By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The Tigers were the best team in the regular season, but couldn't deliver with the national title on the line. LSU was thoroughly dominated by Alabama 21-0 in the championship, but all is not lost for coach Les Miles. With a solid core of talent returning on both sides of the ball, LSU could begin 2012 as the No. 1 team in the preseason poll.
Key players coming back: RB Spencer Ware, RB Michael Ford, RB Kenny Hilliard, WR Russell Shepard, WR Odell Beckham, LT Chris Faulk, RT Alex Hurst, DE Sam Montgomery, DE Barkevious Mingo, DT Bennie Logan, DT Michael Brockers, LB Kevin Minter, CB Tyrann Mathieu, CB Tharold Simon, S Eric Reid, K Drew Alleman, P Brad Wing
Seniors departing: QB Jordan Jefferson, QB Jarrett Lee, OG Will Blackwell, TE Deangelo Peterson, LB Ryan Baker, CB Ron Brooks, S Brandon Taylor
Could Leave Early for NFL Draft: WR Rueben Randle, CB Morris Claiborne
Top Incoming Recruits:
Offense Preview for 2012
There will always be bumps in the road when going through a quarterback transition. However, LSU’s new signal-caller in 2012 is stepping into a good situation. Led by Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Kenny Hilliard, the Tigers own one of the top running back stables in the nation. LSU likely won’t have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2012 due to the split carries, but production won’t be an issue.
The offensive line was among the best in college football in 2011 and won’t miss a beat next year. Four starters return, including All-SEC tackle Alex Hurst. Guard Josh Dworaczyk missed all of 2011 due to a knee injury, but is expected to step back into a starting role next season.
Considering what LSU has returning in the trenches and at running back, the quarterback won’t need to do much. Zach Mettenberger is ready for his chance at the starting job, but he could be pushed by incoming freshman Gunner Kiel – the No. 2 ranked quarterback in the Athlon Consensus 100. Mettenberger has a big arm, but is largely untested, throwing only 11 passes in his career. He should be an upgrade over Jordan Jefferson in terms of overall passing ability, but the Tigers could lose No. 1 receiver Rueben Randle to the NFL Draft. If Randle departs, Odell Beckham and Russell Shepard will become a bigger factor in the passing attack.
Defense Preview for 2012
With Alabama losing several key players, LSU should own the top defense in college football next year.
Much of the success for LSU’s defense starts with the defensive line. The Tigers have a nice blend of All-American talent with promising depth. Ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo will form one of the top pass-rush combinations in college football. Bennie Logan and Michael Brockers anchor the interior of the line, but Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson will see plenty of snaps.
The linebacking corps will lose Stefoin Francois and Ryan Baker, but Kevin Minter returns to lead the way in the middle. Tahj Jones, Luke Muncie and Lamin Barrow all saw limited action in 2011, but will be pressed into a bigger role next season. Reloading the linebacking corps is arguably one of the easiest tasks for a defensive coordinator, so despite the losses, this isn’t a major issue for LSU in 2012.
Throw out a 463-yard passing performance by West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, and LSU allowed only 141.9 yards through the air during the regular season. Cornerback Morris Claiborne is expected to declare for the NFL Draft, but the Tigers’ aren’t without depth in the secondary. Tyrann Mathieu was a Heisman finalist and is one of college football’s top gamechangers on defense. Safety Eric Reid made several key plays during the 2011 season and will challenge for All-SEC honors next year. Brandon Taylor departs at strong safety, but Craig Loston was another highly-touted prospect and has been waiting for his turn. LSU will miss Claiborne’s shutdown ability at cornerback, but Tharold Simon could be one of the top breakout players in 2012.
2012 Schedule Breakdown
With Alabama and LSU expected to be neck-and-neck for the SEC West race, the division title could come down to their meeting on Nov. 3. The Tigers knocked off the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa this year, and Alabama has to visit Baton Rouge in 2012. LSU must hit the road for conference games against Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas, while in addition to Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Ole Miss visit Tiger Stadium.
The non-conference portion of the schedule is very manageable. LSU hosts North Texas, Washington, Idaho and Towson next year. The Huskies will bring a dangerous offense to Baton Rouge, but the defense needs to show major improvement to challenge LSU.
The Tigers could stumble at Auburn or Florida, but they should enter the final month of the regular season with an 8-0 record. However, LSU must play Alabama and Arkansas in November, which makes the last month of the season a make-or-break portion of the schedule.
Can LSU Play for the National Title Next Year?
Here’s a scary thought for the SEC: LSU could be even better next year. The Tigers have some losses, but nothing that should deter another run at a spot in the national title game. Getting Mettenberger or Kiel comfortable under center early will be crucial, but the schedule breaks well for the Tigers. Washington will be a good test for LSU in Week 2, but Mettenberger won’t travel on the road until Sept. 22 against a suspect Auburn defense.
Expect the Tigers to use the same formula as it has done under Les Miles once again in 2012: Defense and running the football. LSU will have one of the deepest backfields in college football next year, and a defense that will suffocate opposing offenses. A road date against Arkansas and a Nov. 3 clash against Alabama will likely make-or-break the LSU’s national title hopes. However, the early returns suggest this team will begin 2012 as the favorite to win it all.