Final SEC Rankings: LSU’s built to last

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After hitting double-digit wins for the fourth straight season, Les Miles and the LSU Tigers are the first to crack the Top 5 in Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared last season based on preseason expectations, on-field success, stability, recruiting and program momentum.

Final SEC Rankings of 2013:

14. Arkansas
13. Kentucky
12. Florida 
11. Tennessee
10. Ole Miss
9. Mississippi State
8. Georgia
7. Vanderbilt
6. Texas A&M
5. LSU
4. Alabama
3. South Carolina
2. Missouri
1. Auburn

Enjoy the debate.

5. LSU (10-3, 5-3)

The Tigers were one of many ranked SEC teams that returned a starting quarterback this season and Zach Mettenberger certainly delivered. It was LSU’s defense, however, that caved in three times on the road and took the Tigers out of the race for the West.

On-field performance: B; 10 wins an acceptable total

Had it not been for Heisman finalist Tre Mason’s record-breaking season at Auburn, Jeremy Hill may have been the SEC’s most impressive running back as a sophomore. Hill sat out the opener against TCU but managed to pass the 100-yard barrier in seven of the ensuing 12 starts to finish with 1,401 yards on the ground and 16 touchdowns. Hill would’ve been one of the league’s top returning backs next fall along with South Carolina’s Mike Davis, Alabama’s TJ Yeldon and Todd Gurley at Georgia had he not declared early for the NFL Draft.

Metternberger made a huge leap in performance in his final season with 3,082 yards passing and a career-high 22 touchdowns. A three-interception outing led to a surprising three-point loss for the Tigers at Ole Miss, but the shaggy-haired signal caller was at his best late in games before a season-ending injury against Arkansas kept him out of the bowl game.

LSU avoided a letdown late against the Razorbacks when freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings led a 99-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes. The Tigers capped the season with a New Year’s Day bowl victory over Iowa in Tampa.

Expectations: B; Berth in Atlanta or bust

At LSU, winning big is expected so anything less than a meaningful regular-season finish in Atlanta falls short of annual, program-wide goals. The Tigers proved they were vulnerable away from home and didn’t have the second-half defense needed in crunch time in a shootout loss to Georgia in September. A collapse at Ole Miss led to an unexpected loss before Alabama’s prime-time stonewall in Tuscaloosa.

Normally dominant in the secondary, LSU had several lapses in coverage throughout the season and despite finishing with the SEC’s third-best defense at 340.7 yards allowed per game, the Tigers were susceptible to big plays. Tied for ninth in the conference in turnover margin (even), LSU picked off just 11 passes. Eight SEC teams had more interceptions.

RELATED: LSU regular season recap

Three consecutive losses to Alabama is tough to stomach, but LSU’s a near-equal adversary with comparable talent. The Crimson Tide, however, have been the more complete team since opening the rivalry dominance in New Orleans two years ago following a 9-6 loss to the Tigers inside Bryant-Denny during the memorable No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle.

Coaching: B; Cameron goes high octane

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was brilliant in his first season, calling more shots for Mettenberger than the senior quarterback saw his two previous years combined. LSU kept to its guns of being a run-first team, but Cameron’s expertise through the air gave the Tigers a much-needed wrinkle against ever-changing fronts and defensive alignments.

Defensively, John Chavis struggled with new personnel and the loss of Eric Reid on the back end was no doubt detrimental against the pass. The most glaring error from this coaching staff was the lack of discipline on both sides of the football. LSU was whistled for a league-high 90 penalties, one more than Florida.

Had it not been for a solid season on special teams, flags may have caused the Tigers another loss.

Recruiting: A; Fournette’s a monster in human form

Get your popcorn ready because the Derrick Henry-Leonard Fournette backfield show is coming to a television near you in November. Henry is Alabama’s man-child of a ballcarrier who leaped onto the scene in a national sense during the Crimson Tide’s Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Fournette’s an incoming five-star with the Tigers who will fight for carries his first season alongside Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard. Scouts believe he’s talented enough to start in the opener against Wisconsin.

MORE: LSU’s Signing Day recap

Fournette’s one of three can’t-miss talents in this year’s class according to 247Sports with outside linebacker Clifton Garrett (Plainfield, Illinois) and defensive back Jamal Adams (Carrollton, Texas) being the others. Garrett’s the top-ranked player in his state and possesses ideal speed and strength for a run-stopper in Chavis’ scheme.

Program momentum: B+; Tigers on solid ground

The hype level hasn’t reached post-BCS Championship Game levels like it did leading up to the 2012 campaign, but as long as the Mad Hatter remains in Baton Rouge, LSU will be an annual contender in the West with sellouts every game at Tiger Stadium. At some point, the Tigers’ ineptitude against Nick Saban and Alabama must end. It wouldn’t be out of the question for the teams to square off twice in one season — again — with the addition of the new playoff system.

Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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