Troubles aside, a 2011 season prediction

COLUMN: With off-the-field woes dominating the headlines, it might seem like LSU's 2011 season is doomed. Not so much in my mind as a deep and talented defense will be key as the Tigers take aim at another BCS National Championship.

With the dust settling on a week that could’ve rocked the LSU football program to its well-grounded core, there is plenty of fodder for panic and motive to think the sky of the 2011 season is about to cave in on the Tigers.


What as recently as late July loomed as a potential national championship season for the Tigers has taken on a bunch of tarnish with NCAA probes, injuries, arrests and suspensions dominating the headlines.


Keep in mind, though, this tempest of off-field activity has all come before this season of promise began.


And the three areas where No. 4-ranked LSU has taken some painful direct hits – quarterback, receiver and on the offensive line – happen to be where the Tigers have some experience, depth and potential.


Mo Claiborne: One of the few veterans on a talented defense.

In short, LSU can overcome the loss of Jordan Jefferson, Russell Shepard and Josh Dworaczyk, whether it’s for a month or the entire season.


Another key thing to keep in mind: With or without that trio of offensive starters, the Tigers’ defense has been unscathed. And whatever LSU is destined to accomplish this season will hinge greatly on the abundantly talented – albeit untested in key positions – unit that third-year coordinator John Chavis has constructed for this fall and beyond.


So, as gloomy as the last 8-9 days have been, there is still plenty of reason for high hopes for LSU fans.


Not only is there still light at the end of the tunnel, the Tigers have a chance to generate a nice and needed head of steam before they ever enter that tunnel.


Starting with Saturday’s season-opening marquee showdown against third-ranked Oregon at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the Tigers can start pushing all the off-field obstacles out of their way and forge ahead.


There’s a football season to play starting Saturday, and even with some unexpected 11th-hour lineup juggling, the 2011 campaign looms as a memorable one, and here’s a game-by-game prediction with the final game intentionally left open-ended for now.


LSU vs. Oregon

There may not be a better coach at galvanizing his team in the face of drama and controversy than Les Miles, and this is another chance for him to show that. The Tigers are more experienced and tested on both lines and possess the kind of defensive speed to neutralize Oregon’s big-play weapons, much like Auburn did in the BCS National Championship Game. Too many advantages fall in the Tigers’ favor: LSU 31, Oregon 21


Northwestern State at LSU

The Demons may be a real contender in the Southland Conference this season in Bradley Dale Peveto’s third season. That said, this won’t be a game they look back at fondly. LSU will dominate in every facet, backup quarterback Zach Mettenberger will get a chance to really get his Division I feet on the ground and the defense will be way too much for Northwestern State: LSU 45, Northwestern St 7


LSU at Mississippi State

This sets up as the week when the Tigers suffer a letdown, and that won’t work out real well against a Bulldogs’ team poised to break through this season that also happens to be playing a huge home game on national TV. State has enough talent on defense to frustrate LSU and force Jarrett Lee to be the primary playmaker, which won’t bode well this early in the season: Mississippi State 24, LSU 21


LSU at West Virginia

Jolted back to reality, the Tigers put together their best all-around performance of the opening month against a WVU defense that should be pretty stingy. Lee recovers nicely and gets a huge assist from Spencer Ware and the running attack in a statement victory that keeps LSU in the national championship discussion: LSU 28, West Virginia 14


Kentucky at LSU

Pity the Wildcats. Not only do they get to be the Tigers’ first opponent in Baton Rouge of a key stretch of October SEC games, there’s also the leftover venom from a triple-overtime loss in 2007. Too much talent, coupled with a team gaining confidence doesn’t add up to a fun day for UK: LSU 48, Kentucky 13


Florida at LSU

For the first time since the season opener, the Tigers face a team possessing equal or greater talent, but the difference is that this one is in Death Valley. Florida might be a surprise team in the SEC East but still be the fifth best team in the league. This will be a close one because the showdown between the Tigers and Gators always are, but defense and a gritty fourth quarter by the home team’s offensive line are again the difference: LSU 20, Florida 17


LSU at Tennessee

This is the polar opposite of the LSU-Kentucky game, with the Volunteers loaded up on incentive after that zany ending at Tiger Stadium last season. UT will show some progress this season, but this won’t be the week for much highlight-reel material: LSU 30, Tennessee 17


Auburn at LSU

By this point in the season, Auburn’s hopes of a repeat national championship will be dead and buried with at least three losses. LSU’s BCS aspirations will be alive and well, though, and the return of Jordan Jefferson as a change-of-pace quarterback will give the hometown Tigers a new spark: LSU 24, Auburn 13


Spencer Ware: His role in running game looms large in Tigers' offense.

LSU at Alabama

This one decides the West Division champion – as it has so many times recently – and adds another scintillating chapter to a rivalry that is quickly moving up the charts as one of the best in the nation. The defenses cancel each other out, Ware keeps pace with Heisman Trophy candidate Trent Richardson on the ground and the difference is the Tigers’ experience at QB (hint – a big moment for Jefferson?): LSU 17, Alabama 14


Western Kentucky at LSU

Another visitor from the Bluegrass State comes to Baton Rouge with a monumental task. The Hilltoppers are relatively new to this Division I football stuff and just don’t have the manpower to make this game very interesting: LSU 52, Western Kentucky 3


LSU at Ole Miss

It’s not exactly The Alamo, but a big number of Tigers – including Miles – won’t have to stretch their minds a whole heck of a lot to recall the last trip to Oxford. There won’t be nearly the drama or controversy this time in a mismatch that could wind up being Rebels’ coach Houston Nutt’s last chance to pester LSU for a while: LSU 42, Ole Miss 21


Arkansas at LSU

No surprise, but as has been the case the last several years, this one will have major implications attached. Can Arkansas pull another huge upset in Tiger Stadium and derail LSU’s SEC Championship Game hopes and subsequent national championship possibilities? Or will the Tigers take care of business better than they have against the Razorbacks in three of the last four seasons? A focused approach and a defense that trumps Arkansas’ offense are the differences: LSU 34, Arkansas 28


SEC Championship Game: LSU vs. South Carolina

Back in Atlanta for the first time since 2007, the Tigers get a fresh opponent in the Gamecocks, who will be there for a second year in a row. Carolina’s offense will be formidable, but Stephen Garcia won’t have room to breathe against a Tigers’ defense that has matured over 12 games into one of the best in the country: LSU 23, South Carolina 20


That takes the Tigers to 12-1 and punches their ticket for a trip down I-10 to New Orleans for the BCS National Championship Game. Waiting for them is a familiar foe to LSU and Miles – the Oklahoma Sooners.


That’s where the prediction ends for now. If the Tigers play to their potential, use the recent off-field storm to come together and play the kind of defense they are capable of, the possibility of a memorable season lies ahead.


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