If there is a team in college football itching to get back to meaningful action more than LSU, you’d be hard pressed to find them. The 2011 regular season was something LSU fans have long dreamed about. Week by week, game by game, Les Miles and company took down whatever stood in their way. If it was an opponent or an off-the-field distraction, that didn’t matter. The Tigers completed their first ever 12-0 season in program history and captured its second SEC championship under Miles’ reign. That’s the good news.
The bad news can be explained by describing the events of Jan. 9. Simply put, LSU was outplayed and outcoached versus Alabama in the BCS Championship game. The Tigers looked like they didn’t belong on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf with the same team they beat just two months before. The Tigers offense was putrid, crossing the 50-yard line just once during the game. Alabama 21, LSU 0.
Hope is here
Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee are gone. LSU fans finally had a chance to see the man they’ve been waiting for at LSU’s spring game. His name, Zach Mettenberger, or as Tiger fans are already calling him, “The Mettssiah.” The 6’5” junior college transfer shook off an early red-zone interception by tossing two second-quarter touchdowns. Mettenberger finished the day completing 14 of 25 of his passes for 270 yards and two interceptions (one of which was completely not his fault). That game didn’t count for anything, the ones in the fall will.
Mettenberger’s career began in the SEC, at Georgia, where he was battling current Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray for the starting gig. Mettenberger would not win that job. He was instead kicked off the team for violating team rules in the spring of 2010. He’d find a new home fairly quickly in Kansas at Butler Community College. It was there he led his team to an 11-1 record and a berth in the JUCO National Championship Game. He threw for 2,678 yards, 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Granted, the talent level from JUCO to SEC isn’t even close; nonetheless, his numbers were staggering.
In 2011, he mostly sat and watched behind Jefferson and Lee as both seniors took turns navigating a deadly offense that lacked a gun-slinging arm. In his little action behind center, Mettenberger didn’t disappoint. In mop-up duty against Northwestern State, the Georgia native connected on eight of his 11 passes including a touchdown strike to Kadron Boone from 19 yards out. Fans wouldn’t get to see much more of Mettenberger throughout the season other than time-killing possessions against Western Kentucky, Auburn, Kentucky and Ole Miss. What they saw against the Demons of Northwestern State was more than enough to provide hope for the future.
Barring injury, (Tiger fans knock on wood here) Mettenberger will start every game.
That’s a given. Should “The Mettssiah” go down, redshirt freshman Steven Rivers would be next in line. His 6’7” frame is a work-in-progress. He’s not exactly ready for SEC play just yet. Jerrard Randall will be waiting behind Rivers. Randall carries a much smaller (but quicker) body at 6’1” and provides a duel threat to opposing defenses. Still, Randall isn’t an ideal option under center for 2012.
This group is absolutely loaded with talent and depth. The question becomes who gets the ball and in what situations they will get it. Junior Spencer Ware handled most of the load at the beginning of last year and finished with eight touchdowns. Fellow junior Michael Ford was the teams leading rusher with 757 yards on the ground. Alfred Blue fit nicely into the mix with 539 yards and seven touchdowns.
Kenny Hilliard, a sophomore, made a name for himself in the latter part of the season.
His hard-nosed style of rushing led the way to eight scores in just 62 carries. All eyes in 2012 will be on Jeremy Hill who sat out the 2011 season but should push for carries come fall. The talented frosh carried the ball six times for 37 yards in the spring game. JC Copeland and Conner Neighbors will lead the way at fullback.
They call themselves the “Fab 5.” Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Russell Shepard, James Wright and Kadron Boone make up that group. The receivers are anxious to have a pro-style quarterback that can really spread the ball around. Beckham Jr. was stellar in his freshman campaign with 41 grabs for 475 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Shepard, a senior, will try and top his production from last year where he caught 14 balls for four touchdowns. Landry, Wright and Boone combined to catch 16 passes and two scores (both by Boone).
Remember though, LSU was a run-first team last year. But then again they more than likely will be the same in 2012. The “Fab 5” combines with Mettenberger to make up the collection they call the “Quick 6.” Chase Clement and Tyler Edwards will likely be the starting tight ends.
Four starters return to make this unit one of the most experienced in the SEC. Senior P.J. Lonergan will be the starting center after 11 starts a year ago. Josh Williford (right) and La’el Collins (left) will be the likely starters at the guard positions. Alex Hurst (right) and Chris Faulk (left) round out the first-team tackle spots. Josh Dworaczyk, Vadal Alexander and Elliot Porter will likely all see action and fill in for injuries, if they occur.
This unit continues to reload year after year. The two starting ends are back as Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo enter their junior seasons near the top of almost every 2013 mock draft. Sophomore Jermauria Rasco is sure to see snaps at end too. At the tackle spots, there will be plenty of depth. Look for Bennie Logan, Josh Downs, Anthony “Freak” Johnson and Ego Ferguson to get the most reps.
Kevin Minter (MLB) and Tahj Jones (SLB) make up two-thirds of the starting linebacker corps. Lamin Barrow, Luke Muncie and several youngsters will push for snaps in the spot opposite Jones. That group includes Lamar Louis, Ronnie Feist, Kwon Alexander and Lorenzo Phillips.
If you haven’t heard, Tiger defensive backs have a nickname for their unit – DBU, Defensive Back University. Morris Claiborne, Patrick Peterson and LaRon Landry are some of the alumni. In 2012, Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon will solidify the cornerback spots with Jalen Collins and Dwayne Thomas in the mix in heavy passing situations. Eric Reid holds a firm grip at free safety. Craig Loston hopes he can stay healthy in 2012. If so, he’ll be the strong safety. Ronald Martin and Micah Eugene will see action in the secondary as well.
Look for Mathieu and Beckham Jr. to handle return duties. The honey badger was electrifying, returning punts a year ago, singlehandedly putting LSU in a few a games (see Arkansas and UGA). Russell Shepard could see action in the return game too. Both Drew Alleman (kicker) and Brad Wing (punter) are back, giving LSU one of the top special teams groups in the country.
Getting the Last One
When you play in the SEC, the schedule will never be easy. But when looking at LSU’s path to the BCS in 2012, it looks much easier than the trek they took to get there in 2011. With non-conference games against North Texas, Washington, Idaho and Towson, the Tigers won’t face a ranked opponent outside the SEC. The road portion of the conference schedule won’t be a cakewalk, with trips to Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas (Fayetteville). In Tiger Stadium, LSU will face South Carolina, Alabama (at night) and both schools from Mississippi. Anything other than a BCS Championship game victory will leave Tiger fans disappointed. Make it especially disappointed if Mettenberger bolts for the NFL after the season. No one predicted a 12-0 regular season record a year ago. I won’t do that here. But, look for a similar record (13-1) and the Tigers winning their final game. The question becomes: Will that win be for a National Title or just another Cotton Bowl or Sugar Bowl trophy?