Preseason countdown: No. 1 LSU

Has any team had a better year with less to show for it?

Last season’s LSU squad would’ve had the greatest year in the history of college football by a 10-mile wide margin had it beaten Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. No team in the history of the sport has put together a stronger résumé considering it beat two BCS game winners — Oregon and West Virginia — and the eventual national champion in its own house.

Because of the way Alabama won, and because Nick Saban continues to load up on talent for a program that’s not going to go away any time soon, changes had to be made to LSU’s style — to a point.

Lost in the crushing defeat was that the plan worked. Run the ball behind one of the most physical lines in the country; keep rotating a slew of bruising, fresh backs; don’t turn over the ball; rely on the phenomenal defense to come up with the big stop when needed; and then wait for the jaw-dropping array of athletes to make play after play time and again to turn things around.

The one glaring hole in the near-perfect season was the lack of any semblance of a passing game to loosen up the Tide defense just a bit. Jordan Jefferson was able to connect on a few key deep balls here and there throughout the season, and Jarrett Lee was terrific for the first half of the year, but Alabama’s secondary sneered at the anemic Tiger air attack. When the running game didn’t go anywhere and the game-changing plays weren’t made by the game-changers, there was no hope.

The cry might have gone out by Bayou Nation to give Lee a shot when Jefferson failed to move the offense, but that wasn’t going to work; there was no passing attack to bail the team out of the jam. That might not be an issue this season.

The issue may be how to recover from the loss of DB/PR Tyrann Mathieu, who was dismissed from the team on Friday for a violation of team and school rules.

Rarely does a team improve by losing its veteran starting quarterback, but the Tiger passing game should be leaps and bounds better with Zach Mettenberger taking snaps. He doesn’t have to be Matt Barkley, and he can afford to make a slew of mistakes with a great defense in place to bail him out, but the important thing will be for him to provide the mere threat of the passing game to be there so that defenses — primarily Alabama’s — can’t send everyone and the student section to the line to stop the run.

Mettenberger saw action in five games last season as the backup, completing 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown. Has he improved enough to be the guy who can lead the program to its third national title in the last decade? He still has to prove he can survive and thrive in the SEC wars, and there isn’t a Jefferson waiting in the wings this time around to bail out the offense in a crisis.

What to watch for on offense: Mettenberger. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that he’s the most important new starter in college football this year. Stephen Rivers — Phil’s brother — is a good-looking prospect, and Jerrard Randall is a good prospect, but the Tigers can’t win the national title if Mettenberger isn’t a whole bunch better than Jefferson. While the bar isn’t set all that high, if Mettenberger can actually provide a real, live passing game, and if all the four- and five-star receiver talents can finally show what they can do, all of a sudden the dynamic might change.

What to watch for on defense: The pass rush. LSU has become known more for outstanding tackles who put up big numbers and dominant performances year after year — remember, Michael Brockers wasn’t expected to blow up like he did last year — but this season could be about the ends. As always there are elite tackles to get excited about like Anthony “Freak” Johnson and Bennie Logan, but it’ll be Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo on the outside who should be the game-changers. These are two NFL-caliber pass rushers who should rip apart opposing backfields thanks to all the talent on the inside taking up space and attention. With a dominant pass rush comes a great secondary, and LSU has the talent in the defensive backfield to lock-down and create big plays against passing attacks that’ll struggle to keep pace with the LSU offense.

The team will be far better if: It starts out a bit hotter. The Tigers might have won blowout after blowout, but more often than not they needed a little while to get rolling. Remember, Arkansas, Georgia and Western Kentucky made things interesting early, and West Virginia and Mississippi State battled hard. LSU scored 82 points in the first quarters of games, and then turned it on in the second quarter and usually controlled things from then on. If LSU can get up early, the less pressure there will be on Mettenberger.

The schedule: Overall, the SEC schedule is one of the toughest of any team in the league, but there are enough breaks to rest up and get ready for the showdowns. The world will want to focus on Nov. 3 game against Alabama — made even bigger with a week off before it to build up the hype — but the Tigers have a lot of work to do before the national title rematch. Washington is solid, but 3-0 should be a near-lock before opening up the SEC slate at Auburn. Towson will be a chance to empty the bench, but that comes before a three-game run of at Florida, South Carolina and at Texas A&M before the two-week rest to get ready for the Tide. It’ll be tempting to take home games against Mississippi State and Ole Miss lightly after dealing with ‘Bama, but the Tigers have to keep their focus during the finishing kick to be ready for the regular-season finale at Arkansas.

Best offensive player: Junior OT Chris Faulk, or sophomore OG La’el Collins, or senior OT Alex Hurst, or center P.J. Lonergan. All four have NFL-level talent, and when you throw in 6-foot-7, 324-pound junior guard Josh Williford, the entire line is massive and physical. Everything else will work around the strong front five with the beef and talent to blast away for the running game while giving Mettenberger time to work. There’s a little bit of depth, but as long as the starting five is healthy, the offense should be terrific once again.

Best defensive player: Junior DE Sam Montgomery. Safety Eric Reid might turn out to be the best pro prospect and tackle Anthony Johnson might have special skills and upside. But it’s the pass rushing Montgomery who should blow up this season into the star of the defense. He’ll be double teamed from time to time, but when he gets his chances he should be a terror in the backfield.

Key player to a successful season: Besides Mettenberger it should be sophomore receiver Jarvis Landry. Mettenberger has to throw the ball to someone, but Rueben Randle and tight end Deangelo Peterson are both gone. Odell Beckham Jr. is a solid SEC-caliber receiver who should be the No. 1, and Russell Shepard is a veteran who might finally be ready to contribute. But it’s Landry who has the talent to be the next great Tigers receiver and he has to take advantage with all the attention paid to Beckham.

The season will be a success if: LSU wins the national title. The Tigers won the SEC title last year and won 13 games. It wasn’t enough. They should be better than everyone on the schedule except for, maybe, Alabama, and the Tide has to come to Baton Rouge. Considering how good last year’s team was, and considering how good the 2012 version should be, anything other than a crystal ball and confetti in Miami will be a major disappointment.

Key game: Nov. 3 vs. Alabama. The road games at Auburn and Florida will be dangerous, and emotions will be high at Texas A&M, but if LSU plays as well as it’s expected to, it should be far better than all three of those teams. The showdown at Arkansas to end the year will be dangerous, but the entire season, if all goes according to plan, should lead up to the date with the Tide.