NOTE: LSU is picked to finish No. 2 in the SEC West by Scout.com publishers/writers.
In the 2003 season, Nick Saban led a one-loss LSU team into the Big Easy for a bout with Oklahoma, which the Tigers took 21-14 for their first title of the new millennium.
In the 2007 campaign, Les Miles took a team with two losses – both in triple overtime – to the same city and left with the same result, this time a 38-24 rout of Ohio State.
If Miles and Co. are going to continue the trend four years later, one thing is certain.
The offense, which finished this past fall among the least productive units in the NCAA, will have to make big strides in the right direction – starting with the quarterback position.
If Jordan Jefferson stumbles, the onus of the blame falls on the senior’s shoulders.
On the field, the supporting cast is in place, from a veteran offensive line (four returning starters) to a stable of talented backs and receivers.
On the sidelines, Miles hired Steve Kragthorpe to replace Gary Crowton as offensive coordinator, giving Jefferson a fresh mind and a quarterback coach for the first time in his four seasons with the program.
After he tossed just four touchdowns to nine interceptions in the regular season, fans grew weary of whether or not the rising senior could develop into the Jefferson the staff expected. If he stumbled, another senior – Jarrett Lee – and a junior college transfer with a big upside – Zach Mettenberger – were both in the picture, and armchair offensive coordinators spent the entirety of the spring calling for the pair to see more reps.
Despite a lackluster spring game, Miles stood by his man, naming Jefferson the lead horse headed into the summer months, meaning only injury would prevent the Destrehan native from starting for the home team for the third season in a row.
As mentioned, support on the offensive side is there.
With four returning starters to the line, all eyes are on sophomore Chris Faulk, who is set to replace Joseph Barksdale at left tackle. Three tight ends with experience – DeAngelo Peterson, Mitch Joseph, and Chase Clement – help round out a front that should give Jefferson, and the run game, plenty of room to operate.
After a dynamic Cotton Bowl in which the freshman back ran wild on the Texas A&M defense, Cincinnati native Spencer Ware heads into fall as the starting tailback. The group behind him has yet to shake itself out into a pecking order, though Miles should find that the combination of speed (Jakhari Gore) and power (Michael Ford and Alfred Blue) prove too much to not use all together.
Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard highlight a receiving corps that has yet to find a rhythm with the inconsistent play at quarterback, though Randle – one of the nation’s top prep prospects – has made his mark in spots, proving he is one of the nation’s elite wideouts when the ball finds his hands.
On the defensive side, health could become the biggest battle the unit fights.
Defensive coordinator John Chavis might have lost All-America cornerback Patrick Peterson to the NFL Draft, but LSU’s defensive backfield appears as strong as any in the country.
Though young and inexperienced in spots, the linebackers, led by Ryan Baker, are aggressive and fast to the ball – just what Chavis is looking for from his 4-3 defense.
The question becomes the big men up front, who, because of injury, never lined up their first and second team units at full strength during the spring.
Defensive tackle Mike Brockers has been the one constant inside, but the second starting spot has yet to be filled. Will it belong to a junior like Josh Downs, or will a younger body – like freshman Anthony Johnson – jump into the fold over the summer and nab the job by September?
With speed to burn, defensive end isn’t as big of a worry for assistant coach Brick Haley.
Sam Montgomery, who earned All-SEC honors in just four games last fall, will be paired with senior Ken Adams as the starters, followed by more speed in KeKe Mingo. Lavar Edwards and Chancey Aghayere will also take reps at the position, and 2011 signee Jermauria Rasco hopes his name is called after being on campus less than three months before the opener.
For the Tigers, the path to New Orleans won’t come without some curves along the way.
LSU opens the season in Dallas against Oregon, and early road trips pit the Tigers against both West Virginia in Morgantown and Mississippi State in Starkville. Though they welcome Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas, the Tigers go to Tennessee, Alabama, and Ole Miss.
It won’t be easy, but if the 2007 title run proved anything, it’s that missteps are only part of the process.
If quarterback play can improve and the Tigers take care of business away from home, the fourth time could – once again – be the charm.