What you'll be reading for the next seven months. Previously: Portrait of the BCS in winter.
BCS flop notwithstanding, LSU just finished arguably the greatest season in school history, and certainly the best of Les Miles' tenure as head coach: National championship or no national championship, the Tigers won 13 games, spent eleven consecutive weeks at No. 1, fielded the No. 2 defense in the nation and beat three teams that finished in the top five of the final polls, including the team at the top. Coaching, recruiting, chemistry — all of the ingredients came together at once in a five-month, 14-game blend that came up just shy of perfection. So how hard could it possibly be for them to do it again?
Not very, according to the mainstream college football punditry, some of whom didn't even wait for the confetti to hit the turf after LSU's collapse against Alabama in the BCS title game to anoint the Tigers as preemptive favorites to open the season at No. 1 in 2012. The ones that bothered to get a good night's sleep first didn't take long to reach the same conclusion: Of the ten most prominent "pre-spring" or "pre-preseason" polls* issued over the last week-and-a-half, eight put LSU on top, and the other two both have the Tigers at No. 2. Barring some unforeseen attrition between now and August, that's where they're going to open the "official" preseason polls heading into next season, too, based on four criteria you may as well go ahead and familiarize yourself with:
• It's basically the same team, a year older. LSU is losing some first-rate talent to the NFL — most notably early entrants Morris Claiborne and Rueben Randle and All-American guard Will Blackwell — but what was really frightening about the 2011 team is just how young it was: Not only are the Tigers bringing back 16 players who started at least three games last year, but a whopping 13 of them were freshmen and sophomores. The top four tailbacks, top two pass rushers, eight of the top 11 tacklers, and the resident Heisman Trophy finalist were all underclassmen.
• Finally, a real quarterback. For most of the year, seniors Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee qualified as the most underrated signal-callers in the country, at least in terms of what LSU asked them to do — i.e. make the occasional big play off play-action and don't screw things up for the defense and special teams. After Jefferson's collapse and Lee's no-show in the BCS title game, that distinction looks ridiculous: They were merely competent veterans surrounded by blue-chip talent who looked lost when denied a steady running game and good field position.
Former juco transfer Zach Mettenberger, on the other hand, has the arm and the disposition to challenge defenses downfield, and Les Miles has already promised to let him use it. With ace recruit Gunner Kiel now bound for Notre Dame, there won't be any controversies: This is Mettenberger's offense.
• A more manageable schedule. The 2011 slate consisted of six home games, non-conference dates outside of Baton Rouge with eventual conference champions/BCS bowl winners Oregon and West Virginia and a trip to Tuscaloosa. The 2012 slate calls for eight home games, replaces Oregon and West Virginia with Washington and Idaho and brings Alabama to Tiger Stadium.
• My god, the talent. We don't really have to remind you about the talent, do we? Well, no, but a little context never hurts. By any measure, the Tigers are overflowing with blue-chip cred:
• The three recruiting classes feeding the current roster were all ranked among the top ten incoming classes in the nation by every major scouting site.
• Of 25 probable starters this fall, seven were once ranked by Rivals as five-star or borderline five-star prospects (among the top 50 overall recruits in their incoming class) and 17 were ranked among the top 200 in their class.
• Of the four probable starters cracking the lineup for the first time, three of them — offensive lineman La'El Collins, defensive lineman Anthony Johnson and safety Craig Loston — are former five-star prospects.
• Including underclassmen, there are at least five potential first-rounders in the 2013 draft: Offensive lineman Alex Hurst, cornerback/punt returner/bon vivant Tyrann Mathieu, defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery and safety Eric Reid. According to the endlessly useful NFL Draft Scout, all five have a chance to come out as the highest-rated prospect at their respective positions.
Oh, and it never hurts to have the best punter in the country on your side, either.
Of course, that's the positive version. On the less rosy side of the coin, Zach Mettenberger failed to beat out either of this year's starters, the offense will miss Rueben Randle as a deep threat, the defense will miss Morris Claiborne in man-to-man coverage and the schedule requires trips to Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas. Plus the offense struggled dramatically against decent defenses without the aid of special teams and a sky-high turnover margin that's likely to regress to the mean. Plus the coaching staff is the same one that botched the game plan in the BCS Championship Game. There are plenty of compelling arguments that LSU is bound to take a slight step back from its near-dream season, too.
Not that they're more compelling than the consensus Tiger love. Somehow, though, ,I get the feeling the counterpoint is a lot easier to come up with in January than it will be in July.