So what's your favorite subplot for the 2013 Tigers this summer?
Personally, the thing I'm wondering about is something a little more intangible for this group, and it's the attitude and personality that is being formed. The 2011 team, because it had that big match-up in week 1 with Oregon, really had to focus early, and as I recall they talked about the idea of "finishing" a lot. That was probably that team's defining characteristic. Once they had a team on the run, they kept them on the run and just never let, and that showed up in those big fourth quarters and gaudy scores.
The 2012 team never let the way the previous season ended. They seemed so focused on one particular game and one particular result, and it showed up in all the other games. LSU never really seemed to finish teams. They'd get close -- to the moment where the 2011 team would drop the hammer and poor on those last couple of scores that iced things -- but never finish. They let teams like Auburn, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Arkansas and eventually, Clemson in the bowl game, all get up off of the match after landing a big blow.
2013 doesn't need to focus on Bama. They don't need to worry about 2011, or the BCS. Just worry about what is in front of them. When a team is down, keep them down and choke them out. Coaches always stress this kind of thing, but I've always been of the opinion that it's an attitude a team has to develop independently as well.
Good coaching win games, but great players actually win championships. LSU has had great players, which ultimately has led the Tigers to multiple 10 win seasons, SEC titles and BCS victories under Les Miles' tenure.
But 2013 is a year LSU needs phenomenal coaching now more than ever. This is for a few reasons. 1) This could be the least talented team in the Miles era, which is not that bad of an issue at a school such as LSU. LSU lost a significant amount of talent, not only in early departures but some solid seniors as well. Plus, returning players will be asked to fill new roles as well. 2) Other schools in the LSU are raking in talent as SEC West gets better as whole with the emergence of Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt on the field and in the recruiting trail.
But my point really doesn't have much to do with Miles as it does with the entire coaching staff as a whole. Player development will be key. Freshman and some unproven returning players will have to play snaps and will need to be technically sound come season. This is crucial not only because of their inexperience, but because the talent gap has shrunk around the conference. Everybody looks to be getting better. Gone are the days LSU can run over most of the other teams in the SEC by natural ability alone.
Last season, two position groups, both coached by first-year position coaches, struggled. Receivers coach Adam Henry hopefully can find a deep threat to help create space and depth for the offense. Defensive backs coach Corey Raymond lost his best player abruptly before the season began and relied heavily on freshman, but his unit was littered with fundamental mistakes, especially toward the end of the season. Veteran defensive line coach Brick Haley basically has a clean slate across the defensive line and will need to get young guys ready to play snaps to have much needed depth.
Also, defensive coordinator John Chavis needs to find ways to close games. Chavis is the most talented coach at LSU. His innovative defensive schemes prove that. But last season, the stats show LSU gave away their season when they couldn't close out on defense.
If LSU develops their players well, this could be a 10 win team. If not, this could be a long season.
I think what I'm most interested in is the new the talent. It's been a few years since we've had this much turnover. We really have a lot of new guys we are counting on this season to get the job done. We need contributions from new WRs, new TEs, a new C, a couple new RBs, some new LBs, new DL, new DBs... basically every position on the field will have new faces contributing.
Sure, some of them have been in the program, but there's a handful of young guys expected to contribute, and I think the main group that I'm curious about is the DL. Anthony Johnson can't just be a solid player anymore. He needs to launch to greatness. Ego Ferguson can't just show flashes. He needs to show consistent big time playing ability. Danielle Hunter has to emerge as a playmaker off the edge. Rasco must become the player we thought he was as a recruit.
Then you have the freshman. Will Frank Herron be ready to go? Can Tashawn Bower give you meaningful snaps? Which young DT (Gilmore, Bain, LaCouture) is ready to play significant snaps in the rotation. These are all questions that have yet to be answered.
It's both exciting and nerve-wracking. People usually deride youth on championship caliber teams. Sure, you need a young playmaker here and there, but a team with a lot of young contributors "lacks experience" and "isn't ready for the moment" and any number of strange cliches. But youth can be a strength. Their lack of knowledge can be an advantage. They should be hungrier and ready to prove themselves. They should be fighting to keep positions and prove they are deserving.
What we can hope is that the moment isn't too big because these young guys are playing to live up to that. If I'm Les Miles, this should be my most competitive summer camp in years. No job is safe. Not Mettenberger, no one. It's not that you want Mett looking over his shoulder, it's creating that hungry mentality. If you want this, you have to earn it.
While the defense does have a lot of turnover, I'm pretty confident in Chavis' ability to put together an effective unit. And its not like the guys stepping into starting roles have not seen meaningful action. Freak Johnson was third on the team in tackles for a loss behind Sonic Sam and Kevin Minter, so not only has he seen lots of action, he's been rather effective in that time.
What interests me is the opposite: consistency on offense. LSU returns nine starters on the offensive side of the ball, including the quarterback and all of the glamour position guys. Hill might (and should) miss some time for a suspension, but the Tigers do return almost all of their offensive talent from last year. That's a bit of a mixed blessing, as the offense wasn't exactly gangbusters last year and we will see a new offensive co-ordinator on the sidelines this season. But for the first time in a long time, there is no excuse for this offense.
It needs to produce, and it needs to produce now. The team has all of the tools and the talent to be one of the best units in the SEC, and there is finally some consistency on that side of the ball in the personnel. Hopefully, we won't lose the entire offensive line to injury and suspension this year, but those freshman and sophomores stepped into starting jobs last year and have had an entire offseason to solidify their position. This team is poised for a breakout.
There are no longer any excuses.
My favorite subplot is all the talk swirling around about how this is going to be a down year for LSU. Everywhere you look, a bunch of national media talking about how LSU still has a crazy coach and needs to replace player like Eric Reid, Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montegomery, yada yada yada and so forth. Personally, I'm already a little bit sick of it. However, this lack of respect/attention takes a lot of pressure off of the team in my mind. If the media concentrates its efforts elsewhere (i.e. Alabama), I am perfectly happy with that. It will let this team get a chip on their shoulder early and they will be hungry to earn some respect.
The other subplot I'm following is the schedule. LSU has the most brutal schedule in the SEC this year. On the road at Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss (who will be much improved), and Mississippi CLANGA. Home games against Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Auburn. Plus a marquee neutral site game against TCU and some MACation is headed to Tiger Stadium when Kent St. comes to town. If LSU can make it through this schedule with one or two losses, it will be a fantastic accomplishment. On the other hand, it would not be entirely surprising to have three or four losses either. If that happens, expect fans and Alleva to further turn up the heat about ending the yearly game with Florida. Not like the SEC will actually do anything, but the bitching will become louder and more annoying probably.
I think we can all agree that for once, LSU is a bit under the radar, and that's a good thing, right?
I go back and forth on that. Psychologically, for the sake of the team, probably.
But then, I think, well there's probably a reason. Expectations will still be high in the fanbase, so I imagine anything less than competing for the SEC Title will be a disappointment to the fans, even if it's a 2-3 loss season.
Will the offense be good enough to sustain our defense as they improve? I think we just don't honestly know how good or bad this team will be yet. There's so many question marks. Cam Cameron should improve the offense. We've grown to trust Chavis in every way. But is that enough?
How will the players respond to not being a top 5 pre-season team? Does that doubt fuel them? Right now, this team has a lot more questions than answers, and I can't tell if that's a good or bad thing.
Dan, I think what you said earlier about the youth on the team and the position battles making this group more hungry coincides with what you just asked...which is whether the doubt of a pre-season ranking that is a little lower than normal fuels the team. Both things you bring up are big-time motivators for this team, and I think it's really going to show on the field. More than people realize.
For all of the talent on last year's team, especially the defense, most of those guys were pegged as early round draft picks in the pre-season and they often played like they had very little to prove. This group has a TON to prove, and they're also probably tired of hearing how this will be a down year or a rebuilding year. In a sense, it reminds me of the off-season leading up to 2011. Hungry, motivated and just young and naive enough to where they totally embraced all the attention the earned once the season started, rather than letting it get to them. It's just that the team doesn't return quite as many talented sophomores with experience as that team did.
A lot of the offensive guys are somewhat established veterans, but the excitement of a new offense will fuel them plenty. After all, it's not like they don't have anything to prove.
There's a reason the "No One Respects Us" card is played so often by coaches. It works. There's often no better motivator than proving some nebulous "Them" wrong. The best LSU teams under Miles have thrived on this Us v. Them mentality, and usually started the year a bit off the radar. the 2010 season started with the preseason narrative that Auburn and Arkansas were trending up and LSU was trending down. The 2011 team only had one preseason first team All-SEC player. The 2005 Katrina team was coming off a demoralizing bowl loss and had a new coach to boot.
However, the most important thing for this team is not that they are off the radar, but that they have a chance to forge their own identity. The 2012 team never got over the specter of the end of the 2011 season. It was a team trapped in the previous season, and there's nothing you can do to change the past.* It showed in the team's performance as the one thing that marked the 2012 team was a lack of focus. The team continually let teams up off the mat and allowed late scores in almost every SEC game. A&M and USC were one score games only because the defense allowed a touchdown in the final two minutes of games that seemed put away. This habit cost LSU against Alabama and Clemson, who both scored game winning touchdowns in the final minute of play.
Yeah, that goes back to what I was talking about earlier. The upside to all the losses, is that this group has a blank slate and can be whatever kind of team they want. Telling their own story. No talk about Alabama, no talk about "Mission to Miami" -- anything like that. No quarterback controversies, no returning Heisman finalists in trouble, no other subplots other than the drive to work as hard as you can to play the best football that you can. Yeah, there's a standard to live up to because this is LSU, but for the players themselves, nobody has to try and "replace" the guy that was there before them. Just do you.
The opener with TCU demands that focus early on as well.