It all happened a year too early. The undefeated regular season. The SEC Championship. The MNC berth. Considering the stable of talent accumulated in Baton Rouge and the savvy coaching hires, most LSU fans expected the return to conference and national championships soon. The 2011 schedule and the well-known weakness of the quarterback position lead many to believe those things would come in 2012 and beyond. Come December 2011, the word "dynasty" began to escape the lips in whispers, not just in Baton Rouge, but nationally. "This team will be better next year."
Come January 9th, 2012, around 9:30 p.m., the "FIRE LES!" talk boomed from message boards and drunken fans across the Bayou. LSU didn’t just get beat; they didn’t just get beat by Alabama; they were woefully out-played, out-coached, and out-dominated. The team which spent the year bullying opponent after opponent, hardly playing a competitive game deep into the 4th quarter all year, now struggled to move the football and generate stops. Worse, they fulfilled the narrative which oozed from the national media leading into the game: Saban is clearly far superior to Miles, and there is no way he gets beat by the same team twice. The dynasty talk died. Many pondered if LSU could ever reach the summit again.
The narrative eventually changed. As the sting of the national-championship loss wore off, perspective set in and everyone remembered: this was all a year early. National publications back the notion, often listening LSU as the National Championship favorite, at the very least in the heart of the discussion. Sure there were key personnel losses, but talent oozes from every LSU pore. In 2011 they said losing Patrick Peterson would be "devastating" and then the world got to know Mo Claiborne. How can LSU replace Terrance Tolliver and Joseph Barksdale!?! Pretty easily, actually.
Yet, the narrative changed again. Enter August 10th. Les Miles calls an impromptu press conference. Twitter goes abuzz. Early reports suggest the news will be significant, if not devastating. Hours later the hammer drops, Tyrann Mathieu, the Honey Badger, is gone, not to return in 2012 (or potentially ever). The media stance is clear: LSU is no longer a national title contender. A good team? Sure. BCS bowl contenders? Probably. Potential conference champs? Doubtful with the machine in Tuscaloosa in their division.
Thus, here we are. It’s no longer a year early. This season is the season LSU fans hoped would be the one. They have a new quarterback, who promises to be an upgrade. They return many significant contributors and introduce a host of new, young, talented thoroughbreds who will be national names before you know it. In fact, the 2012 LSU Fightin’ Tigers enter the season with fewer question marks and a vastly easier schedule. Why then, wouldn’t they be favorites for the 2013 MNC? Realistically the Tigers are poised to make another championship run, and here are five key reasons why.
1) Offensive Line Quality
The 2012 unit loses only one starter (Will Blackwell) and one key backup/swingman (T-Bob Hebert). Replacing them will be all-world recruit La’el Collins and former starter Josh Dworaczyk (returning after missing all of 2011 due to injury). Despite earning All-American honors, Blackwell’s play often buoyed up and down, and he really struggled in the National Championship game against bigger, physical foes. There’s no question Collins lacks the seasoning, but he makes up for it in size and athletic ability. Once he adjusts to SEC-level of play, he’s going to be a load for opponents to handle. The left side of the line with Faulk and Collins should prove to be a go-to option when the Tigers need to plow forward for first downs.
As for Dworaczyk, he proved capable as the starting LG for two seasons before going down last year (he was scheduled to start then too). Dworaczyk continues to take snaps at every position along the offensive line (including center), and it’s not out of the question he beats out Josh Williford or even Alex Hurst for one of the starting spots on the right side. Dworaczyk reportedly ran with the 1s at RT during a recent scrimmage, though Hurst was out with injury. That may mean nothing, but at the very least he will be counted on to give meaningful rest to those currently ahead of him, much like Hebert last season.
The real anchor of the group is left tackle Chris Faulk. Faulk is surprisingly nimble for a 6’6", 325 road grader, and proved to be a tour de force in the making for LSU last season. 2012 should be the season he makes the leap into All-American consideration. Toss in a healthy P.J. Lonergan, whose play was hampered due to injury last season, and the lone contributor who hasn’t played many snaps is a highly-touted recruit who may be the most talented of the bunch. That group will not only be tasked with paving the way for the litany of running backs in the LSU stable but keeping Zach Mettenberger upright and healthy. It’s a good core to build an offense around.
2) Legitimate Passing Threat
The woes of the quarterback position for 2011 LSU are well-documented, so no need to re-hash. Mettenberger, in the very least, brings LSU back to the Matt Flynn/Matt Mauck level of QB play, which delivered two National Championships. At best, LSU could be trotting out the finest QB since Jamarcus Russell. Naysayers are quick to point to the Miles ethos of run, run, run, run, run, maybe pass, run, run, and then run some more. At its heart, the narrative rings of truth: Les Miles does prefer a ground-oriented attack. Yet, its tellers drift from the reality when they insist he refuses to pass the ball.
There are two main factors which will cause Miles to open up the passing attack in 2012. Number 1 is the presence of Zach Mettenberger, who is a more talented passer than LSU has seen in the previous four seasons. Miles allowed previous quarterbacks like Russell, Flynn and even dating back to his OSU days, Josh Fields, to open up the aerial attack. Number 2 is the way the 2011 season played out. Because LSU routinely pounded its opponents and spent the back-half of games grinding out wins with the running game, they rarely put their passing attack into effect. The lack of reps likely impeded the LSU offense from growing to its full strength in 2012. Miles won’t let that happen again.
3) Defensive Leadership
Tyrann Mathieu was a leader, in both good habits and bad. Undoubtedly his play on the field will be missed, but if his bad habits created distractions for other players, there may be hidden benefits to his dismissal. If nothing else, every player should recognize that no one piece is bigger than the program, not even the biggest, baddest pieces. That’s one way to create focus.
After the dismissal, junior defensive end Barkevious Mingo plainly told reporters Mathieu would not be missed. Make of that what will you will, but there are other voices rising on this team. Sam Montgomery is a clear, outspoken leader. The defense will rally around him and Mingo. Eric Reid is another who comes to mind. Reid is the embodiment of the student-athlete, boasting a superb GPA and tremendous athletic credentials. Those who follow his lead will prosper. The rest are a young bunch ready to be molded.
4) Talent Wins Championships
It’s easy to focus on the personnel losses. Quite obviously losing first round picks in Claiborne and Brockers as well as a playmaker like Mathieu seem damning. Throw in a quality safety like Brandon Taylor and senior Linebacker Ryan Baker and the defensive losses are mounting so heavily you’d wonder if they can be replaced.
Yet, LSU will continue to do as it has for the past decade and dig into its talent pocketbooks and trot out more and more. As mentioned above, Patrick Peterson was supposedly irreplaceable and Mo Claiborne more than filled his shoes. Tharold Simon is poised to be the next great one outside.
Brandon Taylor didn’t get a ton of credit, but he was a consummate in LSU’s defensive backfield. To me, his best quality was the fact that he rarely allowed bad plays to happen.
As for the linebackers, a group that proved to be LSU’s biggest (only really) defensive weakness in 2011, they are newly revamped with more talent and athleticism. The youth, in this case, may be an upgrade.
Replacing Mathieu will be an uphill battle. His on-field abilities are impossible to duplicate. Currently youngsters Jalen Mills and Micah Eugene are battling it out for the nickel back/blitzing attacker role. Neither are likely able to duplicate his production. For the time being, it appears Mills has won the CB2 job over RS Freshman Jalen Collins. Mills will slide into the nickel and Collins outside in those formations.
That being said, John Chavis has shown he will stick to his best 11. Perhaps that means more classic three-LB looks for the Tigers. Maybe he entrusts Mills or Eugene to run the nickel as aggressively as Mathieu. At this point, it’s too early to say. But the end game is this: LSU’s talent is as great as it has ever been and talent wins championships.
5) Intangibles and Experience
Few teachers are greater than experience. The young bunch from 2011 seemed to buck the trend, much like this year’s Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. Though last year’s team rarely hit many rough patches, each time they did, they seemed to explode back into control through a huge play (Claiborne’s INT vs. WVU, Mathieu’s punt returns vs. Arkansas and Georgia).
Yet, in the National Championship game, they seemed to fold under the slightest bit of pressure. Shortly after half-time it became apparent the big play that put the Tigers right back into the game would never come. However, this should prove to be valuable experience for the returning Tigers. They have tasted the highest level of defeat. There is no greater level of pain on the football field.
Such failures can often be the motivating force for championship runs. Add in the us-against-the-world mentality and the fact that they will undoubtedly be touted as the second best team in the SEC, they are sure to play with a chip on their shoulders. Ultimately, talent + great coaching equal national championships. But, the additional experience and attitude can only play in their favor.
LSU is a talented, spirited, hungry bunch with a lot to prove. They will enter the seasons not as the overwhelming favorites to win the title, which should add to their motivation. I suspect they will regress slightly on defense (modest steps backward still rank them in the elite), but they will progress heavily on offense to make them a far more balanced and difficult to handle team. As good as LSU’s defense was in 2011, the offense remained woeful at times. Once they encountered an opponent who didn’t allow the defense to take over the game, they were defeated without much of a fight. This year will be different. This is not a year too early. LSU will win it all. This is next year.