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 title game spoiled what would have been the most successful season in school history and exposed the Tigers' lack of a consistent passing game.
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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 juco 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 the 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 defense and special teams will be heavily impacted by the dismissal of Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu on Aug. 10. Mathieu was the team's most consistent playmaker in 2011, racking up 133 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and four interceptions in 26 career games. He also ranks first in school history with 11 forced fumbles and scored two touchdowns each on fumble returns and punt returns.
"We lose a quality person, teammate and contributor to the program," Miles said in announcing Mathieu's dismissal. "However, with that being said, we have a standard that our players are held to and when that standard is not met, there are consequences.
"It's hard because we all love Tyrann. We will do what we can as coaches, teammates and friends to get him on a path where he can have success. We are going to miss him."
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 nonconference opponent (West Virginia) on the road.
This season, LSU opens with three consecutive nonconference games at home against unranked teams before opening 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 Championship 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."
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.
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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 a starter and one of the marquee players on 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 past 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.
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 Mettenberger at QB, though after Odell Beckham Jr., they don't have any receivers who caught a significant number of passes last season.
AREAS OF CONCERN: LSU's defense 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 D last season, but suffered a significant hit when Mathieu was dismissed. Tharold Simon returns at one corner spot, but with Ron Brooks also gone to the NFL, a lack of experience on the two-deep was already a concern. Redshirt freshman Jalen Collins is being counted on to be a key contributor.
--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 can back up center P.J. Lonergan and right guard Josh Williford.
-- Miles took the unusual step of bringing a sophomore, WR Beckham, with him to SEC media days. The Tigers expect Beckham, the team's leading receiver as a true freshman a year ago, to emerge as Mettenberger's primary target after 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.
--Mathieu's dismissal leaves little returning depth at cornerback outside of Simon. The electric return man's absence will also be felt on special teams.
--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 gain 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, 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