LSU was literally two plays away from playing for a SEC Championship and a trip to the BCS National Title game in 2012. Instead, one play on the road at Florida and a missed assignment at home against Alabama landed the Tigers in Atlanta for their postseason experience. It's probably unfair to pin that Chick-fi l-A draw on two snaps but it's hard not to see how things could have been different. Another 10-2 fi nish to the regular season in 2012 isn't something LSU fans should take for granted. It's especially not when your team plays in the SEC West. But the ending in Atlanta left a bad taste for everyone heading into the offseason. Simply put, an LSU team littered with NFL talent played poorly against a Clemson squad that many gave no chance at winning. A 37-yard fi eld goal fl oated through the uprights as time expired in the Georgia Dome that night. Clemson 25, LSU 24. All of a sudden the Tigers 10-3 overall record felt much worse than that.
A mass exodus quickly followed that contest. Along with a handful of seniors that saw their eligibility expire, ten Tiger underclassmen decided to take their talent to the NFL. The old cliché of "reloading not rebuilding" will be put to the test in 2013 as LSU head coach Les Miles and his staff look to fi ll holes on all three phases of the game. Not all is lost, however.
This unit may be counted on much more than in years past. Zach Mettenberger wasn't the so-called "savior" or "Mett-siah" in his fi rst year under center in Baton Rouge. It's safe to say no one expected the Georgia native to toss only 12 touchdowns against seven interceptions in 13 games as the team's quarterback. It proved how hard the adjustment from Junior College to major conference NCAA football can be. Were the expectations unfair for Mettenberger leading up to his inaugural year at LSU? Sure, they were. But, without signifi cant improvement in 2013 the strongarmed pocket passer would be labeled a major disappointment.
Last year's imperfections weren't entirely his fault. Often times when he put the ball on the money the receivers didn't do their job. His offensive line didn't help either. They rarely gave him time to get comfortable in the pocket and deliver the throw. That, in turn, never game Mettenberger a chance to get into a groove over the course of a game. There were fl ashes in 2012 of what many hope to see more of on a consistent basis in 2013. Mettenberger posted his best numbers during a three game stretch. It was against arguably the toughest competition he faced. He completed over 57-percent of his passes, threw four touchdowns and no interceptions in consecutive games during the middle of season against Texas A&M, Alabama and Mississippi State. There's no quarterback controversy in Baton Rouge. Mettenberger is the guy at the spot. The staff has invested a great deal of time in developing him and they are hoping to see the fruit of their labor in 2013.
At running back, LSU will have as good of a group as there is in the country when healthy and in good status with the program. Alfred Blue is back. If he can be anything close to where he was before last year's injury he'll play a huge role in the backfi eld. Kenny Hilliard has shown he can be a dominant player. He saw his playing time diminish last year with the emergence of Jeremy Hill. Hill showed why he has what it takes to be running back in the NFL in his freshman season. He also showed why he could miss out on that opportunity as the Baton Rouge native was arrested and booked with a misdemeanor simple battery on April 27 (As of this writing Hill was indefi nitely suspended from the LSU football team). Don't forget about Terrance Magee. He has waited his turn. Should Hill miss time or injury occur to anyone previously mentioned his role could be vital.
In 2012, LSU lacked a tall, big-time, "go up and get the ball" receiver they adored with Rueben Randle in 2011. They may have found their man in 2013. Junior College transfer Quantavious Lesile is a 6-foot-4 target who averaged over 21 yards per reception at Hinds Community College last season. He could play an immediate role for LSU and make the Tiger offense much more effi cient in the red zone. Jarvis Landry emerged as one of Mettenberger's favorite weapons by catching 56 balls for 573 yards a year ago. Odell Beckham Jr. will bring experience and veteran leadership to the unit. Kadron Boone, James Wright, Travin Dural, John Diarse and Avery Peterson will help provide plenty of competition to the group.
The staring offensive line of La'el Collins (LT), Josh Williford (LG), Elliot Porter (C), Trai Turner (RG) and Vadal Alexander (RT) could be one of the best in the conference if healthy. They're experienced and should be just what the doctor ordered for Mettenberger and company this season.
There's a great deal of turnover for the defense in 2013. Plenty of guys will get their chance to make a name for themselves as six of the teams top nine tacklers are no longer with the team. Danielle Hunter, Jordan Allen and Jermauria Rasco will hope to bring pressure from the edge at the defensive end spot. Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson highlight the always rotating defensive line. It will be hard to replace Kevin Minter (130 tackles) at linebacker. But John Chavis has plenty of options to try. Tahj Jones, D.J. Welter, Lamin Barrow are the upperclassmen who will be counted on. Kwon Alexander, Lamar Louis, Ronnie Feist and Kendall Beckwith will all get a chance to help as underclassmen. Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins are back at the cornerback spots after stellar freshman campaigns. Craig Loston is rated one of the top safeties in the country. Ronald Martin and Corey Thompson are up and coming free safeties that round out the LSU defense.
The Australian punter theme continues for LSU in 2013. Jamie Keehn will be the guy to replace Brad Wing at that spot. The kicking job is a major concern. James Hairston, Colby Delahoussaye and Trent Domingue will battle for that job. Odell Beckham Jr., Terrance Magee and Jarvis Landry are proven return specialist. But incoming freshman Tre'Davious White and Jeryl Brazil will get a chance to shine as youngsters.
This year's team won't have nearly the expectations or hype the two previous LSU teams did. That could be a good thing for this team that will be replacing a massive amount of talent. Cam Cameron was hired to get the offense in gear. He should help. But LSU's schedule is brutally tough. The SEC West slate that features reigning National Champion Alabama, Texas A&M with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, up and coming Ole Miss won't be easy. But SEC East games against Georgia (in Athens) and Florida only add to the diffi culty of competing in the toughest conference in America. Last year the 10-3 overall record may have been a disappointment. That same record may be overachieving in 2013.
Photos by Jonathan Bachman