2011 Record: 13-1 (8-0 in SEC)
Head Coach: Les Miles (75-18 at LSU, 103-39 All-Time)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 season BCS NCG: lost to Alabama 21-0
Revenge: 11/3 vs Alabama
Stats to Cheer: +1.43 turnover margin (1st in SEC); converted on 93.44% of trips to red zone (1st in SEC)
Stats to Fear: allowed opponents to score on 88.46% of trips to red zone (11th in SEC), allowed 21 opponent first downs by penalty (11th in SEC)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 7; Defense: 5; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: S Eric Reid (76 tackles, 2 INT), DE Sam Montgomery (49 tackles, 9 sacks), DE Barkevious Mingo (46 tackles, 7 sacks), LB Kevin Minter (61 tackles), CB Tharold Simon (42 tackles, 2 INT), DT Bennie Logan (57 tackles, 3 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: RB Michael Ford (756 yds rush, 7 TD), RB Spencer Ware (707 yds rush, 8 TD), RB Alfred Blue (539 yds rush, 7 TD), RB Kenny Hilliard (336 yds rush, 8 TD), WR Odell Beckham (41 rec)
Inside Scoop with Saturday Night Slant:
CFBZ: With Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal, who will replace him on defense and on special teams?
Saturday Night Slant: On defense, I'm not sure you really replace a guy like Mathieu. He was such an X-factor from his hybrid nickel back/SAM linebacker position that John Chavis's devised schemes specifically to free up Mathieu on blitzes and to get him around the football. All that has to change now, and I suspect that you'll see LSU play a lot more base 4-3 defense than they have the last two seasons. In that base defense, look for either Jalen Collins or Jalen Mills to start at Mathieu's cornerback position. Collins is a redshirt freshmen and Mills is a true freshman, so neither have taken a snap at the college level. Collins seemed to have a lock on the job, and his teammates were excited about his potential. One player called Collins the best athlete on LSU's team. But when Jalen Mills showed up this summer, he immediately started pushing for playing time. Collins got dinged during fall camp and Mills worked with the starters in his absence. Now, we're not sure if Collins will get his job back. I suspect both guys will get plenty of opportunities early in the season to prove they should be on the field.
As far as Mathieu's nickel back role, I think you'll see a few people combine to try and fill his shoes. First is safety Micah Eugene, a redshirt freshman, who should be LSU's nickel guy. Will LSU utilize him around the line of scrimmage and send him on blitzes as often as they did Mathieu? That remains to be seen. Also, look for a pair of linebackers. First is junior Tahj Jones, who at just 6'2" 205 pounds has plenty of quickness and should make plenty of plays behind the line of scrimmage. Jones played quite a bit in 2011 and notched 27 tackles, including 3.5 behind the line. But also watch for true freshman Deion Jones, who is similar in stature to Tahj at 6'2" 202. Deion Jones has been singled out by Les Miles numerous times as one of the more impressive freshmen during fall camp, and he'll get his opportunities on the field too.
On special teams, expect Odell Beckham Jr. to take over as the primary punt returner. He'll do a great job. Mathieu really didn't have any long returns last year until the final week of the regular season. But then he had three HUGE returns in span of two games against Arkansas and Georgia. I think we'll see more consistency from Beckham, and he's also got the ability to break the big ones.
Mathieu was also a standout on coverage teams as a gunner on punts. I've heard a lot of names mentioned for those spots and I suspect receiver Jarvis Landry will take one of them.
Overall, there is no replacing Mathieu's nose for the football and his knack for making big plays at exactly the right time. But I believe John Chavis will use a number of different people to make up for his production on the field.
CFBZ: What are the expectations for new QB Zach Mettenberger?
Saturday Night Slant: The expectations for Mettenberger are to direct a balanced offense. I've heard a lot about how LSU is going to "air it out" in 2012 now that they have a competent quarterback, but I think those opinions are pretty misguided. The Tigers are not going to suddenly try and become Oklahoma State or West Virginia. LSU has won a lot of games the last two seasons by playing outstanding defense and special teams and by winning the field position and turnover battles. They have also run the football effectively. The coaching staff did a great job of "coaching around" the quarterback position. But against other teams with similar talent, the lack of a passing game became a true weakness that LSU was not always able to overcome.
That recipe for success is not going to change much. LSU is still going to lean on a stout defense, outstanding special teams, and a devastating run game. In years past, opposing defenses would bring nine defenders in the box to stop LSU's running game, and LSU was content to run the ball anyway. This year? They'll try to make the opposition pay for doing so and in theory will back those extra defenders away from the line of scrimmage and keep them guessing. I think you'll see more three receiver sets than you did in 2010 and 2011, and you'll see more passing on early downs. Les Miles will probably even be a little more willing to risk turnovers in order to take some shots at some big plays. But the strength of the offense will still be the running game.
Most of all, Mettenberger needs to stay in control, take the plays that are there, limit turnovers, and be the catalyst for some big plays when the opportunities arise. Those are the expectations. If he can do that, this LSU team will be awfully tough to stop.
CFBZ: What needs to happen for LSU to win this SEC Championship again this season?
Saturday Night Slant: As always, a lot of things must happen. First and foremost, LSU needs to beat Alabama. LSU can win the West and get to Atlanta with a loss, but if that loss is to the Tide, it will be nearly impossible. LSU would then need to run the table in the rest of their games and hope Alabama loses twice more in conference.
LSU has to stay healthy without any injuries to major players. Obviously, an injury to Mettenberger would seriously derail their championship efforts. The backup heading into the season is Stephen Rivers, and he's probably not ready to be a starter in this league just yet. If that were to happen, I think we'd see Les Miles go back to being ultra conservative on offense while heavily leaning on the defense and special teams again. It probably won't be enough to win the SEC this year. Two more guys that LSU simply can't afford to lose are Tharold Simon and Eric Reid. Outside of Simon, LSU has nothing but freshmen at the cornerback position. Meanwhile, Reid is the glue in the secondary and for the entire defense.
Like any championship team, LSU must benefit from some good fortune as well. This team will certainly make their share of big plays, but will they make them at the right times? Will Eric Reid pull the ball away from Michael Williams a millisecond before they hit the ground? Or an instant after? Will someone make a huge special teams play to turn a wave of momentum like Mo Claiborne did against West Virginia last year? These are the types of things that championships do. A lot of that is due to preparation. But sometimes, the ball just has to bounce you way, too.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Saturday Night Slant: My gut feeling is that LSU won't be able to go undefeated for the second consecutive season. It's just too difficult, and LSU has zero "gimmes" on the road in SEC play having to travel to Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas. LSU will have a big target on their back this year, and I think they'll drop one of those road games. However, they'll sweep their games at home, finish the regular season 11-1 and go to Atlanta with a chance to win the SEC for the second straight year. Depending on what else happens around the country, they could have the chance to play for national title too.
The Tigers have a very tough three game stretch when they travel to Florida, come home to play South Carolina, and then travel to Texas A&M. My best bet is that they drop a game during that stretch. They'll have to play great football three weeks in a row in order to sweep those games, and that's difficult to do.
After the way that 2011 played out, this season has a bit of a "national championship or bust" feeling to it. The 2007 season had the same kind of build up to it and the team was able to come through and deliver on the hype. For many, anything short of a crystal football will be considered a disappointment. Personally, I try to be a bit more realistic because I understand how difficult it is to win it all. But looking big picture, it would be a shame if LSU wasn't able to capitalize on this "window of opportunity" with so many great players as upperclassmen the last two years and take home a crystal football. It won't diminish the things this group did accomplish, but it will feel like a bit of a missed opportunity.
LSU seemingly did everything right last year but then didn't finish the drill in the National Championship Game. Is that a bitter pill that will help them get back to the final game and finish this season? A wrench was thrown into the machine this off-season when play-maker Tryann Mathieu was kicked off the team. LSU proved it could navigate off-field issues last season but will the loss of Mathieu hurt more?
On offense, the questions surround Zach Mettenberger. Mettenberger brings more to the table than any of the QBs LSU had last season. Mettenberger has a cannon and could bring an interesting dimension to the offense and allow some of the receivers to step up and make more plays. While Mettenberger should make the Tigers more of a dual threat offense, they will still live and die with the running game. LSU has an embarrassment of riches at RB. They may not have the one go-to guy but they have at least four guys that they can depend on to get yards for them. LSU also has an experienced offensive line that features the second most returning starts in the SEC.
Statistically, LSU was the second best defense in the Nation last year behind Alabama. The combined loss of Morris Claiborne and Mathieu is going to hurt. They combined for eight interceptions, six forced fumbles (all Mathieu) and six touchdowns. The secondary should be helped by a deep and nasty defensive front let by Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Anthony Johnson. For a team to beat LSU, they are going to have to find a way around the d-line.
LSU will once again challenge for the SEC and National Championships. How Mettenberger is utilized will be very interesting and will add an extra dimension to LSU's offense if they choose to utilize it. The defense will once again be very good but the loss of two elite play-makers in the secondary will come into play at some point in the season. Will LSU be able to get past that point when it happens?
2012 Prediction: 11-1
Top 25 Countdown
#12 Michigan State
#14 Kansas State
#16 Virginia Tech
#17 Boise State
#19 Ohio State
#23 Oklahoma State
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