COACH: Les Miles (11-2 in one season at LSU, 39-23 overall)
EXPERIENCE: The Tigers return 13 starters and 39 lettermen.
TEAM STRENGTHS: LSU loves to pound opposing teams into submission between the tackles and then kill them deep with their fast, athletic wide receivers. Justin Vincent (5-10, 219, senior) was the MVP of the national championship game when he was a freshman. He's a senior now and this should be the year he puts up big numbers. He's a pounder with speed to break away once he gets past the line. If Alley Broussard (6-0, 237, junior) is back 100 percent after missing 2005 with a knee injury, then the Tigers have the best 1-2 power punch in the SEC. Remember the name Keiland Williams (6-1, 210, freshman). He is a combination of speed and power and he could very well be the best freshman running back in the SEC.
The Tigers have a quarterback situation that is envied by everyone in the country. JaMarcus Russell (6-6, 252, junior) has as strong an arm as anyone in the country and he's experienced. He threw for 15 touchdowns and 2,435 yards last year before he got hurt. Backup Matt Flynn (6-3, 228, junior) lit up Miami's defense like a Christmas tree in the Peach Bowl. Then there is Ryan Perrilloux (6-2, 222, freshman), who redshirted last season. He's got the strong arm and the great feet to someday be the best quarterback in LSU history but his brain has to catch up with his athletic ability. He needs to talk less and watch more film.
Dwayne Bowe (6-3, 217, senior), Craig Davis (6-2, 199, senior) and Early Doucet (6-0, 206, junior) are among the best wide receiver threesomes in the country. Bowe is the go to guy in the clutch, Davis keeps the chains moving and Doucet has the speed to stretch defenses. If Xavier Carter (6-3, 198, junior) ever figures out how to catch the ball, he might turn into the most frightening deep threat in the nation. Keep an eye on redshirt Brandon LaFell (6-3, 181, freshman). He might be the best combination of size, speed, moves and the ability to catch the ball among all the wideouts.
LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher is one of the nation's best at balancing the offense between the run and the throw. When LSU is at its best, the attack is 55 percent running plays and 45 percent passes.
Safety LaRon Landry (6-2, 204, senior) is LSU's best football player. He hits a ton and he's quick enough to cover wide receivers man to man. Jessie Daniels (5-11, 203, senior) teams with Landry to give LSU the best safety tandem Florida will see this year. Chevis Jackson (6-0, 189, junior) is a highly under-rated cover corner. Even though Jonathon Zenon (6-0, 175, junior) didn't start last year, he got in plenty of PT so he's not exactly a rookie at the other corner.
The defense ranked third nationally last season, giving up only 266.8 yards per game, and there are plenty of athletes for coordinator Bo Pelini to move around in his somewhat unconventional schemes. Pelini rarely gives the same look twice and he's not afraid to gamble with the blitz. Against the Gators last year, he sometimes blitzed seven and eight, often leaving one or two Florida receivers uncovered. He figures if he gets the pressure there quick enough a quarterback can't find anyone open.
Punter/placekicker Chris Jackson (5-11, 174, senior) led the SEC in punting last year with a 44.9 average. He had 44 percent of his punts downed inside the 20. Jackson had an off-year kicking field goals (10-19) but he's got leg strength. Six of his 10 field goals were from 40 yards out or further.
TEAM WEAKNESSES: The Tigers lost three starters on the offensive line including three-year starters Andrew Whitworth, Rudy Niswanger and Nate Livings. Their replacements look good on paper but they lack experience and that's not a good thing when the schedule includes three teams that finished in the top ten nationally in total defense and seven that finished in the top 34. The line should be good enough to establish a strong running game but it's in pass protection that there are questions galore. Russell and Flynn aren't exactly the poster children for mobility among quarterbacks.
LSU took a big hit on the defensive line, losing Melvin Oliver, Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams, all of whom will be playing on Sundays this fall. Chase Pittman (6-4, 265, senior) is a good one but the rest of the line is a question mark. Tackle Glenn Dorsey (6-2, 284, junior) has the physical tools to be very good but he's got to prove he can bring it consistently.
Ali Highsmith (6-1, 226, junior) is a tremendous weakside linebacker but he can't do it alone. The Tigers took a huge hit on graduation day when they lost Cameron Vaughn and Kenneth Hollis. Vaughn, in particular, will be hard to replace. None of the suspects who tried the middle in the spring were particularly impressive.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS IN 2006: It is critical for Russell to get off to a good start. If he doesn't, then there will be a quarterback controversy pronto. That could happen anyway with Perrilloux on the team. The freshman doesn't lack for confidence and he's been known to run his mouth. No matter how well Russell or Flynn perform, he thinks he's better. Getting him to stick a sock in it could be critical.
The second critical area is the offensive line. They have to pass protect because neither Russell or Flynn has great mobility. Guards Will Arnold (6-4, 332, junior) and Brian Johnson (6-4, 297, senior) are very good but it's the tackles that have to step it up. If the line struggles, you could hear the LSU faithful grumbling that Perrilloux needs to be the quarterback. Perrilloux probably runs as well as anyone in LSU's talented stable of running backs.
Finally, LSU has to replace so many great athletes from the defensive unit. There's plenty of talent to step in and fill the gaps but talent doesn't always make up for experience, especially in an unforgiving league like the Southeastern Conference where everybody has speed at the skill positions. Dorsey has to show he's graduated from potential to performer on the D-line and Luke Sanders (6-4, 229, junior) has to find a way to make up for the lost production of Vaughn in the middle.
THE SCHEDULE: There are four chippies in the first five games so that's a plus. The non-chippie, however, is Auburn and that's a roadie. The SEC West could very well be decided in week three. A loss could shake LSU's confidence early. There are also roadies to Florida and Tennessee that will be serious tests. Alabama is at home. Circle October 21 on your calendar. LSU plays host to Fresno State that night. The Bulldogs have this nasty habit of going on the road and upsetting big name teams and their motto is "Anyone, anywhere, any time."
OUTLOOK FOR 2006: Les Miles desperately needs Russell to establish himself solidly at quarterback or else he's going to have a controversy capable of splitting his team wide open. Flynn and Perrilloux are talented enough to start for most of the teams in the SEC so the first sign of a problem with Russell will bring on the heat. If Russell can win the job hands down, he's got skill people that are as good a group as you will find in the country. A schedule that includes home games with Louisiana-Lafayette, Arizona, Tulane and Mississippi State in the first five games should help the offensive line to develop quickly and the defense shouldn't be taxed by those offensive teams. It will be critical for the defensive unit to get confidence early. If LSU can somehow go to Auburn and escape with a win on September 16, the Tigers could be on such a roll by midseason that they could make a legitimate run at the national championship.
NEXT UP: Auburn, Florida's October 14 opponent in Auburn, Alabama.