"How do you want to be remembered?" That is the question Louisiana State head football coach Les Miles asked his team in the offseason.
With a national championship in 2007 but only a Chick-fil-A Bowl championship in 2008, the Tigers are hoping to rebound in 2009 – and be remembered like the '07 squad.
It will be challenging. The Tigers are among the top three picks for the Southeastern Conference Western Division title and the accompanying trip to Atlanta. Last season LSU finished 8-5, including a 38-3 win over Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but just 3-5 and in third place in the West.
With talent as usual, LSU has a chance to be better than eight wins. There are some winnable games that jump out at first glance of the schedule. The Tigers open the season at Washington, 0-12 last season under Ty Willingham, who was replaced by Steve Sarkisian, most recently assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Southern Cal.
Along with the Huskies, Louisiana-Lafayette at home, Mississippi State on the road, Tulane at home, and Louisiana Tech at home appear to offer the lightest opposition on the slate. The others should take a more serious effort to win.
The Tigers get Vanderbilt, Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas at home, and travel to Georgia, Alabama, and Ole Miss, all three contenders for the conference crown.
Miles returns seven starters on offense and six starters on defense. Both the punter and placekicker are gone from 2008.
The Tigers averaged 31 points a game last season and racked up 368 yards of total offense per outing but still managed to lose five times. Defensively in the offseason, LSU picked up one of the veteran coaches on that side of the ball in former Tennessee coordinator John Chavis.
"His experience in this league, his comfort with a dominant defense, met very comfortably with those men on our campus where we have played dominant defense for our time," Miles said of Chavis. "I think the introduction in the start, this spring, and certainly as we go forward, went well. I think our defense will be better."
Chavis will continue to run a 4-3 defensive scheme. The Tigers return only one starter on the defensive line, and that is veteran senior Charles Alexander. All-SEC defensive end Rahim Alem is also back, while Drake Nevis and Al Woods are expected to join Alexander in the rotation at the DT spot.
Both outside linebackers return. Perry Riley, named the most valuable defensive player of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, ranked third on the team in tackles a year ago with 60. Kelvin Sheppard ranked second in tackles in 2008 with 64.
Harry Coleman, converted from safety to linebacker last spring, returns and was the Tigers' leading tackler with 71 stops.
The strength of the LSU defense may be the secondary. Both cornerbacks return (Chris Hawkins, Patrick Peterson). At safety Chad Jones, Karnell Hatcher, and Ron Brooks are vying for the two spots.
A year after going into the season with no experienced quarterback, the Tigers have two players who combined for 10 starts last year. Sophomore Jarrett Lee started eight games and the Tigers were 4-4 in those games. He was injured against Ole Miss and missed the rest of the season.
Sophomore Jordan Jefferson stepped in during the Rebels' 31-13 rout in the annual Magnolia Bowl and started the last two games of the year against Arkansas and Georgia Tech. After the Tigers lost to the Razorbacks, Jefferson was tremendous against the Yellow Jackets, completing 16 of 25 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown.
Jefferson had his best scrimmage statistically of the fall Tuesday in Tiger Stadium, going 11-of-14 for 150 yards and one touchdown.
"If we had to start today, I would start Jordan Jefferson," Miles said in Birmingham at SEC Media Days a month ago.
It appears Jefferson is still the man at the controls of the offense.
Perhaps the most experienced position on offense is running back. First-team All-SEC player Charles Scott is back for his senior season after gaining 1,174 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns a year ago. Seniors Keiland Williams and Trindon Holliday are also back at RB.
At fullback, Scott, Williams, and sophomore Stevan Ridley have all proven they can play the position. But several newcomers are also in the mix at FB.
Talented and accomplished tight end Richard Dickson is back for his senior season. In his fourth year as a starter, Dickson has a chance to break every receiving record for tight ends in school history.
At wide receiver, senior Brandon LaFell returns. A first-team All-SEC performer, LaFell caught 63 passes for 929 yards and eight touchdowns in 2008.
Other returning letterwinners at WR are Terrance Toliver, Chris Mitchell, and R.J. Jackson.
LSU returns three starting offensive lineman. Left tackle Ciron Black, a preseason All-America selection, has started all 40 games that he's played during his career at LT. Right guard Lyle Hitt has started every game at RG but one the past two seasons, and right tackle Joseph Barksdale started all 13 games at RT a season ago.
PK Colt David and P Brady Dalfrey are gone. Junior Josh Jasper appears to be the Tigers' kicker heading into the season, while JUCO transfer Derek Helton is the projected punter.
Miles said he knows the Tigers need to improve the W-L record this season, and he expects them to do so.
"I think there's a level of acceptable achievement at our school," he said. "I think our guys understand it. I think championship is how we're measured. I understand how that happens. You never expect to finish second, not at LSU. I think our team has prepared in earnest. I think it will be seen this fall."
LSU struggled in football not all that long ago, with eight losing seasons in 11 years. Then along came Nick Saban and Miles the past nine years, each with a national title to his credit while in Baton Rouge.
Therefore, 8-5 isn't as acceptable a record at LSU as it might have been 10 years ago. Another season or two with that many losses and it might be Miles asking himself, instead of his team, how he would want to be remembered at LSU.
The Tigers have the talent to win 10 games, but will they be able to put it together? A solid win over Georgia Tech in the bowl game proved that, when on, LSU is as good as anyone.
But after a 4-0 start last season, the Tigers gave up 51 points in a 30-point setback at Florida and 52 points in a home loss to Georgia by 14.
The killer was a 27-21 home loss to Alabama and Saban in overtime. The Tigers then gave up 31 points twice to end the season with losses to Ole Miss and Arkansas.
If Chavis can shore up and improve the defense, the 31 points LSU averaged on offense might just be enough to improve the record in 2009.
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