LSU Tigers

Final Record: 10-2 overall, 6-2 SEC

Many thought “this will be the year” for the Bayou Bengals entering 2012. Hell, I thought it would be, too. With an NFL defensive line, virtually the same returning starters on the offensive line, the five-deep backfield and finally a quarterback who could stretch the defense, it was very easy to be optimistic about the Tigers’ chances of another national championship berth. The one thing that stood between LSU and all the hardware last season in New Orleans, other than the 50-yard line, was a pocket passer who could get the ball to the third level to prevent Alabama from eating their offense alive.

The team took a hit before the season began with Tyrann Mathieu’s dismissal. If you didn’t like him, you loved to hate him. And LSU’s secondary and special teams were just fine without him, but the overall edge and no fear mentality this team played with in ‘11 was gone. The edge didn’t leave with Jordan Jefferson, Ryan Baker or Morris Claiborne; it left with the Honey Badger.

The offense puttered in the beginning, and the Tigers played stale in their first SEC match against Auburn but escaped 12-10. We knew then that the passing offense would struggle against better defenses. And the offensive line took a hit when Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst were injured. The shuffling of the line, combined with Mettenberger holding onto the football way too long, showed vulnerability to opponents. There was no rhythm early; there was no rhyme or reason to the offensive play calls. The Tigers struggled against Auburn; they struggled against Towson and ended up getting out LSU’ed by Florida on the road.

Credit the Tigers for bouncing back and beating very good teams in South Carolina and Texas A&M by a combined seven points. But that’s LSU football. We know how the end of the Bama game turned out, but the Tigers bounced back again, winning their last two SEC games.

Zach Mettenberger, however, never really got going. And to be quite honest, he wasn’t the quarterback we all expected. He showed his inexperience holding onto the ball in the pocket too long and overshooting open receivers that got behind teams’ secondaries for potential explosive plays.

The Tigers finished 7th in scoring offense and 11th in passing offense. However, the biggest surprise came from freshman running back Jeremy Hill. Hill exploded onto the scene against South Carolina, and he notched three 100-yard games in a row. Alfred Blue was injured early; Kenny Hilliard, Spencer Ware and Michael Ford were simply overshadowed by the emerging Hill.

Receiver Odell Beckham didn’t have the season we all thought, either, aided by the struggles of the passing game and blatant drops to start the season. He was listed as a major impact player, and he turned in an okay season with 673 yards receiving on 40 catches and two punt return touchdowns. Jarvis Landry became the leading receiver with 52 catches. But it all comes back to the quarterback and that passing game that never seemed to be in a rhythm – outside of two games – the entire season.

Defensively, only a few other teams have as many future NFL players in college football. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo returned as sure bookends, and Anthony Johnson and Bennie Logan looked to combine forces to make it one of the best defensive lines in college football. And while it was on paper, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney had more sacks (13) than Montgomery and Mingo combined (11). Kevin Minter, the only returning starter at linebacker, turned in an All-American season at a position of huge need for John Chavis and Les Miles.

Offensive Stud: Entering 2012, we all talked about the four-headed monster at running back for the Tigers in Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard, but the one guy who outplayed them all at the most crucial time was freshman Jeremy Hill. Hill is a top-three back in the SEC, with his silky smooth quickness and punch-packing aggressive style. Hill energized an exhausted running game and became the offensive MVP. He led the team in rushing with 631 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Defensive Stud: Montgomery and Mingo get all the ink, but Kevin Minter was the biggest stud on the defense. He was all over the field tackling ball carries and forcing fumbles, making the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award more competitive than the Heisman. Minter tabbed 111 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Minter, just a junior, will likely hit the road to the NFL in this spring’s draft.

Where To Next: The SEC’s 10-win Tigers face off with the ACC’s 10-win Tigers. LSU fans may be upset with the Chick-fil-A Bowl bid, but it’s such a sexy matchup. The winner will get to keep the Death Valley name on their stadium. This probably is the fourth best game of the entire bowl season. Clemson has trouble with great defensive lines, and LSU should eat Tajh Boyd’s lunch in Atlanta. The draft could do a number on the defensive side of the ball, but Les Miles has recruited great talent in order to reload once more.

Photo Credit: Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE