In the long and increasingly storied history of LSU football, there has never been a season quite like the one about to unfold.
It is a season that begins at the intersection of such unprecedented — perhaps unrealistic — expectations and the crushing, lingering disappointment of unfulfilled ambitions.
Unwilling to ignore a season in which the Tigers were good enough to win 13 games and reign as the nation’s No. 1 team for 11 weeks, and unable to undo the utter failure of a 21-0 loss to archrival Alabama in the BCS national championship game, eighth-year coach Les Miles and his team turn to the only option left to them:
They move forward, funneling the bile of regret into their collective tank as fuel for yet another season as the hunted.
“We’re excited for this season,” said free safety Eric Reid, one of the Tigers’ understated stars. “We’re not dwelling on what happened last year. We had a great year. We were undefeated at one point, and we didn’t win the big one, but we’re not going to focus on that. We’re focused on this year and getting ready to play football again.
“We lost that one, but we get another chance this year. Hopefully, we can be in Miami, and hopefully, we can take the trophy home this year.”
Some coaches would frown on such public pronouncements. Not Miles.
He’s the man who commissioned Southeastern Conference championship rings for his 2011 Tigers with that team’s No. 2 final ranking embossed on the side. It was in part to commemorate what was unquestionably the best non-national championship season LSU has ever had, but also to prod his returning players on to finish the deal.
“This is a team that has achieved tremendously and is very, very talented — but they didn’t get it done,” Miles said. “How wonderful that is, to be very honest, at this point in time. It’s an opportunity to go do some more.
“We had the best record in college football last year — but we didn’t get it done. It’s an interesting position to be in.”
His players seem to have processed the message with Miles’ intended result.
“Everybody’s got a chip on their shoulder,” running back Alfred Blue said. “We went 13-1 last year, and we didn’t finish the job. We let lot people down. We let ourselves down.
“We’ve got something to prove.”
Perhaps now, more than ever.
What was a tranquil offseason compared to last year’s illness, injuries and arrests was jolted in early August by the sudden dismissal of cornerback/kick returner Tyrann Mathieu, merely one of the team’s brightest stars and a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, for what were reportedly repeated failed drug tests.
Mathieu’s exile doesn’t cancel out LSU as a national championship contender, though it does add to the burden of the teammates Mathieu leaves behind. It is also another log on the fire of the Tigers’ desire to fulfill what looked like their destiny until the BCS title game unraveled.
Despite January’s flameout and the Honey Badger being banished, most college football programs would love to be where LSU football stands at the end of what has been its most glittering 10-year stretch ever.
Since 2001, LSU has won two BCS championships and played for another, won four Southeastern Conference titles and played for another, reached a total of five BCS games, finished in the top 10 seven times, and gone 115-30 overall, a winning percentage of nearly 80 percent.
The only thing the greatest era of LSU football has lacked was a Heisman Trophy winner. Mathieu came relatively close last season, and though he is gone, the Tigers could have another contender about to burst onto the national scene.
The best of junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s ability is expected to rev up an LSU passing offense which ranked a meager 106th nationally with Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee running most of the show.
Despite the return of the team’s top five running backs from last season — plus former Redemptorist tailback Jeremy Hill — the repeated emphasis this offseason has been on finding more balance with the offense by making the passing game more potent.
Part of LSU’s passing problem last year may have been the controversy over who would play quarterback: Jefferson or Lee. That won’t be the case this season, even with the addition of a late transfer from former Penn State quarterback and one-time Nittany Lions starter Rob Bolden.
“It helps the team big-time,” said Mettenberger, who played in five games last season but was just 8 of 11 for 92 yards and a touchdown. “They do not have to worry about who is going to be in the next series. Just having one definitive starter is going to be really big for this team.
“Hopefully, I can just go out there and lead this team and get the ball to the playmakers.”
Mettenberger will operate behind a seasoned offensive line that returns four starters plus veteran guard Josh Dworaczyk. He was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
The defensive line is just as deep and experienced despite losing starting tackle Michael Brockers to the NFL.
Barkevious Mingo came on late in his junior season after playing most of the year as a reserve and pairs with fellow junior Sam Montgomery as arguably the best defensive end tandem going.
“I don’t think I would trade them for any two defensive ends in the country,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said.
Youth must serve in the linebacker corps, where the Tigers are counting on freshmen like Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist (both January enrollees) to play key backup spots behind outside linebackers Tahj Boyd and Lamin Barrow. Junior middle linebacker Kevin Minter is the only returning starter.
Mathieu’s departure leaves a void at both cornerback and on special teams. Redshirt freshmen Jalen Collins and true freshman Jalen Mills are candidates to replace him, though who could play nickel back in Mathieu’s place was a work in progress. Meanwhile, talented but oft-injured junior Craig Loston moves into the starting strong safety role alongside Reid.
LSU’s kicking corps is strong with the return of All-American punter Brad Wing and All-SEC caliber kicker Drew Alleman, but the Tigers must replace Claiborne on kickoff returns and Mathieu on punts. Look for receivers Russell Shepard and Odell Beckham Jr. to handle most of the duties on kickoffs, with Beckham taking over on punts.
Last year, the Tigers proved themselves with a season-opening win over then No. 3 Oregon in Arlington, Texas. This year, LSU opens with a North Texas theme again, but at home against the Mean Green, the first of three straight night games in Tiger Stadium to open the season, the first time that’s happened since 1980.
Whoever the opponent, the Tigers are eager to get back on the field and prove the huge expectations heaped upon them to be correct — and start to bury the painful recent past.
“There’s been a bad taste in our mouths since New Orleans last year,” Wing said. “We’ve got strong motivations to get the ball rolling — fast.”
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