LSU’s QB issue looms large before Alabama

Zach Mettenberger was never supposed to be the question.

Mettenberger, who began his career at Georgia, consistently offered an answer, a solution to other teams’ problems. He provided an answer for Butler (Kan.) Community College, leading the Grizzlies to the JUCO national title game. During his re-recruitment, FBS programs across the country needed an experienced signal caller. Arkansas, Texas A&M and others came calling, but it was LSU which landed his services, a program that certainly was in need of quarterback help.

After attempting just 11 passes for the Tigers in 2011, Mettenberger entered into the starter’s role this season.

His time had come.

And yet, entering the BCS Championship Game rematch with top-ranked Alabama, the 6-foot-5 transfer still presents a fickle case for coach Les Miles’ staff. He’s not the definitive answer LSU fans assumed they would see this season, but he’s not a lost cause, either. Mettenberger is somewhere in between, at a crossroads of talent and performance, an imperfect place to be when Alabama’s No. 1-ranked scoring defense comes to town.

For all the anticipation swirling around Mettenberger this preseason — he was even discussed as a potential top NFL Draft pick, given his tangibles — the results have yet to follow. LSU’s passing offense ranks 106th nationally. Mettenberger’s numbers are pedestrian at best: 177.4 yards per game, seven touchdowns and four interceptions.

And his stock isn’t rising.

In the past three games, each vs. ranked SEC opponents (Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M), he’s completed just 43 percent of his passes, thrown two interceptions and just one touchdown. In short, Mettenberger has flirted with disappointment.

Suddenly, the game-changer appeal has morphed into a game manager approach. Not that that’s the worst thing.

“To me, you can’t be a good quarterback unless you’re a good game manager,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban of his own quarterback, AJ McCarron, in the weekly SEC teleconference. “Because you’ve got the ball in your hands every time and you’re making some kind of choice and decision of what to do with it, whether you hand it off, what play you hand it off on, where you throw it in the passing game. You’ve got to process a lot of information quickly and make quick decisions.”

With the Tigers’ rushing attack ranking 25th nationally and a defense capable of shutting down any offense in the country, a quarterback who simply limits his mistakes is acceptable, all things considered. LSU finds itself in the No. 5 slot in the BCS Standings so all is not lost. But there will come a time when LSU needs Mettenberger to step up, to offer more than a 11-of-25 passing performance like he did against Florida.

And if Miles and his staff were betting men, the Alabama game would offer as good of odds as any. 

They learned that the hard way in January’s meeting.

Mettenberger was supposed to be the anti-Jordan Jefferson, the oft-maligned LSU quarterback of yesteryear that took over the starter’s role late in the 2011 season following a suspension. Of course, it was Jefferson’s offense that partially led the Tigers to the BCS title game only to falter against the Crimson Tide. Even during that game, fans and even players’ parents clamored for a change at quarterback, possibly Jarrett Lee or even that JUCO transfer kid sitting on the bench.

Mettenberger has been worse across the board than both Jefferson and Lee: Lower passer efficiency, lower completion percentage, more turnovers.

The true irony here, of course, is that LSU fans would settle for Mettenberger to simply match Jefferson’s performance against Alabama last November, when he entered the game to help lead the Tigers to a 9-6 overtime win. That would suffice. Victory makes everything taste a bit sweeter, so even the most skeptical of the LSU faithful would forgive another lackluster performance as long as their Tigers could jump back into the SEC West driver seat.

And here’s the thing about Zach Mettenberger: He has all the physical tools to keep Nick Saban and Alabama wary. He can stand tall in the pocket and make every throw in the book. That’s his upside, his potential. The question mark for Mettenberger has always been his decision-making — both on and off the field, as it turns out — and that’s something that could win or lose LSU the game on Saturday. He’s been given two weeks of preparation, but how much can you really prepare for this Crimson Tide team before you see its speed and discipline in real time?

“You can’t get too jacked up or you will start throwing balls in the stands. You can’t play with your tail tucked between legs or you’ll play too timid. It’s a fine line, between looking too relaxed and being too jacked up,” Mettenberger told the Associated Press. “A quarterback has to do a good job keeping your emotions in check during the game. You want to get amped up, but at the same time I don’t have to go hit anybody. I’ll definitely be ready to go for this game, I promise you that.”

In order, Alabama has crushed Denard Robinson, Bo Wallace, Tyler Bray and Tyler Russell — each quarterback carried a more impressive resume onto the field against Saban’s bunch. 

But can LSU’s erratic signal caller walk off the field with something those other guys couldn’t?

An LSU win would provide many around the country with answers, none more so than Baton Rouge’s most important transfer.