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August 3, 2009
THE SCHEME: LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton can alter LSU's attack based on the talent on his roster and the strength of an opponent. Three times last season, LSU opened a game with three wideouts. The Tigers had a fullback in their starting lineup the other 10 games.
STAR POWER: RB Charles Scott ranked seventh in the nation last year with 18 touchdown runs and opened the season with four consecutive 100-yard games. Scott finished the season with 1,174 yards on 217 carries, and he seemed to wear down late in the year. If the Tigers can limit his workload enough to keep him fresh all season, Scott could challenge for All-America honors. OT Ciron Black, a second-team All-SEC selection each of the past two seasons, enters his fourth year as LSU's starting left tackle with legitimate All-America aspirations.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Redshirt freshman P.J. Lonergan is competing with sophomore T-Bob Hebert for the starting spot at center. WR Rueben Randle, who signed with LSU as the No. 2 overall prospect in the nation, should challenge for immediate playing time as a true freshman. QB Russell Shepard arrives at LSU as the No. 7 overall prospect and No. 1 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the nation. Although Jordan Jefferson is the Tigers' clear-cut starting quarterback, don't be surprised if Shepard earns some playing time as a change-of-pace guy who can throw defenses off balance.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Jefferson provided plenty of cause for optimism when he completed his first nine passes in a Chick-fil-A Bowl rout of Georgia Tech. Jefferson showed star potential while starting the final two games of the 2008 season, though he still has plenty of room for improvement. His versatility could make him one of the SEC's more dynamic quarterbacks. At the very least, he should stabilize a quarterback position that gave LSU nothing but trouble last season.
STRONGEST AREA: The talent in the backfield and on the line should allow LSU to run the ball very effectively. The lack of experience at center is concerning, but Black, G Lyle Hitt and T Joseph Barksdale give the Tigers three returning starters on the line. LSU has an embarrassment of riches at running back. Perhaps the only thing that could prevent Scott from leading the SEC in rushing this year is the fact that LSU has so many other backs who deserve carries. Keiland Williams has 1,331 career rushing yards, including a 126-yard game against Virginia Tech two years ago. Trindon Holliday may be the fastest player in the nation. Richard Murphy's versatility demands that he also receive playing time.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: LSU needs better production from its quarterbacks than it received in 2008. The Tigers killed themselves last year with all the interceptions that got returned for touchdowns. Jefferson's late-season emergence ahs provided plenty of hope that things will change, but LSU fans must keep in mind that he only has made two career starts. On an offense that features so much talent, the lack of a proven quarterback is the biggest reason for concern. Jefferson might develop into the quality quarterback LSU lacked last season, but it's too early in his career to make that declaration now.
THE SCHEME: 4-3
STAR POWER: E Rahim Alem technically isn't a returning starter, but he still ranks among the SEC's top pass rushers. Even though he started just one game and was used primarily as a pass-rushing specialist, Alem delivered eight sacks and earned first-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press. Alem inherits a larger role this season and could respond even bigger numbers.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: LSU's inexperience at defensive end could force redshirt freshmen Chancey Aghayere and Chase Clement into playing time. Aghayere and Clement are listed as second-team defensive ends behind starters Alem and Lazarius Levingston. True freshman DE Sam Montgomery also could earn plenty of playing time.
WATCH FOR THEM TO EMERGE: This could be the year FS Chad Jones lives up to his five-star potential. Jones, who also plays for LSU's national championship baseball team, made six starts last season and forced two fumbles. He should emerge as a full-time starter at free safety and could thrive in new defensive coordinator John Chavis' system. The two-sport athlete will be a virtual center fielder, roaming the field and making the most of his athleticism. T Al Woods, a heralded recruit who hasn't lived up to expectations thus far, made major strides in the offseason and exited spring practice atop the depth chart. He could deliver a breakthrough performance in his senior year.
STRONGEST AREA: We're admittedly taking a leap of faith here, but an LSU secondary that struggled mightily for much of last season could emerge as a team strength this year. CBs Chris Hawkins, Patrick Peterson and Jai Eugene are very talented players with plenty of starting experience. Peterson particularly should be vastly improved this season after getting some on-the-job training as a true freshman last year. Jones is a star in the making at free safety, while Karnell Hatcher and Ron Brooks have plenty of potential at strong safety.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: LSU traditionally has outstanding defensive lines, and the Tigers could be strong up front again by the end of the season. But the lack of experience is a major concern right now. DT Charles Alexander is the only lineman who made at least seven starts last season. The lack of depth at defensive end is particularly troubling. The Tigers need Levingston and Alem to stay healthy, or they'll have to rely on some newcomers to deliver big seasons.
LSU will have a tough time replacing Colt David, who ended his career as LSU's all-time leading scorer. David's likely replacement is Josh Jasper, who served as LSU's primary kickoff man and went 2-for-2 on field-goal attempts and 5-for-5 on extra points last season. The Tigers are counting on junior college transfer Derek Helton to step in immediately as their main punter. Helton averaged 36.1 yards per attempt last season at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College. Holliday gives LSU one of the nation's most dangerous kick returners.
The honeymoon from Les Miles' national championship season didn't last long. LSU followed up that title-winning season by going below .500 in SEC competition and losing three of its last four regular-season games while Nick Saban - Miles' predecessor - was leading Alabama to the Sugar Bowl. LSU responded by overhauling its defensive staff. The arrival of Chavis from Tennessee to replace Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto as defensive coordinator should give the defense an immediate upgrade. Former Louisville and Eastern Michigan coach Ron Cooper came aboard as defensive backs coach, and former Chicago Bears defensive line coach Brick Haley is now coaching the defensive line for the Tigers. LSU's staff also boasts one of the nation's top offensive coordinators (Crowton) and one of the game's best recruiters (running backs coach Larry Porter). The arrival of Chavis should make the defense a whole lot better. Miles undoubtedly had a tough 2008 season, but he'll look a whole lot smarter this season if his quarterbacks stop throwing interceptions that get returned for touchdowns.
LSU won't get much of a test from a non-conference schedule that includes a season-opening trip to Washington and home games with Louisiana-Lafayette, Tulane and Louisiana Tech. But the Tigers' conference schedule offers all kinds of obstacles. LSU travels to Georgia and plays host to defending national champion Florida on back-to-back October weekends. LSU also must play its two toughest Western Division foes - Alabama and Ole Miss - on the road. By contrast, Ole Miss gets Alabama and LSU at home and avoids Florida and Georgia. Alabama also doesn't have to play Florida or Georgia. That schedule could go a long way toward keeping the Tigers from making it to Atlanta, unless it's for a return to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
LSU will be better. There's little doubt about that. But how much better? That's the question. Expecting the Tigers to earn a BCS bid just one season after going 8-5 is perhaps overly optimistic. The Chick-fil-A Bowl certainly offers cause for optimism, but LSU's performance in the four games leading up to that contest shows how much improvement is needed. The Tigers' defense was hardly championship caliber last season, though a year of experience and an overhaul of the coaching staff should lead to improvement on that front. LSU also can't count on Jefferson suddenly developing into one of the SEC's top quarterbacks in his first year as a starter. But the biggest reason for worry is a conference schedule that forces LSU to play its two biggest division foes on the road and includes games with the top two Eastern Division teams. The SEC West clearly is up for grabs this year, but LSU's tougher conference schedule puts the Tigers behind Alabama and Ole Miss in our pecking order. A 10-3 finish that includes a Cotton Bowl victory seems pretty realistic.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.