We are getting down to the nitty gritty and the coveted top two spots in Crystal Ball Run's preseason top ten. You might think this team deserves a spot in either of those positions, and by the time the season ends they could very well be there, but our number three team this preseason is none other than last year's runner-up, LSU.
To rundown our Top Ten so far...
Crystal Ball Run Preseason Top 10
No. 3 - LSU
LSU in a Word: Hungry
Last season ended with a loss in the BCS Championship Game, and while an SEC team did reign supreme it was the first time in the BCS era a team from the SEC took a loss in the final game of the college football season in the BCS era. After dominating the regular season with neutral site or road wins against Alabama, West Virginia and Oregon in addition to a home win against third-ranked Arkansas and Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, the Tigers had BCS Championship shirts ready to sell for good reason. How they come back from the disappointing end last season will be a significant storyline for the 2012 LSU Tigers.
Why LSU Will Live Up to Billing: Defense wins championships
LSU's defense was flat-out awesome last season, allowing 11.3 points per game with only three teams managing to score more than 17 points all season (Oregon, West Virginia, Alabama the second time around). They will be outstanding once again.
Sure, LSU made it tough for opponents to run the football (fifth best in the nation) but what made the defense so special was their turnover margin, second best at +20 (Oklahoma State led the nation with +21). This is a defense that returns safety Eric Reid (76 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles), defensive back Tharold Simon (42 tackles, 2 interceptions, 10 breakups, 1 forced fumble in 2011) and of course the Honeybadger himself, Tyrann Mathieu.
Up front LSU will have junior defensive tackle Bennie Logan causing offensive linemen some problems after a very successful sophomore campaign with 57 tackles and three sacks. Defensive end Barkevious Mingo (already a candidate for name of the year in my book) will add the pressure on the outside after recording 15 tackles for a loss last season, including eight sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. Sam Montgomery will cover the other side of the line at defensive end a season after being named First-Team All-SEC for his 49 tackles and 9 sacks.
LSU's offense should see more stability under center this season after flip-flopping between jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee last fall. Zach Mettenberger will get his chance to shine and lead the LSU offense, which averaged 35.7 points per game last season. that offense returns a deep running back combo with Michael Ford, Spencer Ware and Kenny Hillard all returning and capable of mixing things up for the offense. As for Mettenberger's primary targets, we expect to see Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. to provide some decent hands in the field and keep LSU's offense moving forward in 2012.
And do not forget about special teams. Punter Brad Wing is no joke and can turn a field position battle around with just one kick.
The schedule looks to play in LSU's favor this season. While Florida, Arkansas and newcomer Texas A&M will all be road tests, the Bayou Tigers will get Alabama and South Carolina at home. The rest of the schedule is not extremely difficult either. LSU's September is highlighted by a road game at Auburn, but North Texas, Washington, Idaho and FCS Towson at home should be little problem for LSU. Getting to Gainesville with a 5-0 record should be expected. If they can reach the bye week without a loss, then LSU will rest up for another BCS title run in November.
Why LSU Will Disappoint: Linebacker Depth
If there is one area of concern for LSU it may be the linebacker position. The weakness in the middle of the defense was largely overlooked last year due to a dominant defensive line and ball-hawking secondary. Fortunately for LSU that could once again be the case this season, but when push comes to shove the question is whether or not LSU will have enough from their linebackers. Kevin Minter is the lone returning linebacker from last season, which means the rest of the linebacker positions will be up for grabs for young, inexperienced players.
When LSU meets up with a team that can pound the football, linebackers will become an issue. With strong running game son the schedule, that should be a concern.
Key Game: at Texas A&M (October 20)
Without question the biggest game on the regular season schedule for LSU is the Alabama game on November 3. We are not disputing that for one second, but in order for that game to remain as important as it is projected to be, the Tigers will have to make sure they do not slip up before that first Saturday in November. This is where Texas A&M come sin to play.
As mentioned earlier, LSU has a favorable September with Auburn providing the biggest challenge before October. But October could be tricky with a road game at Florida (improving?) and a home date with South Carolina (SEC East contender?). After that LSU will set the course for College Station, Texas to take on new division foe Texas A&M. The Aggies have a knack for coming up small on the big stage but they will certainly have this game marked on their calendars and look for a chance to declare themselves as legitimate SEC West competition. Texas A&M will be coming off a bye week leading up to this game as well, giving Kevin Sumlin a little extra time to prepare for a huge division showdown on his home turf, with The 12th Man in full force. Don't rule out the possibility Texas A&M could be sitting at 6-0 as well (although it will be a chore getting there).
LSU certainly will not be looking past anyone on their schedule, but a road game heading in to the bye week before the much-hyped game against Alabama is always worth putting down for early upset-alert status.
On the Spot: Zach Mettenberger, Quarterback
This is a tough spot for a quarterback to be in. With a championship-caliber defense and what should be a steady running game, combined with the way the passing game succumbed in the spotlight in the BCS Championship game, there will be all sorts of pressure on Mettenberger to keep things moving. LSU's high expectations will be met if he can provide just a fraction of more competent play than LSU saw last year under the dual-QB system. Perhaps the single quarterback will be a benefit. LSU fans are sure hoping so, as much as they hope Mettenberger will be the right guy to lead the offense.
Barring any significant injuries along the way, there is no reason to think LSU will not be in the BCS championship picture from start to finish. The defense will carry the team on a weekly basis and give the offense a chance to do enough damage more often than not. The October schedule could be tricky to get through but it looks as though LSU should have the overall advantage in every game they play during the regular season, except for Alabama (likely push). And that bodes well for the Tigers, who could be making a return trip to Atlanta in December, and perhaps a trip back to the BCS title game. The expectations are legitimate for LSU, and they should once again be one of the top teams in the country.
Best Case Scenario: 14-0, SEC champions, BCS champions
Worst Case Scenario: 9-3, 3rd place SEC West