By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
LSU Tigers 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 13-1, 8-0 SEC
Spring practice: Mar. 1-Mar 31
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 5, K/P — 2
Passing: Zach Mettenberger, 8 of 11, 92 yards, 1 TD
Rushing: Michael Ford, 127 att., 756 yards, 7 TDs
Receiving: Odell Beckham, 41 rec., 475 yards, 4 TDs
Tackles: Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Reid, 76
Sacks: Sam Montgomery, 9
Interceptions: Four tied with 2
Redshirts to watch: CB Jalen Collins, DT Mickey Johnson, DL Quentin Thomas, OL Jonah Austin, CB David Jenkins, DB Micah Eugene
SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis
Sept. 1 North Texas
Sept. 8 Washington
Sept. 15 Idaho
Sept. 22 at Auburn
Sept. 29 Towson University
Oct. 6 at Florida
Oct. 13 South Carolina
Oct. 20 at Texas A&M
Nov. 3 Alabama
Nov. 10 Mississippi State
Nov. 17 Ole Miss
Nov. 23 or 24 at Arkansas
Offensive Strength: LSU might possess the best combination of offensive line experience and running back depth/talent in the entire nation. This team has been built on a physical offensive presence up front and 2012 could feature the best power rushing attack in the nation.
Offensive Weakness: One doesn't have to search to hard to find the biggest question mark on offense. Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee were not championship quarterbacks and it was the primary reason LSU failed so miserably in the BCS title game. And entering 2012, one very large (try 6-5, 220 pounds) question mark still exists under center: Can former Georgia Bulldog Zach Mettenberger become the leader — and passer — that Les Miles needs to win his second championship?
Defensive Strength: Just like the offense, this unit starts with a dominate front line. The loss of Michael Brockers certainly hurts, but eight of the top ten defensive lineman return. This group includes the top two sack masters in Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Much like the offensive line, this has a chance to be the top unit in the nation.
Defensive Weakness: Replacing Morris Claiborne and Brandon Taylor will be much tougher than a team with a Heisman finalists returning to the secondary likely expects. That said, there is still loads of talent in the defensive backfield, so the biggest question mark has to fall to the linebackers. Kevin Minter is the only returning starter and is a solid player, but the star power on this defense is clearly up front and in the secondary. On a unit that really has no weaknesses, this group could be considered the biggest question mark.
Spring Storylines Facing the Bayou Bengals:
1. Coping with the pain. This team arogantly and prematurely used the words "greatest ever" to describe iteself entering its national title remmatch with Alabama. After one of the worst performances in BCS history, LSU is trying to regroup and refocus on winning a national championship — and it has as good a chance as any team in the nation to do so in 2012. Few 13-win coaches have ever been under as much scrutiny as Les Miles will face this fall, so simply getting back onto the field this spring will go along way to put January 9 in the rearview mirror. All of his doubters had been silenced by the 13-0 start, but after his team appeared woefully underprepared, all of the same questions about Miles' coaching ceiling have resurfaced. To quote The Hat himself, do the Bayou Bengals have the "chest" to rebound from their performance in New Orleans? Only time will tell, and time, like spring football, cures all.
2. Is Mettenberger the answer under center? Jefferson was downright atrocious in the title game and Lee never got a chance to spark the offense. On a team that has one of the best collection of running backs in the nation and returns four of five offensive lineman, the quarterback position is the glaring issue. If Mettenberger is that good, why didn't he push for playing time in 2011? The LSU coaches and players feel that without the competition, Mettenberger will be more comfortable in his role and should develop into the passer most expected from the highly-touted prep prospect. Make no mistake, Mettenberger and the Tigers can win most games by turning around and handing it off. But against that team from Tuscaloosa, or Los Angeles for that matter, the quarterback will have to make plays.
3. Just how good is the Honey Badger? Yes, he made the big plays. Yes, he was the Heisman finalist. Yes, he has the cool nickname. But many believe (correctly) that Morris Claiborne was the best cornerback on the team. With the additional loss of strong safety Brandon Taylor, more of the onus will fall to the Honey Badger to be a leader on and off the field. Without the Jim Thorpe winner on the other side, and with at least one suspension under his belt already, Tyrann Mathieu becomes the best and most important defensive back in Baton Rouge.
4. Miles plays a lot of names along the defensive line and in the linebacking collective, so replacing two starters at linebacker shouldn't be a huge stumbling block for LSU. Yet, Ryan Baker, Karnell Hatcher and Stefoin Francois have moved on and filling those gaps will be key this spring. Considering the amount of talent still on the roster — and a stellar five-man in-coming LB class as well — Miles shouldn't struggle to find playmakers. Tajh Jones, Lamin Barrow and Luke Muncie will get the first crack at earning a starting spot.
5. Sorting out the carries in the backfield. This is clearly an issue every team in the nation would like to have, but deciding who gets the bulk (if anyone) of the carries in 2012 could be a big part of the spring. Michael Ford led the team in rushing (756 yards), Spencer Ware got the most carries by a wide margin (177 to 127) and freshman Kenny Hilliard might have played the best down the stretch in 2011. Hilliard and Ware led the team with eight touchdowns. Toss in Alfred Blue, who rushed for 539 yards and seven scores of his own last fall, and Miles has a gluttonous collection of talent in the backfield. All of whom likely want the football.
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