BATON ROUGE, La. -- The expectations for LSU are lower outside of the program, but just as high as ever within. The Tigers were a preseason top-five pick each of the last two years, but this season they were picked to finish just third in the SEC West -- behind Alabama and Texas A&M.
The lower expectations are based on a defense that returns just three starters from last year's team and uncertainty whether a revamped offense will be more productive than the inconsistent unit from a year ago. There is enough talent for LSU to again compete nationally, but inexperienced players will have to mature quickly, Zach Mettenberger will have to direct new coordinator Cam Cameron's offense efficiently and the Tigers will have to negotiate a schedule that features four opponents in the top 10 of the coaches' preseason poll.
LSU, which was No. 1 in the coaches' preseason poll last season, checked in at No. 13 this season. But the players say the diminished expectations are a result of outsiders being unfamiliar with young players that the team is convinced can effectively replace starters who have moved on to the NFL.
"We're LSU," fullback J.C. Copeland said. "We have a lot of good players who couldn't play last year because the players in front of them were as good as they were. You take them away and put other people in their position. We always have good players here. It's just a matter of playing them."
LSU was ranked No. 14 in the final coaches' poll after a last-minute 25-24 loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers finished 10-3, having lost at Florida (14-6) and falling to Alabama (21-17) in the final two minutes. A more consistent offense, which could have run out the clock with one more first down against Alabama and Clemson, would have made the team much more successful.
Enter Cameron, the former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator who is a friend of head coach Les Miles and who is being counted on to increase the productivity of a unit that returns eight starters from last season.
LSU's two opponents from the East Division are defending division champion Georgia and Florida, which tied the Bulldogs for first last season. The Tigers also have a challenging non-conference game as they face preseason No. 20 TCU in the opener.
Alabama's East Division foes are Tennessee and Kentucky, which combined for one league victory last season, and its most challenging non-conference foe appears to be unranked Virginia Tech in the season opener. Texas A&M's foes from the East are unranked Vanderbilt and Missouri, and the Aggies don't have a marquee non-conference opponent.
So on paper, it appears difficult for LSU to avoid a drop-off this season, but no one on the team is buying that.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: It's up to Cameron to make the Tigers less predictable and more balanced, bring out the best in QB Zach Mettenberger and maintain the Tigers' ability to run the ball with a stable of running backs, led by Hill and senior Alfred Blue, who returns from knee surgery. In addition to his role as coordinator, Cameron is quarterbacks coach and will try to make Mettenberger more consistent. In his first season as a starter last season, Mettenberger got off to a slow start, then had his biggest game of the season against Alabama in early November and finished strong. With Jarvis Landry blossoming into a star late last season, Odell Beckham Jr. joining him as a returning starter and a group of talented newcomers joining the fold, Mettenberger has plenty of targets.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Nearly every starting position on the defense belongs to someone who didn't start there last season. The exceptions are Craig Loston, who avoided injury after being plagued early in his career to emerge as a key player as a junior last season; senior LB Lamin Barrow, who was overshadowed by Kevin Minter's breakout season last year; and CB Jalen Mills, who stepped in after All-American Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed last August and went on to make the SEC All-Freshman team. That doesn't mean well-regarded coordinator John Chavis is concerned, because he's not. The Tigers are well stocked with players who were highly rated as recruits and have been groomed for this opportunity, which comes in part because six starters went to the NFL after their junior seasons.