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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 6: L.S.U.

Second verse, same as the first. The third verse, and the fourth, and the fifth, are the same as the first. Where have you gone, L.S.U. quarterbacks of old? Les Miles would give his hat for a Matt Flynn, a careful, methodical caretaker whose steady hand would be welcomed with open arms in Baton Rouge. Where is Matt Mauck? Heck, where is Josh Booty, Marcus Randall or Rohan Davey – where is Jamarcus Russell, as L.S.U. might be the only team in the country who’d tender him an opportunity to earn the starting nod. See, the Tigers have Zach Mettenberg, a former Georgia Bulldog and JUCO star; the Tigers have Jarrett Lee, who has become defined by his penchant for turnovers; the Tigers even have a pair of incoming freshmen. What the Tigers don’t have, for now and perhaps forever, is returning starter Jordan Jefferson. Or the projected offensive coordinator. So it’s the same old, same old story.

Conference
SEC, West

Location
Baton Rouge, La.

Nickname
Tigers

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 16

2010 record
(11-2, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 7

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Oregon (in Arlington, Tex.)
  • Sept. 10
    Northwestern St.
  • Sept. 15
    at Mississippi St.
  • Sept. 24
    at West Virginia
  • Oct. 1
    Kentucky
  • Oct. 8
    Florida
  • Oct. 15
    at Tennessee
  • Oct. 22
    Auburn
  • Nov. 5
    at Alabama
  • Nov. 12
    W.K.U.
  • Nov. 19
    at Mississippi
  • Nov. 25
    Arkansas

Last year’s prediction

Most importantly, however, is whether L.S.U.’s talent and speed on offense can overcome Gary Crowton’s underwhelming play-calling and game-planning — though I like the three new additions to the offensive coaching staff. The offense is a serious question mark, a liability that prevents L.S.U. from being considered a realistic candidate to unseat Alabama from atop the division. There’s no reason to worry about the defense, not with its talent and John Chavis running the show. In a perfect world, Crowton would not have returned in 2010; I actually wonder why he did, especially with Billy Gonzalez on the staff, ready to take over. Until L.S.U. overhauls this side of the ball, it will be good, but not a title contender. Nine wins is good, fine, perfectly acceptable. L.S.U. shouldn’t settle, however.

2010 recap

In a nutshell The defense is like U.S. mail: whether it’s September, October, November or later, it always delivers. The offense, on the other hand, is like a faulty Internet connection, one that fades in and out of effectiveness at a whim — always leaving L.S.U. frustrated and the rest of the SEC within striking distance of an upset. Finally, Les Miles felt the need to address the coaching on that side of the ball, firing Gary Crowton and replacing him with Steve Kragthorpe, though the latter will handle only the quarterbacks after a very unfortunate health diagnosis. Last fall, the offense finished 86th nationally in total offense, 107th in passing and tied for 45th in scoring. In an optimistic vein, L.S.U. won 11 games despite the efforts of a pedestrian offense — this stills counts for something. If the offense had been competent, however, it’s not a stretch to say that L.S.U. would have won the national title.

High point A 24-21 home win over Alabama on the first Saturday of November. Beyond allowing L.S.U. to rebound from its first loss of the season, a victory over the defending champs pushed L.S.U. firmly back into the B.C.S. mix.

Low point Only two losses, each to an eventual participant in a B.C.S. bowl. The latter, a 31-23 decision to Arkansas to end the regular season, might hurt worse than the October loss to Auburn: the winner of the finale between the Tigers and Razorbacks was going to land a Sugar Bowl berth. Instead, the Tigers went to the Cotton Bowl.

Tidbit L.S.U. has been nationally ranked in 93 of the 97 weeks of the Les Miles era, which began in 2005. In addition, 69 of those weeks have found the Tigers ranked in the top 10. In all, L.S.U. has played 79 games under Miles; 77 of those games have featured the Tigers in The A.P. Top 25.

Tidbit (comeback edition) L.S.U. has won 17 games under Miles when trailing in the fourth quarter. That’s more than a quarter of his 62 victories in Baton Rouge, which is an absolutely amazing fact — and a telling one, as those familiar with the program’s ability to pull wins out of its hat, or Hat, can attest. Four such wins came in 2010, all in conference play: Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida.

Former players in the N.F.L.

53 RB Joseph Addai (Indianapolis), OT Joe Barksdale (Oakland), WR Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City), S Ryan Clark (Pittsburgh), WR Michael Clayton (New York Giants), LB Jacob Cutrera (Jacksonville), CB Travis Daniels (Kansas City), WR Craig Davis (Buffalo), TE Richard Dickson (Detroit), DE Glenn Dorsey (Kansas City), WR Early Doucet (Arizona), RB Kevin Faulk (New England), DT Marlon Favorite (Philadelphia), QB Matt Flynn (Green Bay), NT Howard Green (Green Bay), CB Chris Hawkins (Tennessee), WR Devery Henderson (New Orleans), FB Jacob Hester (San Diego), WR Trindon Holliday (Houston), DE Tyson Jackson (Kansas City), CB Chevis Jackson (Carolina), LB Bradie James (Dallas), DT Ricky Jean-Francois (San Francisco), FB Quinn Johnson (Green Bay0, DT Tremaine Johnson (Minnesota), P Donnie Jones (St. Louis), S Chad Jones (New York Giants), WR Brandon LaFell (Carolina), S Laron Landry (Washington), DE Lazarious Levingston (Seattle), OG Nate Livings (Cincinnati), C Todd McClure (Atlanta), C Danny McCray (Dallas), RB Richard Murphy (Jacksonville), DT Drake Nevis (Indianapolis), C Rudy Niswanger (Detroit), OG Stephen Peterman (Detroit), CB Patrick Peterson (Arizona), RB Stevan Ridley (New England), LB Perry Riley (Washington), TE Robert Royal (Cleveland), RB Charles Scott (New York Giants), LB Kelvin Sheppard (Buffalo), DE Marcus Spears (Dallas), S Craig Steltz (Chicago), S Curtis Taylor (San Francisco), WR Terrence Toliver (Houston), CB Corey Webster (New York Giants), OT Andrew Whitworth (Cincinnati), DT Kyle Williams (Buffalo), RB Keiland Williams (Washington), DT Al Woods (Tampa Bay), TE Keith Zinger (New York Jets).

Arbitrary top five list

Athletes born in Baton Rouge, La.
1. Jim Taylor.
2. Bob Pettit.
3. Warrick Dunn.
4. Andy Pettitte.
5. Jonathan Papelbon.

Coaching

Les Miles (Michigan ’76), 62-17 after six seasons at L.S.U. Miles led the Tigers to the national championship in 2007 despite a myriad of potentially season-wrecking distractions: expectations, for starters, but also the specter of Nick Saban at Alabama, Miles’s own dalliances with Michigan and two regular-season losses. His 34-6 record over his first three seasons stands as the finest three-year stretch in L.S.U. history, and the team’s three consecutive top five finishes also marked a program first. The Tigers took a step back over the ensuing two seasons, though it is always difficult for any team to maintain an extended high period of success when playing in the SEC. But the Tigers bounced back last fall, which was great for Miles and the program. The negatives: Miles has never been a strong game manager, and his missteps were magnified over L.S.U.’s slight decline from 2008-9. He has maintained recruiting at a high pitch, though L.S.U.’s inability to develop offensive skill players has been confounding. And where has the offense gone? Prior to coming to Baton Rouge, Miles spent four seasons as the coach at Oklahoma State (2001-4), where he led the Cowboys from a 4-7 mark in his debut season to three straight bowl appearances. The Cowboys beat rival Oklahoma twice over that span, the only team in the nation to do so. As an N.F.L. assistant, Miles served a three-year stint (1998-2000) as the tight ends coach with the Dallas Cowboys. On the college ranks, Miles spent five years at Colorado (1982-86) and 10 years at Michigan (1980-81, 1987-94); it was his time as a Michigan player and assistant that led to the rampant speculation that he was the favorite to take over for Lloyd Carr in Ann Arbor.

Players to watch

So L.S.U. planned on turning play-calling and game-planning duties over to former Tulsa and Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe, who stood as a marked improvement at coordinator when held against his predecessor, Gary Crowton. These plans were put on the back burner when Kragthorpe received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, leading him to cede his coordinator duties to offensive line coach Greg Studwara in favor of just handling the L.S.U. quarterbacks. Kragthorpe’s news is saddening on multiple levels, obviously. Best of luck to the entire Kragthorpe family, who have had a very difficult 16-24 months. In Studwara, the Tigers get a coach who clearly understands the importance of running the football. And he’ll be able to rely on Kragthorpe along the way, which will help.

There are three players for two spots, but that’s never a bad thing. And it’s certainly not a bad thing when each of those three players is a fifth-year senior: L.S.U. has three such linemen competing for the two guard spots, with the likely odd man out, T-Bob Hebert, the swing man between both left and right guard and center. It’s his flexibility that makes Hebert so valuable, though it’s also his ability to move between multiple positions that makes him more valuable as a reserve than a starter. As of today, it seems like seniors Josh Dworaczyk and Will Blackwell will flank potential all-American center R.J. Lonergan at left and right guard, respectively. Hebert will back up at all three spots, stepping in for either Dworaczyk or Blackwell should either go down to injury — and based off recent history, both are bound to miss a game or two along the way.

Four linemen with past starting experience; five if we count returning right tackle Alex Hurst, a junior; six if we count sophomore Chris Faulk, who will replace Joe Barksdale at left tackle; six if you count senior Greg Shaw, a backup tackle; and seven if you count sophomore right guard Josh Williford. Despite losing a two-year starter in Barksdale — and the Tigers are high on Faulk, a two-game starter in 2010 — L.S.U.’s line should be very strong this fall, especially in the ground game.

But the Tigers do need to find their next 1,000-yard back with the departure of Stevan Ridley, who opted to forego his final season of eligibility. The competition in the backfield is an open one, with as many as four — maybe more — potential entrants, but in my opinion, L.S.U. should open the year with the back who ended 2010 on the highest note: as Ridley’s reserve, sophomore Spencer Ware rushed for 102 yards on 10 carries in L.S.U.’s bowl win over Texas A&M. While there is little separation on the depth chart — OR, OR and OR — you have to think Ware will get first crack at leading this offense. If he falters, or when he needs a breather, L.S.U. can turn to another pair of sophomores, Michael Ford (269 yards, 3 scores) and Alfred Blue (101 yards), or freshmen Jakhari Gore, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard. It’s a young group, but there’s promise. Someone will step up.

The receiver corps will not have junior Russell Shepard for the foreseeable future, thanks to the N.C.A.A.’s rising interest in his eligibility, which takes a bit of luster of what the Tigers have at the position. Shepard was due to breakout in a big way, but those hopes are put to the wayside while the Tigers attempt to sort out his future with the program. This development will increase junior Rueben Randle’s importance to the passing game; he had a nice sophomore campaign, pulling down 33 balls for 544 yards, but Randle will need to do more in 2011.

The Tigers were also hoping for a healthy Chris Tolliver, who has battled concussions in the past, but those concussion-related issues ended his career in June. As a whole, the story at receiver — especially without Shepard — is the number of sophomores, a group paced by Kadron Boone and James Wright. Both will play huge roles; Boone may start, in fact, seeing that he was behind Shepard on the depth chart heading into mid-August. L.S.U. has a nice tight end in senior Deangelo Peterson (16 catches for 198 yards), which helps.

We’re on a run of vintage defenses: Virginia Tech, Nebraska and L.S.U., each of which puts together top-notch units without fail, come rain or shine. The Tigers need to be included in the same category as the former pair, especially given the impact former Tennessee coordinator John Chavis has had on this group since arriving three years ago. The slight post-Bo Pelini slide has been reversed, returning L.S.U. to the nation’s elite defensively — and, at the same time, returning L.S.U. into the elite tier of the country.

Like Pelini’s and Nebraska, L.S.U. is defined by what it does on the defensive side of the ball. Yeah, all people talk about is the offense, but good defenses are like solid umpires: you take them for granted, knowing there’s no real reason for concern. And that sentiment doesn’t change in 2011 despite the loss of three terrific talents: cornerback Patrick Peterson, most notably, but also linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and tackle Drake Nevis. I have no worries. All is well, nothing to see here, move along.

The Tigers return both starting ends in senior Kendrick Adams (27 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and sophomore Sam Montgomery (18 tackles), with the latter hoping to remain healthy after a promising debut campaign was cut short due to injury in the win against Tennessee. Both were newcomers, in fact, with Adams coming off the JUCO ranks, so it stands to reason that both will be improved in 2011. There’s more than adequate depth at end: sophomore Barkevious Mingo (35 tackles, 5.5 for loss) will soon be known less for his name, more his game, and juniors Chancey Aghayere and Lavar Edwards bring starting experience into 2011. The ends will be a handful for all comers.

A rebuilding project, one highlighted by extremely talented, largely unproven talent, is underway in the middle of the line. The biggest story has been true freshman Anthony Johnson, who’s in line to start the season opener. All those expectations surrounding his arrival? As of now — and we haven’t seen him in action — Johnson has lived up to each and every one. Sophomore Michael Brockers joins him in the starting lineup, but as at end, look for a tremendous amount of rotation. Again, it’s all unproven: junior Josh Downs has played a bit, making him the elder statesman of the group, but the youngsters come fast and furious. Redshirt freshman Ego Ferguson is one; sophomore Bennie Logan is another. Youth can be a good thing, as each of these interior linemen are hungry to make an impact.

As along the line, L.S.U. returns starters on the outside at linebacker but has a hole in the middle. It’s in the heart of the linebacker corps that the Tigers must replace Sheppard, last year’s leading tackler and an all-SEC pick. Senior Karnell Hatcher (64 tackles) will get first crack at the position after moving down from safety, but sophomore Kevin Minter, one of last year’s reserves, is also in the mix. Minter seems more physically suited for the position, so that’s something to watch. No issues at all on the outside, as noted. Senior Ryan Baker (87 tackles, 11 for loss, 7 sacks) was terrific on the weak side last fall, and takes over Sheppard’s role as the team’s most productive defender. He’s joined on the strong side by senior Stefoin Francois (37 tackles), though sophomore Tahi Jones is an option in reserve.

Who’s the next stopper at cornerback? Consider Peterson a microcosm for the L.S.U. defense as a whole: wind him up, let him go to work and marvel at the results. He leaves a big hole on the outside, one that L.S.U. hopes it can fill with junior Morris Claiborne (37 tackles, 5 interceptions) and sophomore Tyrann Mathieu (57 tackles, 4 picks); the latter moves into the starting lineup after filling the team’s nickel back role wonderfully in 2010. Both have all-SEC talent, but neither is quite on Peterson’s level — though no one is, to be honest.

Any team in the country would love to have one of L.S.U.’s top three safeties, let alone all three. L.S.U. can go with either senior Brandon Taylor (44 tackles) or sophomore Eric Reid (32 tackles, 2 interceptions) at strong safety. This is nothing new: the pair split time last fall, with Reid replacing Taylor — and playing well — when the latter suffered a season-ending injury against Alabama. Sophomore Craig Loston is one of the team’s most pleasing stories of the early fall. A five-star recruit coming out of high school, Loston got his feet wet last fall, making 22 tackles and an interception, and has grabbed a stranglehold on free safety thanks to his effort during the spring, summer and early fall. Here’s guessing he lives up to his billing as a full-time starter.

The special teams are a bit of a concern. Such is life when you have one player handle both punting and kicking duties, as L.S.U. had with Josh Jasper in 2010; once he departs, you’re again starting from square one. Perhaps given how well Jasper fared doing double-duties, it’s no surprise that L.S.U. may do the same in 2011 with junior Drew Alleman, who has handled kickoffs in the past. Alleman may not punt, as L.S.U. has other options in Brad Wing and D.J. Howard, but all signs towards him doing the kicking. The Tigers also must replace Peterson on special teams: it’ll still be cornerbacks doing return work, but it’ll be Mathieu on punts, Claiborne on kickoffs.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback By all accounts, Jordan Jefferson had taken a step forward. So much for that. Whether Jefferson plays another down for L.S.U. is very much up in the air; whether he escapes his alleged assault with seeing the inside of a jail cell is also up in the air. L.S.U. moves on, secure in the knowledge that it won 11 games last year with absolutely average quarterback play. Basically, think the Tigers, all we need is a slight improvement under center to take home the SEC West. Maybe that’ll come with senior Jarrett Lee, who has started 12 games in the past. Lee hasn’t impressed, however, though he did lead L.S.U. to a road win over Florida last fall. For Lee, of course, the big thing is limiting turnovers: he’s battled a constant fight with interceptions, to put it mildly. Miles has already named Lee the starter for the season opener against Oregon, but the real question is whether Lee holds onto the starting nod or eventually cedes the job to JUCO transfer Zach Mettenberg, whose career began at Georgia. It was believed that Mettenberg, who has three years of eligibility remaining, would make a run for the starting job during the spring. But Jefferson’s improved play pushed Mettenberg in the background, though he’s back on center stage heading into September. Could one of two true freshmen, Jerrard Randall and Stephen Rivers, crack into the mix? If a rookie was ever going to do so, this is the year. But for all intents and purposes, this is between Lee and Mettenberg, and the latter needs to prove himself before taking over. If Jefferson does return, he’ll probably retake the starting job.

Game(s) to watch

How about the games that don’t stand out? Northwestern State. Western Kentucky. Maybe Kentucky, and maybe Mississippi. The rest are marquee all the way: it starts with Oregon, one of the biggest games of the 2011 season, and includes Mississippi State, West Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas. It’s an incredible schedule. Par for the course in the SEC West.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell For much of the winter, spring and summer, I was poised to place L.S.U. atop this list. Why? Because I loved the addition of Kragthorpe, thought Jefferson would turn a corner as a senior and, as always, had the utmost faith that this defense would deliver. I still think the defense is as good as it comes, and that’s why I still believe L.S.U. can make a run towards a national title. But today, about a month after Kragthorpe’s health issues caused him to relinquish his coordinator duties, after Jefferson made such a foolish error as to put his entire college career in doubt, the same old questions about the L.S.U. offense arise once again. It’s such a shame. The defense is national title-worthy: deep and talented up front, strong in the middle and among the best in the country in the secondary, the Tigers can stop any team in the country. But this offense… Alright, so maybe the simple change at coordinator, even if it’s to Studwara, will be enough to right the ship on that side of the ball. The Tigers can’t be much worse, to be honest, and should be at least a touch better thanks to a deep offensive line and some young, unproven talent in the backfield and at receiver. In addition, I think we’ll see an improved Lee at quarterback; experience trumps all, and Lee has taken a ton of key snaps for this offense. I still think, from top to bottom, that the Tigers can win the national title. But Alabama seems far more complete on both sides of the ball — not to mention Stanford, Florida State, Boise State and Oklahoma. I still think L.S.U. can take home the SEC and play for a title; I just think it’s a little less likely based on the developments over the last 30 days.

Dream season The offense is far improved over 2010, and when taken in conjunction with this defense makes L.S.U. the class of the SEC. Unlike the last two times, the Tigers take home the national title without a single blemish.

Nightmare season Try as it might, the defense can’t do more than just lead the Tigers to 9-3. Still good, but a bit of a disappointment.

In case you were wondering

Where do L.S.U. fans congregate? Begin your search at Tiger Droppings, and then move onto Tiger RoarTiger Bait and Tiger Sports Digest. For a blog’s take, check out And The Valley Shook and Bayou Bengals Blog. As always, if you feel there’s a site not mentioned that warrants inclusion, list it below. A reader did: take a trip to Bayou Bengals Insider, if you would.

Word Count

Through 115 teams 366,473.

Up Next

Who is No. 5? The head coach at tomorrow’s university is the lone coach remaining on the Countdown whose father coached on the F.B.S. level.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Joel says:

    That would be Stanford, where new coach David Shaw’s father Willie was defensive coordinator several decades ago.

  2. jjtiller says:

    Concussions actually end Chris Tolliver’s career

    Paul: Thank you. Made slight change from this:

    The Tigers are also hoping for a healthy Chris Tolliver, who has battled concussions in the past.

    To this:

    The Tigers were also hoping for a healthy Chris Tolliver, who has battled concussions in the past, but those concussion-related issues ended his career in June.

  3. Eksynyt says:

    Hoping for a good writeup on Andrew Luck tomorrow. Most exciting player to watch in college football.

  4. narthur says:

    Man, I have to admit, that is the best preseason write up I’ve seen on the Tigers this year. KUDOS!

  5. Check out my site, BayouBengalsInsider.com for daily Tiger coverage and check us out on 1045espn.com for all of our LSU radio coverage.

    We follow Coach Miles’ show tomorrow night at 8 and start the Pregame show on the flagship of LSU athletics at 2pm on Saturday on Eagle 98.1 and simulcast on 1045espn.com

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