Beginning shortly after 8:06 p.m. Saturday, LSU and TCU finally will have to show their cards.
All the bluffing and gamesmanship of the preseason will vanish as the No. 12 Tigers and No. 20 Horned Frogs meet in one of the marquee matchups of the opening weekend of the college football season.
LSU coach Les Miles has to either play or not play running back Jeremy Hill, the team’s returning rusher from a year ago who faces vaguely described additional discipline for violating his probation, which may or may not include sitting out this game.
Similarly, TCU coach Gary Patterson will have to stop playing word games and play either Casey Pachall or Trevone Boykin — or both — at quarterback. They’re listed as co-captains and both are expected at midfield for the coin toss, though the best guess seems to be that Pachall will be under center first.
It’s expected that suspended Horned Frogs defensive end Devonte Fields, the reigning Big 12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year, won’t play, but Patterson has called that a game-time decision, seemingly more as an answer to Miles’ vagueness about Hill than any serious consideration of playing Fields.
So a lot of pressing questions that went unanswered by the coaches’ words during the preseason will be answered by their actions.
“There’s no doubt that there are a lot of unanswered questions,” Tigers linebacker D.J. Welter said. “We’ve just worked on our assignments, and whoever shows up that day, we’ll be ready to play.”
Regardless of the individual personnel issues, there are larger questions to be answered as well — about LSU’s revamped offense under first-year coordinator Cam Cameron, its youthful defense that features just three starters from a year ago and whether TCU — just three years removed from a milestone victory in the Rose Bowl to cap an undefeated season — has staying power as a national power in its second season in the Big 12.
Cameron has spent the offseason and preseason trying to invigorate the Tigers passing game without deviating from Miles’ affinity for building an offense around an effective power running game.
It’ll be up to squarterback Zach Mettenberger to get the ball into the hands of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., as well as the tight ends for a change, to create more running room for Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and, perhaps, Hill, who’s listed third on the depth chart.
“You can practice everything as much as you want, but it’s never really like the game,” Mettenberger said. “I’m just excited to get out there and see how we all operate together.”
TCU returns eight starters from a defense that led the Big 12 in six categories last season, most notably total yards, rushing yards and takeaways. But the absence of Fields, who had 10 sacks and 18½ tackles for loss, would be significant. He and junior Matt Anderson are both listed at the top of the depth chart, a move Patterson said was designed to keep the Tigers guessing.
The Frogs would miss Fields but still have cornerback Jason Verrett, who led the Big 12 with six interceptions last season.
LSU’s defense is nearly the opposite of TCU’s in terms of returning starters. Eight of the 11 projected starters have combined for a total of seven career starts.
They’ll be facing a Horned Frogs offense that was effective last season behind both quarterbacks, but more so when Pachall was playing. He completed 66 percent of his passes for 948 yards with 10 touchdowns and one interception as TCU started 4-0 before he was suspended after an arrest of suspicion of driving under the influence. He’s 15-2 as a starter.
Boykin completed 57.2 percent of his passes for 2,054 yards and threw 15 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions as a redshirt freshman.
“LSU has always played great defense,” Patterson said. “If you can’t handle the grind, they are going to see it. One of the more exciting things about this game is that we can learn what we’re like and what we have to be.”
Both teams feel their programs are at a higher level than their preseason rankings indicate. The winner likely will move closer to where they believe they belong, and the loser will have even more catching up to do.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to put a statement out there to the rest of the country to show how different a team we are,” Mettenberger said.