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Sporting News: LSU ranked No. 1

The SportsXchange

LSU enters the 2012 season as the No. 1 ranked team in the nation in The Sporting News' annual college football preseason Top 25.

The Tigers were also the top-ranked team in TSN's 2011 rankings and finished the season 13-1, with their only loss coming to Alabama in the BCS national championship game.

USC and Alabama are listed second and third, respectively. No team can match the Trojans' array of skill-position talent, which includes senior quarterback Matt Barkely, junior running back Silas Redd and two standout wide receivers -- Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

Oklahoma is ranked fourth ahead of Virginia Tech, Kansas State, Florida State, Michigan, South Carolina and Texas.

For a full season preview on the Tigers, see The Sports Xchange report from Baton Rouge below:

BATON ROUGE -- LSU was the No. 1 team in the country for most of last season, going 13-0 and winning the Southeastern Conference championship.

But the Tigers' 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship spoiled what would have been the most successful season in school history and exposed the Tigers' lack of a consistent passing game.

LSU figures to again be outstanding on defense and special teams and in the running game. With Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee gone and strong-armed former junior college All-American Zach Mettenberger taking over at quarterback, the Tigers believe they have the final piece to a championship puzzle.

Coach Les Miles likely will never abandon his affinity for a power running game, but he said he plans to throw more often and farther down the field this season to take advantage of Mettenberger's talents.

"I think there's an enjoyment with the idea that Zach can make that deep ball throw consistently," Miles said.

The Tigers will be able to ease into this season's schedule unlike last season when they opened against preseason No. 3 Oregon and played three ranked teams in September, including another challenging non-conference opponent (West Virginia) on the road.

This season, LSU opens with three consecutive non-conference games at home against unranked teams before they open SEC play at Auburn on Sept. 22.

The Tigers' conference schedule is back loaded as they come out of their Oct. 27 open date to play league games at home against Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss before finishing the regular season at Arkansas the day after Thanksgiving.

Then they hope for a return trip to the SEC title game and the BCS title game.

"We played 13 straight very, very good, quality opponents and won (last season)," Miles said. "We didn't play our best in the last one. We understand that. That was last year."

NOTES

--Offensive guard Josh Dworaczyk was given a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing last season due to a knee injury suffered during preseason camp. Dworaczyk, the Tigers' most experienced lineman, will have an important role to play on the line, but it's unclear if his streak of consecutive starts at left guard (26 games) will continue. Highly touted sophomore La'el Collins, who made the transition from tackle to guard last season, will battle Dworaczyk for playing time. Dworaczyk could be a utility lineman and compete with Collins and also backup center P.J. Lonergan and right guard Josh Williford.

--Coach Les Miles took the unusual step of bringing a sophomore, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., with him to SEC Media Days. The Tigers expect Beckham, who was the team's leading receiver as a true freshman a year ago, to emerge as Mettenberger's primary target after last season's leading receiver, Rueben Randle, chose to bypass his senior season to go to the NFL. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants drafted him at the end of the first round.

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: LSU, which had just six games in Tiger Stadium last season, has eight home games this season and plays the first three in a row to begin the season. The Tigers open the season Sept. 1 against North Texas, then completes a home-and-home with Washington from a few years ago when it plays host to the Huskies on Sept. 8. Then comes a home game against Idaho on Sept. 22. The Tigers conclude their non-conference schedule when they play Towson on Sept. 29 in Tiger Stadium.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Tigers' lack of balance on offense last season was a bit misleading because very few of their games were in doubt in the fourth quarter so they often just stopped passing. But when they did have to pass, especially in the BCS title game, they weren't consistent enough. They expect to have far better balance with Zach Mettenberger at quarterback, though after Odell Beckham Jr., they don't have any receivers who caught a significant number of passes last season.

AREAS OF CONCERN: LSU has to replace two NFL first-round draft choices with cornerback Morris Claiborne now playing for the Dallas Cowboys and tackle Michael Brockers with the St. Louis Rams. The secondary was the strength of the defense last season and there is talent and experience returning in Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon returning. But with Ron Brooks also gone to the NFL (Buffalo), the corners behind Mathieu and Simon are largely untested. Redshirt freshman Jalen Collins is being counted on to be a key contributor.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Last year, we were so run dominated, but this year with a guy like Zach (Mettenberger) you can sling the ball around and at the end of the day still have the run and the pass." -- LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on new starting QB Zach Mettenberger.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

HEAD COACH: Les Miles, seventh year at LSU, 75-18 record at LSU and as a head coach

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Zach Mettenberger -- LSU's defense, special teams and running game are so good that Mettenberger shouldn't have to throw an awful lot for the Tigers to be successful. But the lack of a consistent passing game was LSU's undoing last season and the Tigers have no experience behind Mettenberger. If he's consistent, provides a credible downfield threat and minimizes turnovers, LSU's offense will be extremely difficult to slow down. But if he's inconsistent or has critical turnovers, the offense could stagnate.

BREAKOUT STAR: DE Barkevious Mingo -- His snaps were limited as a sophomore last season because of the presence of senior Kendrick Adams in front of him, but Mingo proved to be a consistent pass rusher. One of the fastest defensive ends in the country, he will be starter and one of the marquee players on the defense this season. He's already being projected as a possible first-round draft choice if he heads to the NFL after this season.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Long snapper Reid Ferguson -- He's the one true freshman virtually guaranteed to start as he steps in for dependable Joey Crappell, who graduated after starting for the last three seasons and never having a botched snap. Ferguson (Buford, Ga., High School) was rated the No. 2 long snapper prospect in the country by Scout.com. A four-year starter in high school he graduated early and enrolled early at LSU, enabling him to participate in spring practice.

ROSTER REPORT:

--Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu has made a name for himself the last two seasons with his ability to make big plays primarily from the nickelback position. With the departure of top cover corner Morris Claiborne and dependable backup corner Ron Brooks to the NFL, Mathieu likely will find himself playing more corner alongside fellow starter Tharold Simon. Mathieu, a Heisman finalist as a sophomore a year ago, will still freelance from the nickel spot, but might not have the luxury of playing there as often as he did when Claiborne and Brooks were around.

--Michael Ford, the Tigers' leading rusher a year ago, should be fully recovered from offseason arthroscopic knee surgery for fall practice. Ford, who emerged from the Tigers' stable of running backs to be gained the most yards despite starting just three games, missed spring practice after having the surgery. He'll compete with the same trio as last season -- Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard, and sophomore Terrance Magee and true freshman Jeremy Hill could also be in the mix.

--S Craig Loston expects to begin fall camp healthy and hopes to stay that way, which has been a challenge for him during his first two seasons. Loston, who's expected to replace Brandon Taylor as the starting strong safety, missed some time in spring due to a minor ankle injury. Loston was in and out of the lineup last season because of concussion and shoulder issues.

--QB recruit Jeremy Liggins' academic status was in question as fall practice approached. Liggins, from Lafayette High School in Oxford, Miss., was rated the No. 16 dual-threat quarterback by Rivals.com and the No. 19 quarterback by Scout.com, but he enrolled in a junior college during the summer in an attempt to get academically qualified. If eligible, Liggins would have a chance to be the primary backup to Zach Mettenberger.
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