2012 LSU Football Preview: Precious Les And 1 More Win

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 3: Bennie Logan #93 of the LSU Tigers celebrates after the SEC Championship Game against the Georgia Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome on December 3, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

In 2011, Les Miles fielded his most Milesian team, right down to its limitations. In 2012, a new secondary attempts to hold the fort while a new quarterback tries to show that the Tigers can throw the ball when they absolutely have to this time around. Related: LSU's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Tigers football, visit LSU blog And The Valley Shook, plus SEC blog Team Speed Kills.

There are no mundane sensations on the Bayou, it seems. There is no fear, only terror. No casual delight, only pure, joyous bliss. No tipsy, only drunk. It is exactly like being an LSU fan.

If you take your cues from music, you quickly conclude that living in the Bayou makes you either want to drink, die, kill somebody, or write a song about drinking, dying or killing somebody. Those are your four options. The heat and humidity that have suffocated much of the Central time zone this summer are de rigueur in southern Louisiana. You cannot breathe, you cannot think, and only something in liquid or leather form can distract you from inevitable defeat at nature's hands.

Did Les Miles truly exist before he came to Baton Rouge? Did he chew grass in Stillwater? Was he reveling in chaos as Bo Schembechler's offensive line coach? Or did he not truly become Les Miles until he and Baton Rouge found each other?

That's from last summer's LSU preview, written before Miles' masterpiece of an LSU season. Every word I wrote last year was reinforced with steel in a 2011 season that saw not one mundane second. What LSU did well, they did magnificently. When they failed (just once), they did so in spectacular fashion. Somehow, Les Miles created an entire team in his image: weird and wonderful, capable of awing and confusing you at the same time. And like so many things Bayou-related, the final chapter took a really, really negative turn.


Previewing LSU's 2012 season in two minutes

Through 13 games in 2011, LSU had prepared one of the most impressive resumes in college football's history. They had beaten Oregon in Dallas. They had whipped West Virginia in Morgantown. They had emasculated Florida and Auburn, winners of three of the previous five national titles, by a combined score of 86-21. They won at Alabama, for crying out loud. They absorbed a solid uppercut from Arkansas (14-0 after 20 minutes) and won, 41-17, then took Georgia's best shot in the SEC title game (10-0 after 24 minutes) and won, 42-10. They were faster than you, more physical than you, more well-conditioned than you and packed with far more personality and attitude. This truly was Les Miles' most Milesian team, right down to its limitations. But forced by decimal points to face Alabama a second time, they found out that said limitations were eventually fatal.

When they absolutely had to pass, they couldn't. That was, for all intents and purposes, the Tigers' only weakness in 2011. They didn't mind facing deficits because patience and a great running game could usually bail them out. But it couldn't against Alabama in the BCS title game, and when they had to go to the air, it just didn't work out. Jordan Jefferson completed 11 of 17 passes for just 53 yards and was sacked four times for 26 yards. That's 21 total pass attempts for 27 yards. LSU did not cross midfield versus Alabama until its second-to-last series of the game, and even then, Jefferson was sacked back behind the 50 and fumbled.

Granted, cornerback Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal cast a bit of a pall on LSU's offseason; but even without Mathieu, LSU's secondary still has plenty of potential, as do the other (minimal) areas in which they experienced change. Still, all eyes will be on new quarterback Zach Mettenberger in 2012. Whether he is good or terrible, LSU will once again field an excellent team this fall, but there will come a time when he absolutely needs to complete a pass to keep the Tigers moving toward their third national title in a decade. Can he do it?


Related: Check out LSU's statistical profile and a look at LSU's football history.

Last Year

Here's more of what I said about Miles and company last summer:

In an era of coachspeak and clinical, precise offenses, Les Miles has figured out how to strip games down to a visceral, chaotic core; you may not want to go there, but you're going there, and you better know how to handle yourself in this bizarre world of odd time management, spectacular fake field goals and general ridiculousness. Because he does. His record in close games proves that. In the last six years, no team has played in, or won, more close games than Miles' Bayou Bengals. College football is a land full of wonder, mystery and danger. Some say to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter. Especially in Louisiana. […]

What truly makes Les Miles a perfect fit for the Bayou (or at least, the version you find in music and on Treme) is the way he reminds you there are no easy answers, no black-and-white, only shades of gray. No coach is simply smart or dumb. No team is perfect or atrocious (except New Mexico, anyway). And this sport over which we choose to obsess has so much going for it, and so much going against it. With Miles and LSU, we get the best and worst of the game. We get to turn into children, gazing in wonder at the ridiculous things that can happen in a college football game ... and we also get connections to Willie Lyles.

In 2011, we should in some ways get a magnified version of last year's LSU team. A good running game could get better. A good pass defense could, despite the loss of Peterson, get better too. Meanwhile, a questionable run defense might be just as iffy, and ... well, who the hell knows about the passing game?

The schedule, of course, is the largest impediment, even larger than the late-game oddities. Despite ranking them fifth in our F.O. projections, we still have them going a likely 9-3. They have the second-best chance of finishing 7-1 or better in the West (11%, far behind Alabama's 68%), but getting past a ridiculous road slate is likely almost impossible, even for a team that doesn't revel in chaos.


Hey, y'all. Shutdown Fullback talks SEC.

Here's the thing about both Alabama and LSU in 2011: their offenses were, as a whole, tremendous. They played at a snail-slow pace -- if LSU had averaged 75 plays per game instead of 62.1, they'd have averaged around 430 yards per game, a top-30 total; if Alabama had averaged 75 plays, they'd have generated about 485 per game, a top-10 total -- and they rarely had to take any risks because their defenses were so good (and in LSU's case, the Tigers had one of the best special teams units ever), but on a per-play and per-drive basis, both were top-notch. Considering the blue-chip talent each had on that side of the ball, this makes sense, but it flies in the face of the general "all defense, no offense" meme that dominated most of last season. Only twice all season did LSU's offense play at a below-average level: in the opener against Oregon and in the national title game. Otherwise this team just got more and more dominant as the year progressed.

Using Adj. Score, here is how LSU progressed in 2011 against teams not named Alabama:

First Four Games: LSU 30.2, Opponents 16.4 (plus-13.8)
Next Four Games: LSU 34.3, Opponents 22.0 (plus-12.3)
Next Four Games: LSU 37.3, Opponents 19.2 (plus-18.1)

The November stretch that saw the Tigers outscore Western Kentucky, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Georgia by a combined 177 to 39 was some of the best football any team has played in recent memory. And considering four potentially great running backs, five of the top six wideouts, five offensive linemen with a year's worth of starting experience, seven of the top nine defensive linemen, and five of the top seven linebackers return, one should expect much of the same.

Offense


SB Nation Studios previews the SEC with SEC speeeeeeed.

It's so easy to simply focus on the quarterback position, isn't it? Poor Jordan Jefferson looked so out of sorts versus Alabama in the BCS title game, to the point where LSU fans were irate that Les Miles wouldn't stick Jarrett Lee in the game; that's the same Jarrett Lee who got subbed out because of ineffectiveness in the first Alabama game. For the season as a whole, both Lee and Jefferson brought enough to the table to keep LSU moving forward, but against one of the best defenses in recent memory, they just didn't have it. (Did anybody?)

But before we talk about that position, let's talk about the others. There is a lot to like.

Running Back. It is an absolute embarrassment of riches for the Bayou Bengals in the backfield. Juniors Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue and sophomore Kenny Hilliard combined to create a lovely stat line: 456 carries (33 per game), 2,362 yards (5.2 per carry), 30 touchdowns and a plus-39.2 Adj. POE (meaning they were about 39 points better than the average rusher given their carries, blocking and opponents). So basically, they were Montee Ball. Hilliard came on strong late in his freshman year (against Ole Miss, Arkansas and Georgia: 36 carries, 233 yards, four touchdowns), but in the spring the depth chart here was basically seen as a four-way "either/or" situation. This fall, it appears that Blue and Hilliard have been a step ahead of the others, but one has to figure that everybody will get some carries. LSU was incredibly run-heavy last year -- they ran 75 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and 40 percent on passing downs (national average: 33 percent) -- and that was only partially because of potential limitations in the passing game. It was mostly because the Tigers were really good at it, and they were able to soften up and wear out opposing defenses after shutting down opposing offenses.

Wide Receivers. Because of the effectiveness of the running game, the passing game was perfectly solid for much of the year. Jarrett Lee had his limitations, obviously, but until he was overtaken by Jefferson on the depth chart during the first Alabama game, he had put together a lovely passing line: 62 percent completion rate, 7.5 yards per pass attempt, a minuscule 2.3 percent sack rate and 14 touchdowns to three interceptions (14 to one before Alabama). Former five-star signee Rueben Randle finished his conversion from athlete to wideout in 2011 and exploded: 930 yards, 10.7 per target. He and LSU's No. 3 target, tight end Deangelo Peterson, are both gone; but everybody else returns, including intriguing sophomore Odell Beckham (504 yards, 8.3 per target, 72 percent catch rate), a possession receiver with potentially elite speed, and former star recruits like senior Russell Shepard, juniors Kadron Boone and James Wright, and sophomore Jarvis Landry. Those four combined for only 29 catches for 342 yards last year, but without Randle around as the center of gravity, any of these players could emerge as the New Randle. Wright has showed up as a go-to guy this fall, while Landry had 120 receiving yards in the spring game after missing much of 2011 with injury.

Tight Ends. Randle and Beckham combined for 53 percent of LSU's targets last year, so there wasn't a lot of oxygen left to share with the tight ends. Peterson (186 yards, 6.6 per target, 68 percent catch rate) was decent, but between senior Chase Clement and sophomores Travis Dickson and Nic Jacobs, there is more than enough talent here to, at worst, replicate Peterson's production.

Offensive Line. The bruising, effective run game helped to produce two all-conference linemen in 2011: tackle Alex Hurst and guard Will Blackwell. Hurst returns in 2012, as do four other linemen with generous starting experience: center P.J. Lonergan, tackle Chris Faulk, and guards Josh Williford and Josh Dworaczyk. The five have combined for 103 career starts, and when you throw in former blue-chippers like junior Chris Davenport, sophomore La'el Collins, redshirt freshman Trai Turner and freshman Vadal Alexander, it is safe to say that that LSU should be able to make a run at another top-five performance in the Adj. Line Yards measure.

When you take into account the talent surrounding him, you come to realize that Zach Mettenberger doesn't have to be the second coming of Tommy Hodson or Y.A. Tittle for LSU to win a lot of games in 2012. After all, this was a fantastic team last year with Jefferson and Lee. That Mettenberger wasn't able to take Jefferson and Lee LAST year makes me want to resist the hype a little bit, but there's no question that a) Mettenberger's got a much stronger arm than either of last year's quarterbacks, which could make LSU absolutely devastating and explosive in play-action (and they were pretty damn explosive last year), and b) he's been setting the bar awfully high with his fall performance thus far. The former Georgia Bulldog is saying and doing all of the right things right now, and there is, to say the least, a lot to like here.

If Mettenberger were to get hurt or be rendered completely ineffective, it appears the other options are either redshirt freshman Stephen Rivers (Philip's 6'8 "little" brother) or, perhaps, Penn State transfer Rob Bolden. Okay, it's Rivers.

Defense

Advanced stats sometimes have a reputation for anti-social behavior. They say "Actually, no…" a lot, often with an ode of superiority, and they occasionally try to tell you things with which your eyes vociferously disagree. For instance, because of the way it used the passing game, LSU ranked second in the country in Passing S&P+ last year; no set of eyeballs in the country would agree with that one, not even Jordan Jefferson's.

But while numbers sometimes need context (and sometimes need a LOT of context) … sometimes they don't. For instance: the 2011 Def. F/+ rankings, where Alabama's and LSU's defenses were head and shoulders above those of anybody else. The distance between No. 2 LSU (plus-17.7 percent) and No. 3 Oklahoma State (plus-11.3 percent) was the same as the distance between Oklahoma State and No. 25 Michigan (plus-4.9 percent). These two teams just played a different game than everybody else. Alabama was content to bearhug you until you passed out, but LSU went about things in a far more exciting way. If the Tide were Warlord and Barbarian, methodical and full of brute force, the Bayou Bengals were the Road Warriors, flying at you from all fronts and giving one hell of an interview afterwards. (And let's face it: Les Miles is closer to Precious Paul Ellering than any other football coach.)

That LSU can lose players as good as tackle Michael Brockers (10.0 tackles for loss), end Kendrick Adams (6.5 tackles for loss), linebacker Ryan Baker (3.5 tackles for loss), safety Brandon Taylor (7.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, five passes broken up), and of course corners Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne and Ron Brooks (combined: an incredible 15.0 tackles for loss, 10 interceptions, 21 passes broken up) and still be expected to play at an elite level says a lot about the ridiculous depth defensive coordinator John Chavis has at his disposal. But before we talk about the superlatives, and there are plenty, let's talk about the one significant area of concern: depth in the secondary.

If recruiting rankings are any indication, LSU should probably be just fine. New secondary coach Corey Raymond still has free safety Eric Reid (two interceptions, three passes broken up, 2.0 tackles for loss) serving as one of the best "last line of defense" guys in the country, and he still has junior cornerback Tharold Simon (two interceptions, 10 passes broken up, 2.5 tackles for loss). In addition, former five-star safety Craig Loston, a junior, prepares for a larger role, and four-star corners Jalen Collins (redshirt freshman) and Dwayne Thomas (true freshman) are kicking around as well. Collins had a great spring, and another true freshman, Jalen Mills, has quickly emerged as a more-than-viable option. But as exciting as the new guys may be, you're still asking a unit with two true veterans and a ton of youth to replicate the proficiency of what was perhaps the fastest, most intimidating secondary in the country. That will probably backfire at some point, if only briefly, possibly in road trips to either Texas A&M or Arkansas (or both).

Of course, if you are looking for ways to take pressure off a young secondary, having the fastest, deepest defensive line in the country is a strong place to start. Let's put it this way: on almost any other line in the country, stud sophomores Jermauria Rasco (end) and Ego Ferguson (tackle) would be slam-dunk starters. At LSU, they're looking at backup roles after combining for just 21.5 tackles last year. Ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo combined for 28.5 tackles for loss and 17.0 sacks last year, and senior Lavar Edwards threw in another 4.5. (In all, 15 Tigers had at least 2.5 tackles for loss, which is just silliness.) They all return, as do Rasco and other four-star sophomores like Jordan Allen and Justin Maclin who can't even crack the rotation. At tackle, meanwhile, they come no quicker than junior Bennie Logan (6.5 tackles for loss); sophomores Anthony Johnson and Ferguson give LSU as good a trio as any in the country, and somehow they are all underclassmen.

LSU's defense was funny last year. The defensive line and secondary were so devastating and worthy of so much attention that it took me a while to remember the name of a single linebacker. With such a ridiculous line, LSU doesn't have to blitz much, so the job of the linebackers is as much the cleaning of messes as anything else. Only two (Baker and middle linebacker Kevin Minter) logged more than 18.0 tackles (meanwhile, four linemen did the same), but with a thinner secondary, we can probably expect more three-linebacker looks from Chavis this fall. Minter and interesting attacker Tahj Jones (3.5 tackles for loss among 18.0 tackles) lead the way, though a batch of SIX interesting true freshmen is worth watching; Trey Granier and Lamar Louis could potentially play a solid role pretty quickly.

Defining Success

It probably goes without saying that LSU fans will feel disappointed with anything less than another SEC title and BCS title game bid this year. And with potentially its two best opponents (Alabama and South Carolina) visiting Baton Rouge, the schedule could set up nicely for that.

I don't think this team goes undefeated -- Alabama will be great again, Arkansas can't wait for its revenge attempt in Fayetteville, and as I aid in the preview video above, LSU will most likely get an A++++ game from Texas A&M, a team that could match up reasonably well with them -- but 11-1 would probably win the West and give the Tigers an excellent BCS shot. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 gives LSU a 53 percent chance of going 11-1 or better, so we'll indeed set the bar there.

Prognosis

Our last glimpse of LSU in 2011 was one of a disjointed, frustrated team, one that played its worst game of the season in its biggest game. Throw in the loss of two top-15 draft picks and the dismissal of Mathieu, and you could probably put together a case that 2012 will be a season that is more frustrating than any of us think.

But the odds are still on LSU's side; the Tigers will still have as devastating and punishing a run game as anybody, they will still have an absolutely incredible defensive line, and they still have plenty of quality prospects ready for their chance to shine in the thinner, more potentially questionable units. I don't see this team being quite as good as last year's, but it might not need to be to get another national title shot. Les Miles should have another ferocious team on his hands, and hey, if Mettenberger really is Tommy Hodson incarnate...

For more on Tigers football, visit LSU blog And The Valley Shook, plus SEC blog Team Speed Kills.

While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel:

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