The LSU Tigers lost 11 starters from last year's 13-1 national championship team, including seven players selected in the 2004 NFL Draft. More important, they lost several leaders who understood the bigger picture and bought into coach Nick Saban's focus on intangibles.
This year's LSU team features plenty of talented players, but only nine seniors in the two-deep. That means several juniors and sophomores will also have to step up and lead if the Tigers are going to come anywhere close to matching last year's success.
"We have a gap between our young players and our older good players now that really needs to kind of come together for us," Saban said. "It has to come from young players, because we have a lot of them."
Like last year's team, those players have to come to the understanding that it takes more than talent and reputation to win a championship. With a schedule that includes a season opener against Oregon State and trips to Auburn, Florida and Georgia in a four-week stretch from Sept. 18 to Oct. 9, the new leaders must emerge quickly.
"I think this game is an opportunity to find what kind of competitive spirit this team has this year, and what we do this year, basically, is not going to be affected at all by what we did in the past," Saban said, alluding to Saturday's home game against Oregon State. "I think our players need to definitely understand that. It's all about what are they going to say about you and how you compete and how you play? What are they going to say about this team in how you go about doing your business on the field?
"I'm talking more about intangibles in terms of the kind of effort, the kind of toughness, the kind of ability to execute together as a team that this team has, and that's really all that matters. I think that a lot of it is psychological. When you're coming off of what we came off of last year, the players have to have the right frame of mind, and I think that's going to be the key to their success."
Another key to success will be the leadership and performance of senior quarterback Marcus Randall, who started six games in 2002 due to an injury to Matt Mauck and played in played in parts of nine games last season. LSU fans haven't forgotten his unsteady play in 2002, but Randall has made strides in the spring and preseason to put the past behind him and prove he can handle everything that comes with the job.
"I think he's done extremely well," Saban said. "He's got to go do it in the games and prove it in the games. But as far as practice goes, he's done extremely well in managing situations, making plays, not making dumb, bad plays. I've been really pleased with what he's done.
"He's got some game experience, so I'm confident as well as hopeful that he'll be able to (perform). I just think we need to get the chemistry around him a little tighter. There's been progress in that area as well."
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