"If a man proves too clearly and convincingly to himself that a Tiger is an optical illusion, he will soon find out he is wrong. The Tiger will himself intervene, in a manner which will be in every sense conclusive."
Tomorrow night, the #13 LSU Tigers will once again kickoff the season by rushing the field of Cowboys Stadium. The Tigers will find another ranked out of conference foe staring at them from across the field of battle, similar to the way they did in 2011 against Oregon. While LSU enjoyed a relative home game atmosphere compared to the Ducks from the Pac 12, the tables will be slightly turned this time around.
The #20 ranked Horned Frogs of TCU will enjoy a leisurely 20 minute bus ride from their campus in Fort Worth to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. So there is no question that LSU fans will not enjoy quite the same commanding presence in Jerry's World this time around for an SEC vs. Big 12 showdown.
For those unfamiliar with TCU, they are not a team to be taken lightly. Since Les Miles became LSU's head coach in 2005, no BCS conference team has a higher winning percentage than LSU's 80.2%. The only two teams with a higher winning percentage in the country are Boise State, and TCU. Until joining the Big 12 last season, TCU had won 81.4% of their games in Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference.
Despite the difference in competition, Horned Frog's head coach Gary Patterson has become one of college football's most respected coaches. Known as a defensive guru in the mold of Nick Saban, Patterson is always one of the first names mentioned when that certain segment of Tiger Nation starts reeling off their wish list of dream head coaches in Baton Rouge.
TCU joined the Big 12 last year as a replacement for Texas A&M, and finished unranked at 7-6 after starting the season ranked #17. Those results are somewhat misleading, however, as TCU was 4-0 before starting quarterback Casey Pachall, who set school records for passing yards and touchdowns in 2011, withdrew from school to enter an inpatient substance abuse facility following an arrest for DUI in October.
Pachall had failed drug tests at TCU in the past, and early in 2012 he admitted to police that he used cocaine and ecstasy when his roommate and three other teammates were arrested in connection with a campus wide drug ring. The bust was the result of a six month undercover investigation into the TCU football program initiated after tips from students and parents, and one high profile recruit telling Patterson that he would not play at TCU due to rampant drug use within the program.
Before leaving school for rehab, Pachall started the 2012 season throwing for over 1,000 yards with 10 TDs and 1 INT. He had led TCU to a 4-0 record, although the only BCS conference team they had faced was a Kansas team that finished the season 1-11. Once Pachall left the team, TCU lost 6 of their last 9 games, all against BCS schools.
Pachall has been reinstated by Patterson and is set to start against LSU. At 6'5 230, Pachall is a big, strong armed quarterback similar to Zach Mettenberger, who will put LSU's talented but inexperienced defense to an immediate test. The key for LSU in Dallas will be getting pressure on Pachall.
Innocents are Our Own Defense:
After losing the top three pass rushers to the NFL, youth is LSU's most abundant yet unrefined commodity at defensive end. Junior Jermauria Rasco is the elder statesman of the group, but none of his 10 tackles last year were for a sack. There is no lack of potential talent, however, as Jordan Allen and Danielle Hunter are both impressive physical specimens whose 6'6" height should be able to alter Pachall's throws. They are both completely untested in battle, however, so several highly recruited and extremely talented out of state true freshmen will likely be needed to contribute immediately, so keep your roster handy.
My greatest curiosity at the position lies with junior Justin Maclin. He has battled injuries since coming to LSU as a prized recruit out of Tennessee in 2010, but there are cautious reports that he may finally be healthy. If he can stay on the field, he may be the combination of talent and maturity that LSU desperately needs at defensive end.
If LSU is unable to generate their usual pass rush, even more pressure will be on the secondary against a quarterback like Pachall. With 6 underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft from last year's defense, Senior playmaker Craig Loston's admirable decision to put his NFL payday on hold to return for his senior year didn't get the praise it deserved. In his dominant junior season, Loston outshined 1st round NFL draft pick Eric Reid and showed why he was the #1 rated safety coming out of high school in 2009. A Houston high school product, starting off his senior year with a big win in his home state would be a great start to Loston's farewell season in Baton Rouge.
Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills earned valuable experience as freshmen that will be needed this year. Neither player's job is safe, however, as it appears blue chip recruits Tredavious White and Rashard Robinson may be LSU's next superstars to carry the DBU banner. Robinson lost valuable practice time after being held out from fall camp due to a frustrating clearinghouse delay, but now that he has finally been cleared, he will be pushing for immediate playing time.
While Ronald Martin appears to be the other starting safety, Micah Eugene was a standout as a blitzer last year, and Corey Thompson seems too talented to keep off of the field as well. True freshman Ricky Jefferson has also earned rave reviews as a potential star in the making, and may very well be the starter by the end of the season.
At linebacker, senior Lamin Barrow is a proven star, and several sophomores led by Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones have already shown their abilities on Saturdays. They will be difficult to keep off the field, especially if linebackers are needed to generate more pass rush due to the inexperience at defensive end. True freshman Kendell Beckwith will be a factor immediately as well, and is also athletic enough to move back and forth from end to linebacker.
Don't forget about Tahj Jones at LB, either. Word is that John Chavis took him under his wing like a young coach last year while he was academically ineligible, and now that his grades are in order, Jones is brimming with confidence. Barrow will be the star of this group, and the sky is the limit for all of the young studs that contributed as true freshmen last year, but expect Jones to make a big impact as well.
In contrast to the ends on the outside, experience will not be an issue at defensive tackle. Preseason All-American Anthony "Freak" Johnson will dominate in the middle before becoming a 1st round NFL pick next year. Massive junior Ego Ferguson moves into the second starting spot after rotating very well last year and appears ready for a monster year. Freak and Ego will give the Tigers one of the best starting interiors in the country, and there is plenty of depth as well with two promising sophomores in addition to three more highly recruited true freshmen from out of state. The present and future at DT is bright at LSU, perhaps even brighter than the glorious past at the position.
So while there is an abundance of talent for Chavis to work with, specific roles and order on the depth chart is still very much in question. How each of these young players respond once the bright lights are shining tomorrow night will go a long way in determining who will be relied upon going forward. Watching to see who steps up should be a real joy for all of Tiger Nation.
An Offense Against Man and Frogs:
Thankfully, there should be little uncertainty on the offensive line this year. After so much instability last season, all reports are that this will be perhaps the strongest line in Baton Rouge since 2007. Lael Collins moves from guard to his natural position of left tackle and will be an All-American and future first round pick barring injury.
Vadal Alexander, who was a midseason lifesaver as a true freshman at right tackle last year before injuries wore him down, will also move to his more natural position at left guard. His overwhelming strength and size will be put to better use inside and will not require him to deal with speed rushers that gave him trouble on the edge last year, most notably in the bowl game against Clemson. Collins and Alexander will be a force on the left side that few teams will be able to challenge.
Alexander's move to guard is possible because redshirt freshman Jerald Hawkins has proven to be too good to keep off the field. He appears poised for a breakout season and is likely the future at left tackle once Collins moves on to the NFL. Sophomore Trai Turner will once again man the right guard position that he impressively took over last year. Junior Elliot Porter and prized recruit Ethan Pocic will battle for the center job, and both appear more than capable to be the anchor of the line surrounded by so much talent, and the other will provide depth at any position if needed.
Running back has been the subject of much offseason drama following Jeremy Hill's suspension after his arrest stemming from a bar fight in the spring. Hill was expected to continue his role as the feature back after breaking out as a freshman, but may be following in Justin Vincent and Keiland Williams' footsteps as breakout LSU freshman running backs that were unable to sustain their early success. While he has been reinstated, Hill will likely not see much playing time early and will have to earn his way back onto the field. That could be easier said than done as Alfred Blue is back from the injury that allowed Hill to take the job last year, and is poised to pick up where he left off last season.
Not to be overlooked, Kenny Hilliard appears to be in excellent shape after a challenging sophomore year due to off field concerns. I believe Hilliard is a sleeper to become LSU's leading rusher in 2013, as his powerful running style will be a perfect complement to LSU's destructive offensive line. But no matter how the carries are divided, the backfield of Blue, Hilliard, and Hill, with JC Copeland as the ever present force at lead blocker, will likely approach 3,000 yards the way the great Tiger teams of 2007 and 2011 did.
At wide receiver, the Tigers look similar to last year, with one critical addition. There will once again be a true deep threat for the purple and gold. Travin Dural was receiving praise last year as a true freshman before going down for the year in fall camp. This year, his game breaking speed and leaping ability should be on full display as he appears 100% healthy. Dural and JUCO transfer Quantavious Leslie will provide the deep threat to stretch the field that was so desperately missing last year.
This will allow Jarvis Landry's full potential to be exploited as a true lethal weapon out of the slot, while Odell Beckham will also return to his more natural role in which he thrived in 2011 when playing across from Rueben Randle. Kadron Boone and James Wright add scary depth to a unit that should be a lot of fun to watch as LSU finally has all the weapons needed to fully implement a pro style passing attack that can actually use the whole field, and will make creating matchup advantages a priority.
New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has a strong history of using tight ends such as Antonio Gates, Todd Heap, and Dennis Pitta very effectively. If LSU is finally able to open up a full route tree in the passing game, freshman TE Desean Smith could be another X factor for Mettenberger to exploit.
Another young Tiger to keep an eye on is true freshman Jeryl Brazil. Brazil has Olympic level speed reminiscent of Trindon Holliday, but also has ideal size and natural football player instincts that resemble those of a playmaker like Percy Harvin. Remember Brazil's name, because while he may very well end up in Rio to represent our great country in red, white, and blue in 2016, he will first electrify Tiger Nation in purple and gold as he at the very least will make an impact this year returning punts and kickoffs.
And while on the subject of special teams, one of the biggest concerns for this team has to be at kicker. LSU has had outstanding field goal kicking since the turn of the century, and those reliable points have been crucial to the ongoing success of the LSU program. While James Hairston has been effective on kickoffs, he has never attempted a field goal or extra point. If he or redshirt freshman Colby Delahoussaye don't establish themselves as a reliable field goal kicker, things will be much more difficult for this team. At punter, Jamie Keehn proved to be more than capable last year when he replaced fellow Aussie Brad Wing in the bowl game, so don't expect any issues there.
Finally, the key to unlocking the full potential of LSU's offense will obviously rest with senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger. He is a quarterback that can make any throw asked of him, and with a reliable offensive line and more complete receiving corps, Tiger Nation should be pleasantly surprised to watch the quarterback position this season.
His experiences last year should serve him well, and while he still has a lot to prove, Cam Cameron is almost certainly the teacher to bring out the best in his game. Cameron's success developing quarterbacks around the NFL is well known, and his insight as a play caller should keep Mettenberger in the best position to take advantage of the playmakers at his disposal.
Les Miles, The Mind Behind the Myth:
Not to be disregarded, however, should be Miles' role in designing this offense. And make no mistake, that is intended as an absolute complement. Despite irrational criticism of Miles' perceived influence on the offense over the years, it is inarguable that LSU's most overwhelming successes on offense were achieved when Miles was most heavily involved.
In 2007 and 2011, which featured LSU's most effective offenses under Miles by far, Miles obviously worked closest with his first year coordinators who were new to the program. This was absolutely necessary as the new hires didn't know LSU's personnel and wouldn't see them on even a practice field until Spring. Those newcomers to LSU's program clearly were dependent Miles' input on the strengths and weaknesses of both his own players as well as his opponents more than at any other time. The results were indisputable.
As Miles not only allowed, but required, his very well paid coordinators more autonomy in the following seasons, offensive production subsequently dropped. As revolutionary as that simple fact may sound to many Tiger fans, how can there can be any more logical understanding of what transpired?
Inexplicably, however, the new coordinators received the praise for the initial successes, but Miles has always taken the blame when production dropped as his established coordinators took on more responsibility.
The myth that Miles gave complete control to incoming coordinators in their first seasons with the program to great success, then subsequently decided to take that control away which led to decreased production is not only illogical, it is nonsensical. Do not fall prey to such simple minded attempts by the lazy and uninformed media to perpetuate that narrative that undermines the most successful coach in LSU's history.
Just as when Gary Crowton first arrived in 2007 and when Steve Kragthorpe was brought on board in 2011, Miles will work very closely with Cam Cameron in 2013 and lend his vast knowledge of his players that he has studied so closely since they were in high school, as well as the upcoming SEC opponents, to develop LSU's offensive scheme. Once again the results will speak for themselves.
Miles and Cameron not only have a long standing friendship, but also a history of working and winning together in their days at Michigan. Cameron will certainly enjoy play calling duties, the way Miles' coordinators always have, while Miles will no doubt continue to contribute his thoughts. He will also continue to provide input on certain legendary calls that may require the exceptional feel for the game that only "The Hat" can provide.
Tiger Nation should be very excited to see how these two great coaches will work together to take advantage of the elite talent that Miles has built up in Baton Rouge. As in 2007 and 2011, Tiger Nation would be wise to bet on similar, if not even more, success in 2013.
Down to Brass Tacks:
Expect tomorrow night's game to play out in a similar fashion to that classic showdown with Oregon in 2011. Both teams will be exceptionally prepared and will play well, but LSU will gain control in the second half. The difference, is that it will be LSU's offense taking over this time instead of the defense and special teams.
While Oregon held LSU to only 273 yards with a paltry 98 passing yards, these Tigers will be much more balanced and effective tomorrow night against Patterson's disciplined and talented defense. Expect TCU to have more consistent success against our defense than Oregon did as well, who only had 265 yards on the night before a 70 yard touchdown drive as time expired when the game was well out of reach.
This time, TCU's offense led by Pachall will keep consistent pressure on the offense to put points on the board, and the Tiger offense will answer the challenge.
A Little Something Extra:
Just in case Tiger Nation needs any added incentive to pay close attention tomorrow night, here is a purely speculative prognostication to add some fuel to the fire, because what fun is making predictions if they aren't bold?
TCU Head Coach Gary Patterson will be the head coach at Alabama next season.
After winning 3 national titles in 4 years, with a very good shot at going for a three-peat this year to win his 4th championship in 5 years, there simply isn't anywhere for Nick Saban to go at Alabama but down. And rest assured, I have never been someone who claimed Saban would leave Alabama for the NFL or any other job. I truly always believed Alabama would be his last coaching stop.
After this year, however, Saban will lose AJ McCarron, who is 25-2 as a starting quarterback and is a virtual lock to win at least 11 more games this year. As great a coach as he is, there is nothing Saban hates more, or is worse at dealing with, than inexperience at the quarterback position. He'll certainly be hard pressed to strike gold with another quarterback that can have the kind of consistency McCarron has had.
He may not be the flashiest or most talented, but McCarron has thrown a staggering 46 TDs with only 8 INTs in his two years as the starter, winning national titles in both. I expect his performance to drop off a bit without the brick wall OL that he has benefitted from the past two years, but given the schedule, McCarron will once again have a very good season, and will leave Alabama with nearly 40 victories in 3 seasons.
With this being the final year of the BCS, I see Saban "retiring" after the year, either "due to health concerns" or "to spend more time with his family", but only in the Urban Meyer sense of the word.
Rather than deal with impossible expectations in Tuscaloosa as a result of his overwhelming success since returning to the SEC, Saban will take a year off, then return to college football in 2015 after signing a historic contract in the neighborhood of $10 million a year. He will likely take over for Mack Brown at Texas, or possibly Jimbo Fisher at Florida State if he can't get the Seminoles over the hump in the next two seasons.
As impressive as Saban's run at Alabama has been, it is truly frightening to think what a coach ilke Saban could build at a school like Texas or Florida State. Both schools boast endless resources, very manageable schedules every single year, and home state access to all the high school talent he could ever dream of in Texas or Florida.
The college football world is changing next year with the new playoff system, and Saban is always looking to stay ahead of the curve. The SEC was the most beneficial place to be in the final years of the BCS format, but the gauntlet of the SEC competition will only be a detriment going forward. With the new 4 team playoff, the reputation of the SEC will be less important in chasing a title, and a premium will be placed on running the table in weaker conferences like the Big 12 or ACC just to ensure a final 4 spot.
In his wake, Alabama will seek out a coach whose style closely resembles the man who returned their legendary program to college football's pinnacle. With that in mind, there is no better fit than the man leading the Horned Frogs against Les Miles' Tigers on Saturday night, Gary Patterson.
So don't miss a second of the first game in what may become the next great rivalry for The Hat.
"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing."