SEC Countdown: No. 6 LSU

Head coach Les Miles enters his 10th season at the helm of the LSU Tigers. With continued success on his mind, does he have enough for another 10-plus-win season?

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It’s hard to believe head coach Les Miles is beginning his 10th season at the helm of the LSU Tigers. It’s been an historic period for this football team.

For nine years in a row, Miles has led LSU to a bowl game, twice playing in the BCS National Championship Game–with one win, one loss. These Tigers, under Miles, also have enjoyed seven seasons of 10 wins or more, included the last four consecutively. Miles is the only coach in LSU history to post four straight 10-win or better seasons.

But the quest for a fifth-straight double-digit-win season might be a rough one.

LSU lost its starting quarterback, both top wide receivers, its starting running back, a mammoth offensive lineman and one of the best tackling linebackers in the SEC from a year ago.

A lot of people believe LSU never rebuilds, it just reloads. That expression will be put to the test in 2014.

Don’t underestimate Miles and his Tigers. At SEC Media Days, Miles said sleeping on LSU isn’t a smart move.

"We understand that doesn’t mean that we’re in the immediate talk (as a predicted challenger for an SEC title)," said Mles. "But if we continue to do the things we’ve done in the past, we’ll earn our way. I like us. I like us in every game."

Yeah, he said "every game."

According to Miles at SEC Media Days, LSU will return 16 starters this season–six on offense, seven on defense and three on special teams. None could be as dominating as the pair that will occupy the left side of the offensive line.

Whoever stands in the pocket at quarterback for the Tigers–whether it ends up being Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris–will enjoy feeling protected by left tackle La’el Collins, who could have entered the NFL draft last season and been drafted early, but decided to return to school. Adding to the strength of that left side will be Vadal Alexander, who will open a ton of holes for what could be a special running back corps in 2014.

LSU doesn’t have a budding star returning in the defensive backfield, but there’s a small army of talent. In fact, three members of this secondary were voted onto the 2014 Preseason Media Days All-SEC Team–Tre’Davious White on the Second-Team, and Corey Thompson and Rashard Robinson on the Third-Team.

LSU’s secondary is deep and chock-full of talent.

For the first time in three seasons, Zach Mettenberger won’t be under center at LSU. Mettenberger threw for 256.8 yards per game, and connected on 22 touchdown passes. Vying to replace him are Jennings and Harris, who will both need to grow under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

Mettenberger isn’t the only offensive skill player that Cameron is going to have to replace on offense. This LSU offense needs new blood at running back and wide receiver.

With 1,401 yards from scrimmage in the ground, Jeremy Hill was the SEC’s second leading rusher in 2013. He was selected in the second round of the NFL draft, and backup Alfred Blue went in the fifth round.

Seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hillard will offer veteran leadership at running back, and will help mentor incoming freshman, and top national prospect (more on him later) Leonard Fournette, who has the skills and intangibles to instantly become a star.

Sophomore receiver Travin Dural caught seven passes last season, and he’s LSU’s leading returning pass-catcher. Quantavius Leslie could step in at the second receiver spot, but he’ll get help from Avery Peterson and John Diarse, and boy will the Tigers need help replacing Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. LSU’s pass-catching duo from last season made up 66.3 percent of the team’s receptions, and were drafted in the first and second rounds of the NFL draft, respectively.

SEC Countdown

LSU’s offense will be maneuvered by many different names in 2014. If the Tigers will have much success, the new names on the jerseys need to show no drop-off at all from the talent that was present last season.

Fournette, the freshman running back that was rated the No. 1 high school prospect in the land, should be used to the spotlight. But expectations are getting ridiculous.

The new face on campus was compared to Adrian Peterson while still in high school, and his new head coach used his name in the same sentence as Michael Jordan at SEC Media Days.

How much hype can Fournette handle?

The Tigers won’t live or die on the success of this first-year back, but college football fans from across the country will be tuning in as soon as LSU hits the field, to see what all the hubbub is about.

While in high school, Fournette compiled 6,993 rushing yards and 82 touchdowns over four seasons. He also looks the part of a super hero at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, and has turbo-charged speed (he’s been clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.35 seconds).

It’s already been made abundantly clear that Miles likes his chances this season. And while many will focus on all the new faces in important roles on offense, LSU needs its defense to step up if this team is going to succeed in 2014.

LSU ranked third against the run last season in the SEC, and fourth against the pass. The best way to take pressure off a new quarterback, a new running back and two new receivers, is to ensure that they don’t have to do everything perfectly to win.

If LSU can be as good as it was on defense this season, as it was in 2013, the talent is there on offense–albeit unproven, at this point–to score points. How quickly this Tigers offense gets up to speed, will determine just how good the team cam become.

Sept. 20 vs. Mississippi State: LSU must come out of the gate quickly, as it faces Wisconsin in its first game of the season on Aug. 30. While that game is significant, it’s not the most important game on the Tigers’ schedule. It might not even be the most important early game.

Four games into the season, LSU will take on its first SEC opponent, a much-improved Mississippi State team. Between Wisconsin and Mississippi State on the schedule, will be Sam Houston State and UL-Monroe, so the Tigers should have many of the kinks worked out before jumping into their conference schedule.

LSU’s Sept. 20 game against the Bulldogs has major ramifications surrounding it.

If the Tigers make it to Week 4 unscathed, a win over Mississippi State could catapult them into the national conversation. If there’s a loss on LSU’s schedule prior to playing the Bulldogs, that Sept. 20 battle becomes an absolute must-win.

For momentum, or survival, LSU’s game against Mississippi State is extremely important.

While 9-3 and a decent bowl game sounds grand for most of the college football world, it would be a down year for LSU. Even though this team has many obstacles ahead.

Kicking off the season against a nationally-ranked Wisconsin, and facing Mississippi State and Auburn in the first six weeks of the season, could spell multiple losses before the Tigers make it into the meat of their docket.

Starting with Wisconsin could add an early loss for LSU, as new starters on offense could still be figuring out the scheme, and how to work cohesively. Auburn and Alabama look like conference losses for LSU in 2014.

If LSU wins every other contest, a good bowl game should await these Tigers. If a few other losses pop up, we’ll know 2014 was a rebuilding year, not a season where this team merely reloaded.