Even under the radar, LSU’s looking forward to a big season

So much has changed for LSU since it last went to Arlington, Texas, to open the season in the Cowboys Classic.

Or has it?

The Tigers return there Aug. 31 to open this season against TCU, just two years after they strutted into what is now known as AT&T Stadium as the preseason No. 4 team in the country and put on an eye-popping display in a 40-27 victory against No. 3 Oregon.

That set the tone for the most successful regular season in school history. Three weeks and three victories later, LSU was voted the No. 1 team in the country.

The Tigers stayed there. Week after week, they dispatched all 13 opponents — mostly in lopsided fashion — on their way to the Southeastern Conference championship.

Despite a deflating 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game, expectations for the 2012 season didn’t diminish. The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the coaches preseason poll and likely would have been the same in The Associated Press version if All-America cornerback Tyrann Mathieu hadn’t been kicked off the team between the release of the two polls.

But then came a 10-2 regular season and an uninspired 25-24 loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, leaving LSU at No. 12 in the final poll in January.

Then, one by one, an unprecedented 11 players (including Mathieu) opted for the NFL draft rather than completing their eligibility with the Tigers.

LSU’s 10-4 record since that historic regular season and the rapid-fire departures to the NFL have left most outsiders doubting — or, at the least, wondering — whether the Tigers will arrive back in Arlington as a championship contender or as something less.

They’re No. 13 in the coaches preseason poll and were picked just third in the SEC Western Division, behind Alabama and Texas A&M — two of four top-10 opponents on an unusually tough schedule. (TCU enters the season at No. 20.)

The preseason expectations suggest LSU will be a good team, but perhaps not a national player.

“We create our own expectations,” defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said, dismissing others’ views.

“We trust our coaching staff and the players they recruit,” cornerback Jalen Mills said. “We don’t doubt any of our players. We know their potential. Our coaches recruit young guys to play big roles, such as I did.”

Mills was thrust into the starting lineup as a true freshman last season in the wake of Mathieu’s dismissal. His experience is emblematic of what faces this year’s team.

He started all 13 games and played well enough to earn freshman All-America honors, but he had a blown assignment on a screen pass that turned into an Alabama touchdown in the final minute of the top-ranked Tide’s 21-17 victory in Tiger Stadium.

The late loss to Alabama drastically changed the tone of last season — and of this year’s expectations.

The Tigers are placing a lot of talented-but-inexperienced players in the same position Mills was in last season. By all accounts, they’re skilled enough to replace the guys who have gone on to the NFL.

But will there be just enough growing pains along the way — like the one Mills experienced against the Crimson Tide — to justify the preseason doubts?

The players mostly shrug off doubts based on inexperience, even though only three starters return from last year’s defense.

“We’re LSU,” fullback J.C. Copeland said matter-of-factly. “We have a lot of good players who couldn’t play last year because the players in front of them were as good as they were. You take them away, and you put other people in their position. We always have good players here. It’s just a matter of which ones are playing.”

Copeland’s lack of concern is understandable, based on the track record of coach Les Miles and his staff in bringing in elite recruiting classes, developing the best prospects into NFL players and having suitable replacements ready when the stars go pro.

When Arkansas inquired about Miles’ availability in the early stages of its search for a head coach after last season, LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva gave him him a raise and contract extension, citing Miles’ record of contending for SEC and national championships.

Several weeks later, Miles brought in Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, entrusting his friend, former Michigan co-worker and NFL coordinator with modernizing and diversifying an offense that returns eight starters.

For the past few seasons, LSU has been built around a defense featuring top-flight NFL prospects and complemented by a less-than-bold offense.

This team isn’t lacking in NFL prospects on defense but, after nearly a dozen players from the past two defenses moved on to the NFL — nearly all before exhausting their eligibility — many of this year’s defenders have yet to earn their stripes. The Tigers have an entirely new defensive line, one of the team’s greatest strengths in recent seasons.

“LSU always has a tradition of getting the best players,” said Johnson, a junior who is the most experienced defensive lineman. “People thought the defense wasn’t going to be any good after Kyle Williams left (in 2005), and Glenn Dorsey stepped right in.

“Everybody thought when Glenn Dorsey left (in 2007), the defense was going to drop off, but Drake Nevis and those guys stepped up. This year is the same thing. The tradition never dies here.”

It may be that — at least in the early going — the youthful defense leans a bit on an offense that has tossed away the training wheels in preparation for an expanded role in this year’s plan.

In other words, if LSU is to emerge as a BCS title contender, it might have to be a bunch of Tigers of a different stripe — but no less capable, the players insist.

“I don’t think there will be a drop-off at all,” senior safety Craig Loston said. “We’re going to fight every week and put our feet on the gas and not look back — let everyone know that LSU is still here.

“We’re not going anywhere.”