching LSU football, the Tigers find themselves in an unfamiliar position. Picked to finish just third in the SEC Western Division by league media, the Tigers are clearly not the favorite to claim any championships at the end of the year. Losing a school-record nine players to the NFL draft and a schedule that is as challenging as any in college football are two of the biggest reasons why.
However, in Baton Rouge and for Tiger fans across the country, expectations will always be high because few programs boast the overall talent level, rich recruiting base and general commitment to winning of LSU. In 2012, the Tigers (10-3) lost their three games by a combined 13 points. This year's team is capable of producing double-digit victories for the fourth consecutive season if the right pieces fall into place. LSU rewarded Miles with a contract extension and raise earlier this year, so unless the wheels completely fall off, he'll have some slack this season should the road ahead get bumpy.
OFFENSE LEADS THE WAY
In a strategic move, Miles reached out to lifelong friend and former NFL coordinator Cam Cameron to join his staff and upgrade the Tigers' offense, which ranked 10th in the SEC last year in yards per game. Under Miles, LSU has always been run first, pass second, but last year opponents stacked up against the run too many times, meaning the Tigers will need more balance this fall.
In the NFL, Cameron worked with the likes of Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers while in San Diego and most recently, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco in Baltimore. His task is to bring out the best of LSU's senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Entering his second full season as a starter, Mettenberger threw for 2,609 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, but wasn't as consistent as the coaches wanted. During the Spring, Cameron worked closely with Mettenberger in installing a new offense, which should better utilize his arm strength and ability to spread the ball across the field, while pushing it vertically as well.
What will also help the offense is stronger play from the receiving corps. Juniors Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry combined for 1,286 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago, but too often, there were too many drops in big games, some ending crucial drives. The receivers must be more reliable in 2013 for the offense to be as efficient as possible. Redshirt freshman Travin Dural is healthy and should be a threat to stretch the field. The Tigers will also use the tight end more this fall, with Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson and freshman DeSean Smith in the rotation.
LSU's bread-and-butter offensive approach is a wear the opponent down running game that dominates the fourth quarter. However, the Tigers may be without their leading rusher from last season in Jeremy Hill, who continues to battle legal charges of simple battery. Possibly losing Hill (755 Yards, 12 Td's in 2012) is a huge blow for LSU's offense, but the cupboard is certainly not bare in the backfield. Senior Alfred Blue returns from his knee injury and junior Kenny Hilliard is back as well. Terrence Magee and freshman Jeryl Brazil could also contribute.
What helps the cause is that LSU returns four starters on the offensive line. Junior La'el Collins makes the move to left tackle this year and was named a third team all-SEC preseason selection, along with senior guard Josh Williford, who partners up with Collins on the left side. A pair of sophomores will anchor the right side of the line in guard Trai Turner and tackle Vadal Alexander. Both started the second half of last season and can make huge strides heading into their second year in the program.
With the overall experience of the offense returning in 2013, this group will have to carry the team early in the season as a young defense comes into its own. If Mettenberger plays up to his potential, the Tigers' offense should finally generate some excitement on Saturday nights.
RELOADING ON DEFENSE
At programs like LSU, they plan on reloading rather than rebuilding, and the Tigers have enough young talent to do so. However, after losing seven starters to the NFL, coordinator John Chavis faces one of his biggest challenges to date. The Chief must replace his entire defensive line, several all-SEC performers and tons of leadership. The good news is that several talented, soon-to-be standout players are waiting in the wings like Jermauria Rasco, Danielle Hunter and Kwon Alexander.
Junior defensive tackle Anthony Johnson will anchor the line after totaling 42 tackles and four sacks in his first two seasons. Ego Ferguson, Rasco and Hunter will join Johnson on the first team unit. In the middle of the defense, a pair of senior linebackers in Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones return. Barrow is the team's top returning tackler after posting 104 stops last season. Alexander will compete for the third starting linebacker position along with fellow sophomores Deion Jones and Lamar Louis.
In the secondary, senior Craig Loston leads the way. The first team all-SEC preseason selection is a hard-hitting safety who enters his fifth year in the LSU program. Returning starters Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins are also back at the cornerback positions, and junior Ronald Martin should man the free safety position. Look for Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson to see significant playing time as well, and freshman Tre'Davious White will be one to watch this fall.
LSU's starting defense will be one of the most talented in the SEC and in the country, but overcoming the NFL departures of KeKe Mingo, Eric Reid, Kevin Minter, Sam Montgomery, Bennie Logan and Tharold Simon is easier said than done. However, Tiger fans should rest easy knowing that Chavis will have his young defense ready to roll.
GAUNTLET OF A SCHEDULE
In college football, there are cupcake games and knock 'em out, drag down battles. LSU always has more of the latter than any team in the SEC. After kicking off the season against a quality program in TCU in Cowboys Stadium, LSU will face Auburn and Georgia in back-to-back weeks to end the month of September. Playing what should be a top-ten Bulldogs team in Athens will be extremely tough, but the Tigers are used to the league's hostile environments. LSU also won its most recent game at Georgia in 2009.
But not only do the Tigers face Georgia, they also square off with their permanent cross-division opponent in the Florida Gators. Georgia and Florida went a combined 14-2 in the SEC last year, compared to Alabama's two Eastern Division opponents in Tennessee and Kentucky (1-15). Les Miles and LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva continue to voice their concerns over schedule equality in the SEC, but there aren't any immediate changes on the horizon.
Then there's the annual showdown with the reigning national champion in Alabama. This year's game is set for November 9th in Tuscaloosa, with the winner poised to have the upperhand in the West. Les Miles is 3-4 against Bama coach Nick Saban with the Crimson Tide claiming the last two wins in this rivalry series, including the 2012 BCS National Championship.
LSU closes out the regular season with consecutive home games against Texas A&M and Arkansas. The Tigers put the clamps down on Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in College Station, Texas last year, and now they'll try to do the same in Death Valley in late November. LSU and Arkansas will kick off their finale on the Friday afternoon following Thanksgiving.