(AP)—- The reasons to doubt LSU’s ability to contend for Southeastern Conference and national titles this season start with the 11 regulars who left school early last winter to turn pro.
The No. 12 Tigers, who had a school-record eight defensive players drafted, will have four new starters on the defensive line alone when they open the season against 20th-ranked TCU in the Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday night.
”Obviously, the number of guys that we lost last year isn’t usual,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said. ”We didn’t get caught off-guard. We recruited well before this year and the years before that. But certainly when you lose that many guys, there’s going to be some freshmen that are going to have the opportunity to play.”
The offense has retained many of its skill players, including quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, and running backs Alfred Blue, Jeremy Hill and Kenny Hilliard.
But that unit ranked near the bottom nationally in passing in 2012, so long-time college and NFL coach Cam Cameron was brought in as offensive coordinator, raising hopes that LSU (10-3) will add a more dynamic passing attack to its formidable ground game into 2013.
In the meantime, coach Les Miles offers a calm, knowing smile to those who ask him how his team will handle being projected to finish behind both Alabama and Texas A&M in the SEC’s Western Division.
”We have always felt we need to earn our position, and we understand that people have an opinion that would not necessarily reflect the hard work, effort and energy of the people in this room,” Miles said as he stood in a large, theater-style meeting and film room inside LSU’s football headquarters. ”So we like us, and we like us in every game.”
Miles, though, won’t say whether Hill, the Tigers’ leading rusher last season with 755 yards and 12 touchdowns, will play Saturday.
The Tigers coach said Monday that Hill will miss some playing time because of his arrest in late April in connection for a fight outside a bar. However, Miles is not specifying when Hill might serve that punishment, or how long the duration might be.
”Jeremy Hill is going to sustain discipline,” Miles said. ”We said earlier that … he would be withheld from play. That’s going to take place. Our discipline will be internal at this point, and I don’t think we have much further to say.”
For Cameron to make a difference for the Tigers, one-time prized recruit Mettenberger needs to finally deliver on that promise in the final season of a troubled college career. He threw for 2,609 yards, 12 TDs and seven interceptions last season.
LSU will try to get off to a good start against a TCU team that’s beginning its second season in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs went 7-6 for their lowest victory total in eight seasons and didn’t win a league title for the first time in four years.
TCU suffered a 17-16 loss to Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, one of three losses in the final 3 1/2 minutes of regulation or overtime.
”There was a lot of ups and downs that first year in the Big 12 and it was tough playing in a new conference where week in and week out you’re facing a top-caliber team,” said defensive end Jon Koontz, one of eight returning defensive starters. ”But I feel like we did get our feet wet last year. … We do know what it’s like now to play in a conference like this, and we’ve got a lot of experience coming back.”
Some of that is at quarterback, as the return of Casey Pachall could give the Frogs further hope for improvement in 2013. Pachall is 15-2 as TCU’s starter, though he only played the first four games last season - all victories, in which he threw 10 touchdowns and one interception. He left school in October for a treatment program after his drunken driving arrest.
Pachall was back in school in time for spring drills. However, even though the senior seems to have the upper hand in being the starter again, coach Gary Patterson may not decide on who will be under center after Trevone Boykin’s solid performance (2,054 yards passing and 15 TDs) the rest of last season.
The coach may even opt to give both players considerable time, and with Pachall and Boykin serving as offensive co-captains, both are likely to play.
While TCU returns nearly half of its defensive starters, Big 12 defensive player of the year Devonte Fields will miss the first two games due to a suspension for an unspecified violation of ”university and team policy.” Fields had 18 1/2 tackles for losses with 10 sacks as a freshman last season.
LSU leads the all-time series 5-2-1. The teams haven’t met since 1968.