by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

After setting a school record by going 13-0 in the regular season, winning the SEC championship and being ranked No. 1 for most of the season, LSU came up short of its ultimate goal when it lost to revenge-minded juggernaut Alabama, 21-0, in the BCS Championship Game. Certainly, the Tigers have enough key starters returning, plenty of quality depth and talented newcomers to make another run at the big prize. “Anytime you end a season when you didn’t finish the last game the way you liked, frankly you look forward to getting that feeling behind you.” Tiger Coach Les Miles says. “So the next time you take the field, it’s as good a feeling for you as there is.”

Heck, LSU was able to go undefeated in the murderous SEC West plus impressive preconference victories vs. Oregon and West Virginia despite finishing a woeful 106th nationally in passing (only 152.5 ypg). And after four years of a confounding and often unproductive QB shuffle, the Bayou Bengals enter the season with a clear-cut starter in Zach Mettenberger.

The classic dropback-passing 6-5, 222-pound Mettenberger (Georgia transfer) has a talent-rich offense (35.7 ppg) all to himself after spending the 2011 campaign No. 3 on the depth chart. Though Mettenberger, who has already been dubbed “Mettensavior” in Baton Rouge, lacks much foot speed, he might not need much elusiveness operating behind a rock-solid, battle-tested OL (4 starters back), featuring pancake-blocking Ts Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst (both considered potential NFL first-round picks). That unit is fortified with return of sixth-year G Josh Dworaczyk, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. And keep an eye on soph OG La’el Collins (5-star recruit from the class of 2011) and highly-regarded true frosh OT Vadal Alexander.

Plus, the Tigers arguably own the deepest backfield in the nation, with six RBs capable of starting for most teams in the nation. Look for super-soph Kenny Hilliard (right; 336 YR, 5.4 ypc) to excel after a sensational frosh campaign, and Baton Rouge sources report that RB Spencer Ware (727 YR, 8 TDs) has added quickness this year after dropping 10 pounds in the off-season. Consequently, Mettenberger will be able to work play-action passes to productive, physical soph WRs Odell Beckham (41 grabs) and Jarvis Landry.

Enigmatic sr. WR Russell Shepard (only 14 catches LY), who’ll play some at RB when the “O” lines up in the shotgun formation, is out to finally make some hay after thus far failing to meet high expectations coming out of high school. There is no proven backup experience at QB, but RS frosh Stephen Rivers (younger brother of San Diego Charger QB Phillip threw for 35 TDs over his last two prep seasons) is firmly entrenched as the No. 2 guy after making great strides in the spring.

Six starters return to a smothering, highly-opportunistic defense (11.3 ppg, +20 TO margin) that figures to overwhelm the majority of foes again in 2012. The deep, athletic DL (2.7 ypc) is well-equipped to bottle up the run, while sack-crazy, bookend DEs Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo (combined 17 sacks LY ) comprise the fiercest pass rush in America.

Even with the loss of marvelous CB Morris Claiborne, the ball-hawking secondary (18 ints., only 7 TDs) remains an area of strength, thanks to spectacular CB Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu (left vs. Kentucky last fall; Heisman Trophy finalist), jr. FS Eric Reid (considered a bright NFL prospect) and rangy 6-3 jr. Tharold Simon (42 tackles, 2 ints.), who steps in as a lock-down corner, replacing Claiborne. And after actually being somewhat of a weakness LY, look for upgrade at LB, as Les Miles has his best (and fastest) recruits at that position since taking over. Highly-touted frosh LBs Kwon Alexander and Lorenzo Phillips vying for playing time right away.

Update August 10: CB Tyrann Mathieu suspended for the 2012 season...

Special teams are excellent, thanks to stratospheric-kicking Aussie punter Brad Wing (41.2 avg.), deadly PK Drew Alleman (16 of 18 FGs) and dazzling return man Mathieu, who is always a threat to go the distance on both punt and KO returns.

Summary...With LSU executing a more dangerous, downfield passing game to provide better balance for a powerful infantry attack, expect a potentially more explosive offense to take some pressure off a well-established, pulverizing defense. The schedulemakers have allowed the Tigers to build some early-season momentun with four home games in the first five weeks, with a less daunting preconference slate to navigate after battling Oregon and West Virginia (in Morgantown) last year. Sure, LSU has treacherous trips to Florida, Arkansas and Auburn, but LSU benefits from a bye week before the major showdown vs. Alabama, which has no extra time to prepare. If Mettenberger can live up to the monker “Mettensavior,” ultra-talented LSU has a legit shot at its second national crown since 2007. Note, Les Miles’ men finished 10-1 vs. spread in the regular season when laying 31 points or fewer in 2011.


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