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Preview: More is expected of LSU
It’s not like LSU has been awful over the last two seasons, and it’s not like head coach Les Miles is on any sort of a hot seat considering he’s just two years removed from winning a national title.
But this is still going to be an important year for a program that quickly got used to the high standards that come from earning two BCS Championship trophies in seven seasons.
The SEC is not for the squeamish, and despite the national championship and even though the talent keeps flowing into Baton Rouge, Miles needs to show that more titles are on the horizon. With Florida likely to be better than ever over the next several years after bringing in a monster recruiting class, Alabama the new kingpin of the West, and with the rest of the league getting bigger and nastier than ever, Miles has to keep up the pace. The last thing LSU wants to be is the new Tennessee and assume things can’t go stale after years of success.
To be fair, the nine losses over the last two seasons weren’t that bad. Two came against Alabama, two came against Florida, two came against Ole Miss teams that finished 9-4, one came to a 2008 Georgia team that finished with ten wins, and one came in the Capital One Bowl to a Penn State team that finished 11-2. Okay, so there was the anomaly of a 31-30 loss to a mediocre Arkansas squad in 2008, but it’s not like the Tigers lost to the Tulanes and Vanderbilts on the slate. But that’s not good enough.
Elite teams win almost all the close games and find ways to get it done. Miles, who has always hovered in a land somewhere between instinctive genius and questionably reckless with some of his coaching decisions in tight battles, will soon be under scrutiny for his ability to consistently get the most out of the talent he brings in unless 2010 is a double-digit win campaign. On the plus side, though, LSU under Miles has still been able to hang with the elite of the elite even when things weren’t going all that well.
The lines were stunningly lousy last year headlined by a disaster of an offensive front. The offense finished last in the league, the defense wasn’t exactly clutch, and there were way too many close calls against teams like Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State. But Miles and LSU deserve credit for beating teams like Auburn, Georgia, and Georgia Tech over the last two seasons, while pushing national title-level Florida and Alabama teams in games that could’ve gone either way. There might not need to be a total overhaul to push LSU up to the rarefied air of national title contenders, and it might come down to a few key breaks at the right time.
Remember, the 2007 national championship team was great, but it also overcame major injuries and several mega-breaks on the way to holding up the crystal egg. It helped that Florida was rebuilding, Alabama was still a year away, and the Tigers were able to survive every close game that didn’t go into a bazillion overtimes. That 12-2 title year could’ve very, very easily have been an 8-5 also-ran campaign, and with a few lucky breaks, a 2010 team that might be roughly 8-4 good could sneak out a couple of wins it probably shouldn’t and be in the hunt for the whole ball of wax.
Patrick Peterson earned second-team All-SEC honors last year.Kevin C. Cox
The O-line can’t be any worse, and it won’t be. The defensive front can’t have as many problems getting into the backfield as it did last year, and it won’t. The running game won’t be as bad, the passing attack won’t be as inconsistent, and points against the hoi polloi likely won’t be as difficult to come by.
This is still LSU, and it’s still a damn strong football program. And if it’s not, there might be a job opening in Ann Arbor that could generate a little bit of interest come January.
What to watch for on offense: The potential explosion of some good young prospects. LSU always has a slew of very athletic, very talented prospects at all the skill positions, and this year is no exception. While receivers Terrence Toliver, Rueben Randle, and Russell Shepard are known playmakers, it might be the emergence of junior tight end Deangelo Peterson that makes the most noise. He was phenomenal this offseason and could be a key part of the attack, as should Michael Ford, a top running back recruit last year who looked the part this spring. If he’s great, all of a sudden the LSU offense will have more consistent balance and pop.
What to watch for on defense: The outside linebackers. Perry Riley was the team’s second leading tackler last season and Harry Coleman was third, and now the Tigers need two new starters to flank tackling-machine Kelvin Sheppard. There should be a steady rotation with redshirt freshmen Tahj Jones, Josh Johns, and Lamin Barrow pushing junior Stefoin Francois and sophomore Ryan Baker for time. The defense needs to generate more pressure from all spots, and the hope will be for the young players to do more to get to the quarterback and come up with tackles for loss.
The team will be far better if … the offensive line isn’t awful. Remember when LSU was loaded with All-America candidates and NFL prospects up front? The line was mediocre in 2008, and panic alarms went off. That was nothing compared to last year when the line gave pass rushers open invitations to pop the quarterback while doing nothing for the running game. No team with the skill players that LSU boasts should finish 112th in the nation in total offense, and it won’t if the line is merely average. There might not be any stars up front, but this could be a more cohesive group that won’t be asked to do too much. All the line has to do is be steady and the LSU attack should sing.
The schedule: The schedule is way too tough to run through clean, but there are just enough home games against top teams to hope for a shot at playing for the SEC championship. Starting out the year against North Carolina in Atlanta will test just how good the Tigers are; the Tar Heels are loaded with NFL talent on defense. While facing Mississippi State, West Virginia and Tennessee won’t be easy, all three of those games are at home after going on the road to face Vanderbilt. So, essentially, if the Tigers can get past UNC, they’ll almost certainly be 5-0 before going to Florida in what might be an SEC Championship preview. The biggest break on the schedule is getting Alabama at home, and it becomes even nicer coming off a bye week. However, playing on the road at Auburn and at Arkansas could produce one season-crippling landmine.
Best offensive player: Senior WR Terrence Toliver. Next … LSU is a factory for NFL caliber wideouts, and with Brandon LaFell gone, Toliver’s table is ready. The Tiger receiving corps is loaded with Reuben Randle and Russell Shepard each likely to make a lot of money at the next level in the near future, but it’s Toliver who’ll be the No. 1 target. At 6-5 and 206 pounds, the senior has excellent size to go along with the deep speed to be a killer at the outside X position.
Best defensive player: Junior CB Patrick Peterson. Why isn’t he being penciled in as someone’s starting corner going into NFL training camp? He will be next year. Almost everyone’s No. 1 pro corner prospect, Peterson has a perfect blend of 6-1, 211-pound size, solid open-field tackling ability, and the requisite speed and quickness. On a team full of speedy athletes, it should say something that he’s getting the first look to be the main kick and punt returner (especially for a player of his size).
Key player to a successful season: Senior DT Drake Nevis. Feel free to put in all five starters on the offensive line here as the key players to the season, but the defense could stand to be tighter, too, after finishing an unLSU-like 46h in the nation against the run and 87th in sacks. The line needs a (bleep)kicking tackle to work around, and Nevis could turn out to be it. He’s not a star, Glenn Dorsey talent, but he has a great motor, is excellent at getting into the backfield, and has the size to be an anchor. If he can be the tackle everyone works around, the defense should be terrific.
The season will be a success if … LSU wins ten games. The team isn’t quite good enough to win the West, even with a favorable schedule, but getting back to double digit wins after not hitting the mark over the last two years is a must. There has to be hope for the future, and with so many key players likely to be back next season, this has to be a stepping-stone to show that a national title is possible in 2012.
Key game: Nov. 6 vs. Alabama. The Tigers get two weeks off to prepare for the defending national champions, and this could be one of the biggest games of the entire college football season. LSU won five straight in the series before losing to the Tide in each of the last two seasons, and there’s no chance of winning the West without breaking the current streak.
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