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Preseason countdown: No. 8 LSU

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No coach likes the idea of luck. If you’re good, more often than not you’ll get the right breaks to go your way, but Les Miles and LSU have had more than their share of good fortune. Going into this year, the Tigers under Miles have to show whether or not they really are that good, of if there really is some luck involved.

LSU got a historic break in 2007 when everything fell the right way to slip into the national title game against Ohio State, and then came the slide going 17-9 over the two years to follow. The million-dollar program with the ten-cent head, LSU had its share of mistakes, problems, and bungles, and then everything turned around last year as the team that shouldn’t have finished with a great record ended up going 11-2 with the two defeats coming to national title-Auburn and Sugar Bowl bound Arkansas.

That the season went the way it did with an inept offense that finished last in the SEC in passing, 11th in yards, and ninth in scoring – with plenty of help from the defense and special teams to put points on the board – was as head scratching as the idea of Auburn playing South Carolina for the SEC title.

No. 8: LSU

How did last year’s team get out of the North Carolina game – with T.J. Yates bombing away for 412 yards and three scores – without choking it away?

What the heck happened with that Tennessee game?

How did Jarrett Lee, who couldn’t hit water all year long if he was standing on the bottom of the lake, come up with the key throw to beat Florida, and how did Urban Meyer not sniff out the fake field goal that led to the game-winner?

How could a defense that was supposedly so great get rolled at will by Auburn (fine) and Ole Miss (unforgiveable)?

How has the program been able to avoid the vultures with the current self-imposed probation and all the rumors, stories, and speculation about the Willie Lyles-Patrick Peterson connection and with Stanley McClover’s allegations still out there?

Make no mistake about it; this is a loaded team with enough talent to bring home the third national title in nine years, but it’s also a flawed team that could just as easily be on the wrong side of the blunders to finish 9-4, like it did in 2009.

You don’t get the same breaks twice, especially in the SEC, and this year, LSU has to be better in several key phases to not let the luck of the bouncing ball, or clock, play a role. The bigger overall point for LSU is that it’s so talented that Miles shouldn’t have to pull trick plays out of his hat to win games, and he shouldn’t need miracles.

The biggest indictment was the Cotton Bowl blowout over a talented and red hot Texas A&M. That LSU team was worthy of the 11-2 mark, not the one that got out of a 20-14 win over West Virginia after a lousy offensive day. That LSU team is the one that has so many thinking that this year could be a national championship campaign, not the one that struggled to put away a bad Ole Miss squad and needed a miraculous break from the gods to beat a mediocre Tennessee. That LSU team didn’t need any breaks.

This year’s team loses its starting running back (Stevan Ridley), best receiver (Terrence Toliver), the best defensive back in America (Patrick Peterson), All-America defensive tackle (Drake Nevis), top tackler (Kelvin Sheppard), and a steady rock of a kicker (Josh Jasper). With so many big departures, and with such a nasty schedule with Oregon, at Mississippi State, at West Virginia, and at Alabama to deal with, not to mention home games against Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas, this team is supposed to be in the hunt for the national title?

Yeah.

The offensive line improved by leaps and bounds last year and has the talent to pave the way for Spencer Ware and a tremendous group of backs; Ridley won’t be missed. Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard are special receivers who’ll shine if Jordan Jefferson can start delivering the ball on a consistent basis (and if Jefferson is eligible because of his alleged role in a bar fight last week), and tight end DeAngelo Peterson has NFL skills that might finally be shown in new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe’s attack.

The secondary, even without Peterson, is among the best and deepest in America, and the front seven, despite some heavy losses, is as fast and athletic as any in the Miles era. The special teams have good replacements ready to take over, and overall as a team, there’s depth, talent, and potential to come up with a good rotation and options for the coaching staff to work with.

Of course, to win a national title, a team needs breaks, it needs good fortune, and it needs luck.

And no one knows how to get the right magic at the right times more.

What to watch for on offense: The maturation of Jordan Jefferson. LSU has had an NFL receiving corps for the last few years and hasn’t done jack squat to take advantage of it or develop it further into anything truly special. The quarterbacks have gotten the blame – Andrew Hatch, anyone? - and while the team over the years has done better with the Matt Mauck game-manager types than the JaMarcus Russells and Ryan Perrillouxs, the production needs to be better. Jefferson has to be consistent and he has to make bigger plays down the field. He threw two touchdown passes in the opener against North Carolina and three in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M, and he threw a grand total of two touchdown passes in the middle 11 games. He completed 10-of-13 passes against Alabama, and the next week he completed 4-of-10 throws against UL-Monroe. This offseason he has taken on a bigger leadership role, and while he’ll never be Andrew Luck, he has 32 games of experience and he has seen the SEC wars to know what he’s doing. No one will remember the last few years if he takes the Tigers to a national title.

What to watch for on defense: The linebacking corps. Quick, name the superstar LSU linebackers over the last few seasons. Kelvin Sheppard was fine last year, and he turned into a third round draft pick for Buffalo, and Perry Riley had his moments, turning into a fourth round selection by Washington in 2010, but those are the only two LSU linebackers drafted since Bradie James was taken in the fourth round by Dallas in 2003. To take this even further, out of the 90 LSU players taken in the draft since Eric Hill went in the first round to the Cardinals in 1989, Sheppard, Riley, and James are the only true linebackers drafted. Kevin Minter looks like a keeper in the middle in place of Sheppard, while undersized Stefoin Francois can fly. Ryan Baker is the best of the lot, with 6-0, 230-pound size and good pass rushing skills, but he needs everyone around him to shine. The line will be fine, the secondary will be tremendous, but LSU can’t win the SEC title – and they’ll get ripped up by Oregon - unless the linebackers are outstanding.

The team will be far better if: The ground game always works. It was easy for defenses to load up against the run with all problems with the passing game, but LSU was still able to pound away at will most of the time. The Tigers ran for 150 yards or more in every game but two – the loss to Auburn (115 yards) and the loss to Arkansas (100 yards). Big plays behind the line were part of the problem, losing 40 yards against the Tigers and 53 against the Hogs. Put Jefferson and the passing game in a bad spot and then there were problems. In 2009, the Tigers failed to hit the 150 yard rushing mark in all four losses.

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The schedule: LSU can establish itself as the big bad boy on the block right way with a nasty September, and that doesn’t even could all the SEC powerhouses left on the slate. If the Tigers can beat Oregon to start the season, it’ll set the tone for the year, while beating Mississippi State and West Virginia on the road, not a given by any stretch, could mean a top three spot in the rankings if not No. 1. While getting Kentucky and Tennessee from the East isn’t bad, dealing with Florida at home will be yet another test in a season full of them. However, even with all the nasty games and tough battles, if LSU can take care of business at home in showdowns with the Gators, Auburn, and Arkansas, it can probably survive one loss on the road to Alabama or even Mississippi State and still play for the whole ball of wax.

Best offensive player: Junior WR Randle. The hope is for running back Spencer Ware to become the real deal, and Russell Shepard could be a do-it-all playmaker who becomes the team’s most dangerous receiver, but it’s the 6-4, 210-pound Randle who has the special, NFL-ready skills to become a top target who makes the passing game finally roll. He only caught 33 passes for 544 yards and three scores, highlighted by a two game stretch against Auburn and Alabama with nine catches for 198 yards and two scores, but it’s not like he blew up with just five catches over the final four games of the season.

Best defensive player: Junior CB Morris Claiborne. With everyone staying away from Patrick Peterson whenever possible, it was up to Claiborne to come through with a big year, and he did. He was solid against the run, making 37 tackles, but he was at his best when the ball was in the air with five picks and six broken up passes. The former quarterback is one of the team’s fastest players, and now he’ll be the one who’ll be avoided.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Jefferson. LSU got away with not getting good quarterback play last season, and while 11-2 was nice, this year’s team is thinking bigger. The Tigers can’t win the national title, and it can’t even win the SEC West, unless the passing game is better, and that means Jefferson has to be terrific at times. While he stunk it up in the spring game, he had a great offseason and appears to be in sync with new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe. The pressure is on, because if Jefferson isn’t great right away against Oregon, the hook will be quick hook for Zach Mettenberger.

The season will be a success if: LSU wins the SEC West. The national title will still be there for the taking if the Tigers blow the opener against Oregon, but there can’t be any other mistakes the rest of the way. If LSU is good enough to win the West, it’s good enough to win the SEC. If it’s good enough to win the SEC, it’s good enough to win the national title. 11-2 without a title wouldn’t be a failure in any way, but it would be a disappointment.

Key game: Nov. 5 at Alabama. There a plenty of landmines to sidestep to get to November, but the showdown with the Tide, if all goes according to form, could be the real national championship. At least one of the two teams should be ranked in the top two and with the BCS Championship Game in its sights, and at the very least, it’s not a stretch to think that the loser can’t win the SEC title.

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