COLUMN: Whole new ballgame

Through four games, it's clear the 2012 edition of LSU football is different than its 2011 predecessor.

Most people around the country, when they think about the 2011 LSU football team, will think about that final game, the egg the Tigers laid in the Superdome against Alabama.

Not me.

It's not that I've blocked that game out. On the contrary my memory of the proceedings – before, during and after the rout – is still quite vivid.

It's more because I saw in person a different plot play out, 12 times over, in cities across America, from Arlington to Morgantown to Atlanta and several other college football outposts in between.

The familiar storyline unfolded the same way for Les Miles' bunch every time a team other than the Crimson Tide occupied the opposing sideline: Run out to an early lead, play lights-out defense and then squeeze the life out of the second half.

And, wouldn't you know it, all dozen times that LSU fans looked up at the scoreboard after this tried-and-true routine, the Tigers had won by 13 or more.

Because of that, what I'll remember when thinking back to last year's group is the killer instinct, the unmistakable bravado, the general feeling that no game would ever really be in jeopardy.

Tyrann Mathieu would strip a ball carrier, scoop the pigskin and go to the house … Rueben Randle would get behind the secondary for a deep-strike score … Mo Claiborne would change field position with an interception or kick-off return.

Somebody always moved the chains. Somebody always caused the turnover. Somebody always made the play that put the game away.

In short, somebody always made it clear that the other team wasn't in the same class as the Tigers were.

Which is what leads to me the following undeniable truth: This 2012 LSU team is not last year's team.

That feeling of invincibility that surrounded the Bayou Bengals from Sept. 3, 2011, through Jan. 8, 2012, is no longer there. The current edition of LSU football is vulnerable.

And it's not because the Tigers fell 21-0 in the now-infamous BCS title game meltdown. It's also not solely based off LSU's struggles in beating reeling Auburn 12-10 this weekend on the Plains.

It's simply that this team isn't the same as its immediate predecessor, not in overall personnel, composition or, through one road game, mental approach.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the sudden lack of quality experienced depth.

Where last season LSU could go to Tharold Simon, Ron Brooks and Craig Loston as its fifth, sixth and seventh defensive backs, respectively, this year two of those three are starters, the third is in the NFL, and the Tigers' options going that deep are all first and second-year players.

The same issue is becoming apparent on the offensive line, particularly as LSU must now replace arguably its top lineman in injured left tackle Chris Faulk. Every conceivable scenario regarding his replacement involves relying heavily on either a career guard with questionable knees or a true freshman.

Then there's the inability to go for the jugular showcased in Saturday's game.

Not once a year ago, in seven regular-season trips, did LSU fail to punch its ticket to victory away from Tiger Stadium. More often than not, wins were punctuated with exclamation points.

In Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend, LSU, which raced out to a 9-0 lead, threw up a question mark en route to the win. Typically reliable players – like Drew Alleman and Brad Wing – made uncharacteristic mistakes late. The team as a whole combined for nine penalties, most of which seemingly came on punt returns, negating any field-position advantages possibly heading LSU's way.

It was the type of sloppy performance that quickly put Auburn in the same class as LSU, at least for one night.

"It was a shock to our system," defensive end Sam Montgomery said following the game. "It was some young guy's first time on the road and not knowing what to expect. A couple of veteran guys hadn't been in that situation in a long time. It was really a shock to our whole program, but we adjusted."

Here's the good news: Sam's right. LSU adjusted enough to pick up the ‘W' on the road, and the Tigers still have all their goals ahead of them intact. If anything, the team may adopt a bit of a ‘scared straight' mentality after such a close encounter.

Here's the potentially better news: Different doesn't always have to mean worse.

This team may not be what the one before it was in a number of ways, but there's still time for the 2012 crew to carve its own identity, for the youngsters to blossom into quality role players and for the group as a whole to develop better character and chemistry.

After all, given how last season ended, maybe there's not such a rush to be the same.

But, in the meantime, as LSU tries to find its way, expect Miles' men to have a much different experience in conference play than the 2011 Tigers did.

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