Published April 19, 2012 - 11:41am
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Flip through a college football preseason magazine and you’re sure to see returning star quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Landry Jones, leaders of the heralded offenses at BCS big wigs Southern Cal and Oklahoma.
In the middle — in full, glossy color — lies a poster of speedsters De’Anthony Thomas and Tavon Austin, a pair of 2012 Heisman candidates who provide most of Sportscenter’s highlight footage from Eugene, Ore. and Morgantown, W. Va.
Somewhere in the front half of the publication — past the UGA infatuation — you’ll see an insert of Les Miles and his LSU Tigers, a precursor to a story about the epic fail that was the Alabama game.
Is this lack of respect really fair? Have folks forgotten about the Bayou Bengals?
After all, the Mad Hatter and his Tigers have won 24 of their last 27 games including an impressive 13 contests against ranked teams. They gave the Ducks and Mountaineers the business in prime time early in 2011, but after stinking it up on offense against the Tide in New Orleans, LSU is suddenly afterthought.
Somewhere, the Honey Badger is smiling.
And ready to force another fumble.
The Tigers, a preseason Top 5 in most way-too-early polls, have eight home games this season and one challenging road game (Arkansas in November). The non-conference tilts, compared to last year’s gauntlet, is laughable — four automatic wins (North Texas, Washington, Idaho and Towson).
LSU’s strength, like most of the SEC’s previous six national champions, is on defense and despite losing Morris Claiborne and Michael Brockers to the draft, most of the other impact players are back led by all-everything playmaker Tyrann Mathieu. Zach Mettenberger is the starting quarterback, a game-manager with a big arm who performs a lot like Alabama’s AJ McCarron.
In the spring game, Mettenberger completed 14-of-25 passes for 270 yards and two scores. Three completions spanned at least 45 yards. Most of the pressure to repeat as SEC champions will be on LSU’s offense, a unit intent on ground-and-pound with Mettenberger’s occasional deep ball.
Running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware each are capable of 1,000-yard seasons, especially with a new quarterback who won’t have the freedom Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson had in the latter portion of last season. Junior Alfred Blue and his career 6.5 yards-per-carry average returns as a third option in one of the conference’s most powerful backfields.
Senior wideout Russell Shepard — after three less-than-stellar seasons — thought about parting ways with the Tigers in January before rethinking his decision days later. A heralded five-star dual-threat quarterback out of Cypress Ridge High School in Texas, I’m still waiting on a package exclusively designed to utilize Shepard’s arm in Baton Rouge. If LSU’s offense wants to have more success in the downfield passing game, he’ll need a big season.
Since only a handful of prognosticators have LSU back in the BCS title game, what are these glaring weaknesses keeping the Tigers away from Miami? I still don’t see any.
In fact, the squad’s special teams unit — an area of the game that decides contests in the SEC — is one of the best in the country.
Sophomore punter Brad Wing is special, perhaps the Tigers most important player heading into this season. LSU will need his leg early while it masters an offense orchestrated by a first-year starter under center. Wing had a 44.4-yard average as a freshman and had six boots of at least 55 yards, including the mammoth 73-yarder in Tuscaloosa.
Senior kicker Drew Alleman made 16-of-18 field goals and is nearly automatic from 45 yards and in. If you need a BCS champion frontrunner, it’s LSU.
And outside of perhaps Alabama, there’s no SEC team that will win more games this season.