Read all of Part 1, where you can find analysis attached to No. 1-2 listed below.
1. Odell Beckham Jr. needs to pull off his best Josh Reed impression and win the Biletnikoff Award or three LSU receivers have to emerge as a unit the national media talks about.
2. Zach Mettenberger needs to pull off his best Rohan Davey impression and simply be a good quarterback and leader.
3. LSU’s running backs need to run just as well as the 2011 unit.
The Tigers are literally six deep at the position, with newcomer and 2011 blue-chip recruit Jeremy Hill joining Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard, and Terrance Magee. The group accounted for 87 percent of the rushing yards that ranked 22nd in the nation last year. Here is how the yardage and production broke down (stats do not include passing yards and touchdowns):
- Ware — 177 carries for 707 yards (3.9 yards per carry), 8 TDs
- Ford — 127 carries for 756 yards (5.9), 7 TDs
- Blue — 78 carries for 539 yards (6.9), 7 TDs
- Hilliard — 62 carries for 336 yards (5.4), 8 TDs
- Magee — 27 carries for 133 yards (4.9)
Ware was the bell cow for Miles until his suspension from the Auburn game in late October. He fought the burden of the suspension and weight problems the rest of the season, and his production diminished. Still, he was voted second team All-SEC by the coaches and has reportedly trimmed down to 225 again.
Ware picks up the blitz and catches the ball out of the backfield well. He is also a former quarterback, which gives LSU an option to throw with him. If he can use the sidestep a bit more instead of trying to barrel through defenders so much, his body might hold up better throughout the season.
Hilliard replaced Ware as the bruiser in the lineup against Auburn and had his coming out party that afternoon in a 45-10 blowout. The nephew of former Tiger great Dalton Hilliard, he gives LSU a second hammer that can wear down defenses.
The Tigers’ leading rusher, Michael Ford, is a speed back who is a threat on sweeps and options. He sometimes is soft through the hole and misses blocks in pass protection, which keeps him off the field maybe more than his talent warrants. With so many available backs, Miles can simply not afford to put Mettenberger in harm’s way by making Ford the every-down back. But look for Ford to get his chances just like he has the last two seasons, and expect another solid campaign rushing.
Alfred Blue is a long, smooth back who has produced and will be in the mix. His speed and vision is perfect for second half drives when LSU is milking the clock. Oftentimes defenses are so beat up from having to contend with Ware and Hilliard that Blue finds himself chewing up the yards late in the game. He is a true finisher, which is the perfect compliment to Ware and Hilliard.
At 6’2, 225, Jeremy Hill is LSU’s biggest and perhaps most complete back, drawing comparisons in some circles to Trent Richardson and Marcus Lattimore. He is sixth on the depth chart at this point though, so any playing time will be earned. Still, don’t count out Hill, who is just now a true freshman a year removed from high school because of discipline issues.
Former defensive tackle JC Copeland will be the fullback and a good one. At 280 pounds, he simply mauls defenders, paving the way for the parade of Tiger tailbacks.
4. LSU’s offensive line needs to run block just as well as the 2011 unit.
The inconsistency at quarterback in 2011, largely due to Miles’ mishandling of the Jefferson-Lee situation, forced the offensive line oftentimes to block against nine-man fronts intent on forcing the quarterback to beat them through the air. No matter. The 2011 Tigers rushed the ball an average of 42 times for over 202 yards per game last season. The line’s dominance was never more apparent than in the SEC championship game when they mauled Georgia in the second half, 35-0.
The 2012 version of the line is expected to be the deepest and most talented in LSU history, particularly at the left guard position. Senior starter Josh Dworaczyk was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing last season with an injury, but freshman All-American La’el Collins, often compared to Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher, will see the field more than not.
This year’s Tiger line will have the opportunity to match last year’s production even with Mettenberger passing more because LSU will still run the ball in the second half when leading, and that should be the case in every game.
5. …and protect Mettenburger in the Alabama game.
Sure, the offensive line has to protect their quarterback in every game. But given the complex blitzing scheme of Nick Saban’s defense, it is this game that will test the line’s ability to pass protect.
The Tide had their way with the line in last year’s national championship game, but rumors continue to circulate that the line was less than enthusiastic to protect Jordan Jefferson in wake of a pregame disagreement in the locker room over Jarrett Lee’s playing time. If these rumors are true, then the Tide’s dominance of the line on Jan. 9 could be looked at as an exception. Look for the time to be there this year for Mettenberger to find his receivers despite Alabama’s vaunted pressure defense. If it isn’t, given Mettenberger’s relative lack of mobility, it will be another long night for the Tigers.
6. LSU’s defense just needs to come close to the 2011 unit.
The 2011 Tigers finished second nationally to Alabama in both total defense and scoring defense. Such dominance is likely for the 2012 Tigers, but if LSU has a hard time replacing Thorpe Award winner Morris Claiborne at cornerback and Tyrann Mathieu is forced into that position more than his typical job as “roamer,” don’t panic. The Tiger offense will shoulder more of the burden this year anyway.
7. Les Miles must plan for and coach the Alabama game like his team is the better team, which it is.
In a recent interview Miles said that there doesn’t need to be any room for hate of the Crimson Tide, that the game doesn’t have to turn into an “emotional bloodbath.”
It’s one of the most encouraging things a Tiger fan can hear from Miles. It seems sometimes as if Miles enjoys keeping games against Alabama close just to show Nick Saban that he can impose his will on him. But after Saban surprised everybody and made quarterback A. J. McCarron a lead weapon in the BCS Championship Game, even Miles must realize that the LSU-Alabama game does not have to end up 9-6 to be a classic.
LSU will have more talent on both sides of the ball this year against the Tide, and it is not out of the question for this night game in Tiger Stadium to turn into a mild blowout by the home team. If Miles opens up the playbook early like Saban did with McCarron in January, it may mean quite a bit fewer bitten nails across Tiger nation.
If there is an eighth spot on the list, it is that several Tigers must be either drafted in the first round or achieve success and longevity at the NFL level, like the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. But since that will take time to develop and today’s media is ever-hungry to crown the next greatest thing right here and right now, it doesn’t need to make the final cut. Still, this LSU team could, in ten years, prove to be another 2001 Miami with an abundance of NFL talent.
If the Tigers play like it and can play through any potential injuries and distractions, it will be a special year in Death Valley. Greatest team in history or not, a national championship will go a long way toward erasing the memory of Jan. 9.