Photo courtesy of LSU Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The LSU Tigers' 2011 regular season was all that seventh-year head coach Les Miles could ask for.
The Tigers breezed through its insanely-difficult schedule, mowing down the likes of No. 3 Oregon (40-27), No. 25 Mississippi State (19-6), No. 16 West Virginia (47-21), No. 17 Florida (41-11), No. 19 Auburn (45-10) and No. 3 Arkansas (31-17).
The showdown of the year came on Nov. 5 when the top-ranked Tigers traveled to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 2 Alabama. In a defensive battle, LSU came out on top, 9-6 in overtime, which helped catapult it to the SEC Western Division crown. The Tigers made easy work of No. 12 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, 42-10, to finish the regular season a perfect 13-0.
Not surprisingly, the Tigers earned a spot in the BCS National Championship Game where they had a rematch with Alabama. Things turned out differently this time around, as the Crimson Tide rolled to a 21-0 victory, proving that the SEC is so tough that you don't necessarily need to win the conference to be the best team in the country.
OFFENSE: In terms of yardage, the LSU offense was rather modest in 2011, finishing fifth in the SEC in total yards per game with 375.3, but more times than not it would take advantage on the scoreboard as it averaged a spectacular 38.5 points per game, tops in the conference.
Most of the Tigers' success came on the ground, as they finished with the most rushing yards in the league (2,797), but they were not reliant on any one standout rusher, as five different players gained least 340 yards and Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard all scored at least 7 touchdowns.
After starting 10 games last season, Ware (727 yards) remains atop the depth chart, although Miles is sure to incorporate his running back-by-committee system yet again with Ford (756 yards), Blue (539) and Hilliard (340) all back in the fold.
The Tigers' two-quarterback system was ran by Jarrett Lee (1,306 yards, 14 TDs) and Jordan Jefferson (737 yards, 6 TDs, 360 rushing yards) in 2011, but the keys to the offensive ship will be handed over to junior Zach Mettenberger this season, despite attempting only 11 passes in his career at LSU. Despite his inexperience, Miles is confident enough in Mettenberger's abilities to allow him to take over a championship-caliber team.
"I think Zach Mettenberger is going to give us a really nice quarterback," Miles said. "The key to him is take it a day at a time, not put the cart in front of the horse. (He's a) very talented guy. The things that he's done in leadership, the approach he's taken with this team has been very obvious. I think that he stays that way, as long as he improves, we'll like his play."
All-SEC wideout Rueben Randle has moved on the NFL, but Mettenberger will have experienced receivers Odell Beckham, Jr. (475 yards, 2 TDs) and Russell Shepard (190 yards, 4 TDs) to throw to.
DEFENSE: As effective as the offense was a season ago, the real story was the LSU defense which stymied opponents to the tune of just 10.5 points per game, which was second in the conference (as well as second in the nation) to rival Alabama's 8.8 ppg.
With a great year comes inevitable departures, and standouts Morris Claiborne (6 interceptions), Michael Brockers (54 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) and Brandon Taylor (71 tackles, 2 interceptions) have all moved on. However, the Tigers still retain plenty of talent to be a top-notch defensive unit once again.
One departure that was not anticipated was that of 2011 Heisman-finalist Tyrann Mathieu, who was recently dismissed from the team for repeatedly violating team policy. The defense will without a doubt suffer in his absence, but Miles addressed that the team's integrity will always outweigh the importance of any one individual.
"We (lost) a quality person, teammate and contributor to the program," Miles said. "However, we have a standard that our players are held to and when that standard is not met, there are consequences."
It'll be nearly impossible for any one player to duplicate Mathieu's numbers (76 tackles, 2 interceptions, 6 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, 4 total touchdowns), but the team still has plenty of talent to remain a top-notch defensive unit. Returning starters include safety Eric Reid (76 tackles, 2 interceptions), defensive end Sam Montgomery (13.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks), defensive tackle Bennie Logan (57 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss), and linebacker Kevin Minter (61 tackles).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicker Drew Alleman made the most of his opportunities in 2011, connecting on 16-of-18 field goal attempts, although his longest was just 44 yards. As a freshman, punter Brad Wing was named a First Team All-American after posting a 44.4 yard average, which included 20 punts over 50 yards and 27 punts placed inside the 20-yard line.
Mathieu's big-play ability will also be greatly missed in the return game, and the Tigers will have an open competition to replace him as their primary punt returner.
OUTLOOK: Falling short of a championship after getting so close in 2011 stings a lot, and Miles knows that adjustments need to be made.
"I can tell you that our team had a great year and played 13 straight very, very good, quality opponents and won," he said. "We didn't play our best in the last one. We understand that. That was last year. We also remember and we look forward to playing like we play. It's about us, some things we need to fix. I think our team sees that."
LSU has seen a lot of turnover since its run to the BCS Championship Game -- and the unexpected loss of Mathieu certainly dampers its current prospects -- but with the return of all of their productive running backs and a great core of defensive playmakers, the Tigers will surely be in the hunt for college football's top prize yet again.
Mettenberger remains a relative unknown, but Miles has been known to get the most out of his QBs and is great at putting them in position to succeed.
As expected, the Tigers' schedule is brutal once again, as it has to go through the typical gauntlet that is the SEC, although its non-conference foes are not at all intimidating this season (North Texas, Idaho, Washington and Towson). With this year's matchup against Alabama taking place at home, the Tigers should be favorites to win every game.