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Spring football 25: LSU Tigers

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(USA Today Sports Images)

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Arkansas

LSU
What happened in 2012
This is life at LSU: Expectations are such that a 10-3 record, with all three losses against very good teams in close games including two losses in the final minute, is just not good enough.

Had LSU held on to beat Alabama, the 2012 season would have looked a lot different. But A.J. McCarron led a late touchdown drive, and instead of an 11-1 regular-season record and a trip to the SEC championship game and likely a BCS title game on the line, the Tigers were relegated to a December bowl game. And they lost on a last-second field goal to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. So had LSU’s defense gotten one more stop after holding McCarron and Alabama down most of the game, this might be about how well the Tigers are equipped to defend their national title.

Les Miles understands the life of an LSU coach, and signed a lucrative seven-year extension after an out-of-the-blue talk with Arkansas about that job. He’ll have the same expectations in 2013 that he did in 2012, which is that anything less than an SEC division title, at absolute minimum, won’t be celebrated in Baton Rouge.

What makes them interesting in 2013

Even though expectations are the same, the personnel will not be. LSU had 13 players at the NFL scouting combine, including eight defensive players (although that includes Tyrann Mathieu, who didn’t play for LSU in 2012). An astonishing 11 LSU players were on the list of players who entered the NFL draft early, including star defenders Kevin Minter, Sam Montgomery, Eric Reid and Barkevious Mingo. No team can lose that type of talent without some dropoff.

LSU always has talent. The sixth-ranked recruiting class, with five-star defensive back Tre’Davious White and five-star defensive end Frank Herron, could help right away. But this looks like a team that might need to rely on the offense early in the season as the defense finds its way.

[Also: East Tennessee State woos former Vols coach Phillip Fulmer]

What needs to happen this spring
The defensive depth chart is, let's say, fluid. As TigerBait.com pointed out, the only three Tigers defensive players who have started more than five games are linebacker Lamin Barrow, cornerback Jalen Mills and safety Craig Loston. The offense is learning under a new coordinator, but the defense is still spring’s biggest priority.

The line lost its top three ends and top two tackles, and the scholarship players returning on the line have a combined six sacks, according to TigerBait.com. Middle linebacker is wide open after Minter left. There’s a little bit of experience in the secondary, which should help.

Again, LSU recruits so well, that there will be talent on the field no matter who wins the starting jobs. The coaches’ challenge this spring is identifying which players are ready to step into bigger roles.

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LSU WR Odell Beckham (USA Today Sports Images)

Gamechangers
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger showed good signs of progress last year. He wasn’t a big factor early on, but a 298-yard game against Alabama’s stingy defense was a great sign. He was much more prolific down the stretch after that game, giving LSU fans hope that he can be a legitimate passing threat this season. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron should help as well. A 120-yard showing against Clemson in the bowl game was a bad way for Mettenberger to end his season, but the Tigers have to have faith he’s ready to make a leap.

The rest of the offense should be fine. There’s good experience on the line, at receiver and at running back. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham are two exciting receiving options. Each of them had a play-of-the-year candidate last season. Jeremy Hill finished last season very strong at running back and could be a key part of the offense. LSU should score more points this year, and it might have to.

Wild cards
Cam Cameron was surprisingly fired in midseason last year by the Ravens, and Baltimore went on to win the Super Bowl. That’s not the best way to inspire confidence in a coordinator, but Cameron might be a good fit for LSU. He was criticized for being too conservative at times (and frequently forgetting to get the ball to Ray Rice, but that won’t be a problem at LSU) but he can add some things to an LSU offense that truly has been vanilla. Cameron has done well with quarterbacks before, most recently Joe Flacco, so that could be a big help to Mettenberger. Adding a few NFL passing concepts can’t hurt the Tigers’ offense.

But, the luster is off Cameron after he was a hot name a few years ago. He can restart his career with LSU, but until it happens, there has to be some trepidation on how well he'll fit at LSU and how good the Tigers' offense will be with him.

Key games
Sept. 28 at Georgia
Oct. 12 vs. Florida
Nov. 9 at Alabama
Nov. 23 vs. Texas A&M

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Check out Dr. Saturday's other spring previews: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina , Baylor, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Clemson, West Virginia, Missouri, Tulsa.

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