Breaking down the preseason favorites for the BCS championship.
• Hide the women and children, and most of the men. Patrick Peterson rewrote the local definition of a "star cornerback," conquering all the major national awards and the top of the NFL Draft alike. But the secondary he leaves behind is arguably a deeper, more experienced group than the one that led the SEC in passing defense last year, and could come out looking even better against a far friendlier lineup of opposing passers.
That starts with Peterson's opposite number at corner, Morris Claiborne, a second-team All-SEC pick who's joined by both starting safeties, Brandon Taylor and Karnell Hatcher. The stars of the show, though, will be rising sophomores Eric Reid and Tyrann Mathieu, both of whom played early and often in the nickel as true freshmen and wasted no time justifying the recruiting hype. Mathieu, in particular, was a nightmare as a frequent blitzer and could easily ball-hawk his way into all-conference contention as a full-time starter.
• All the ways you will disappoint us. On paper, the offense is stacked: There's a senior quarterback with 27 career starts, four returning starters on the line, a trio of former five-star recruits at the top of the depth chart at tailback and wide receiver — obvious potential everywhere. On the field, it's cracked: Even brimming with talent, the Tigers narrowly avoided the SEC cellar in total offense last year, after bottoming out in dead last in 2009. Consistent play-making threats remain a rumor.
Most of the blame for that track record has predictably fallen on a) Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, who was set adrift on an ice berg to Maryland in January, and b) Quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who many fans would have been glad to see float off to the bench this spring. Instead, the Tigers will forge ahead with a new coordinator, ex-Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe, to oversee a no-frills, run-first approach that asks the quarterback to do as little as possible.
• Stumbling blocks. In the first place there is no Cam Newton to tackle and no Ryan Mallett to cover deep, but even if the (other) Tigers and Razorbacks fall back to the pack without their star quarterbacks, there are land mines everywhere: September alone sends LSU to Dallas to take on Oregon in the opener and then to Mississippi State and West Virginia in a span of four weeks. Then comes the four-game stretch against Florida, Tennessee, Auburn and Alabama in October and November, and Arkansas to close out. In all, there are seven conceivably losable games on the regular season slate, and if they get through that relatively unscathed, there's sitll the SEC Championship Game
• Visions of champions past: FLORIDA, 2006. Before the dominant, fire-breathing Gators of the Tebow years, Florida gutted its way to a BCS title in 2006 with a top-10 defense, a beleaguered senior quarterback (Chris Leak), no true offensive stars and the narrowest margin of victory of any eventual BCS champion: For the season, the Gators won six games by a touchdown or less, and two by a single point. They also overcame a blemish en route to the championship showdown with Ohio State, which LSU will almost certainly have to do to get back to the Big One, too.
• Crystal ball says… Any outfit with as much raw talent as LSU, that returns as many starters as LSU does from an 11-win, top-10 campaign, has to be included in the championship discussion. But no Les Miles-coached team has navigated an entire season with fewer than two losses, even his BCS championship team in 2007, and it's hard to see why this edition would be the one to break the streak. What — or who — is there to rally around? This lineup, minus Patrick Peterson, is so bereft of proven star power that it's probably not going to place a single player on the preseason All-SEC teams.
The Tigers have won more games than the stat sheet suggests they should two years in a row, and while a win is a win, etc., that's not the stuff championships are made of. Even if Jefferson is due for a great leap forward, against this schedule, it will take a career year just to climb back into the top ten.
out of five.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.