SEC PREVIEWS: LSU even better in '12?

As if winning five straight national titles wasn't enough to declare the Southeastern Conference's college football supremacy, the league managed to take it one step further last season when the BCS title game matchup between Alabama and LSU guaranteed a sixth straight national champion from the SEC before the championship game was even played.

So how does seven in a row sound? Well it will be hard to bet against the SEC continuing its dominance, especially with LSU returning 15 starters from last year's squad and BCS champ Alabama still loaded on the offensive side even with the loss of standout running back Trent Richardson.

Yet the big story in SEC Football 2012 is the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, something that figures to make it even tougher to get through the league schedule unscathed. While neither Mizzou nor the Aggies are expected to contend for SEC divisional titles, they both bring solid programs to the league. Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the country five years ago before losing to Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game, and A&M's Kyle Field is one of the most difficult venues in the country for visiting teams, something Florida, Arkansas and LSU will have to contend with this fall.

The Scout.com publishers believe that LSU and Georgia will repeat as division champions this year with LSU picked to win the SEC Championship. Previews of all 14 SEC teams are about to be featured on GamecockAnthem.com, and today we look at LSU.



SEC WEST

LSU (PREDICTED FINISH: SEC CHAMP)


As bad endings go, the final page of the script for LSU's otherwise magical 2011 campaign couldn't have taken a much worse turn.

After overcoming major off-the-field obstacles and churning impressively past 13 opponents, the Tigers could lay claim to one of the more dominant regular seasons in college football history.

Then there was that rematch with Alabama with the BCS National Championship on the line.

That confusing, demoralizing and forgettable night in New Orleans dampened the Tigers' season, leaving them to stand and watch the Crimson Tide hoist a trophy that seemed destined for Baton Rouge.

So how does LSU bounce back from that? By potentially fielding an even better team in 2012.

There are some holes to fill – most notably a home-run receiving threat with Rueben Randle leaving for the NFL and in the secondary. But the familiar faces are back, plus a marked talent upgrade at quarterback with Zach Mettenberger taking the reins, are fuel for top-shelf optimism.

"We feel like this team, once it establishes its own identity, has a shot at being very special," said Les Miles, who enters his eighth season. "We expect to play for championships every year and this one is no different."

The strong-armed Mettenberger (270 yards, 2 TDs in the spring game) has a talent-laden offense all to himself and is cause for unfettered optimism.

"We're going to throw the ball more because we're better equipped to do that," Miles said. "Mettenberger gives up a chance to do some different things."

You won't find an All-American in the LSU backfield, but there also might not be a deeper or more talented crew in the country.

Three backs topped 500 rushing yards last season, Michael Ford (756) Spencer Ware (707) and Alfred Blue (539) with Kenny Hilliard joining that trio as one of four backs who scored seven or more rushing touchdowns.

Randle was LSU's top receiver with 53 catches for 917 yards and eight touchdowns and often drew double coverage. His departure for the draft may actually make LSU's receiving corps stronger because there's talent, experience and now not just one receiver a defense can afford to hone in on. Sophomores Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are poised to be dual go-to threats and senior Russell Shepard has supplied big plays sporadically throughout his career.

Up front on the line, four starters come back, as does a sixth-year senior (Josh Dworaczyk) many regarded as LSU's best blocker before his 2011 season ended, plus a five-star recruit from the class of 2011 (La'el Collins) who couldn't get on the field. The strength is at the tackles, with Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst, and the stability will come from center P.J. Lonergan and Dworaczyk.

Depth on the defensive line has been a hallmark the last few years for LSU. The ends are potentially dominant with Sam Montgomery returning and Barkevious Mingo on deck to finally serve as a full-time contributor after being a situational pass rusher for two seasons.

The interior will have to shuffle the deck with Michael Brockers gone to the NFL, but a huge spring from Bennie Logan could compensate for that loss and the trio of Josh Downs and highly-touted sophomores Anthony "Freak" Johnson and Ego Ferguson fortify the rotation.

None of the four primary linebackers distinguished himself as an All-SEC caliber player in 2011, which is a bit shocking considering coordinator John Chavis' background as a linebacker coach.

The Tigers' recruiting class addressed the problems in this area with five in-state freshmen on the way, two who were on hand as early enrollees – Ronnie Feist and Lamar Louis, who returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown in the spring game. Those two fit into the game plan right away and could join veteran Kevin Minter (61 tackles in 2011) quickly unless Tahj Jones, Lamin Barrow, Luke Muncie or D.J. Welter take big steps forward in the offseason.

In the secondary, there's a next-man-up mentality permeating the most talented group on the LSU defense and that could make that group even stouter this season.

Juniors Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, along with redshirt freshman Jalen Collins should rotate at the corners. At safety, junior Eric Reid is as good a player as LSU has had there since LaRon Landry and he will take over as the voice making sure his teammates are aligned correctly. Craig Loston, if he stays healthy, will join Reid. Micah Eugene is a player teammates raved about all spring and Ronald Martin burned his redshirt late last season and will get plenty of snaps.

On special teams, three of the four primary spots are settled with punter Brad Wing, kicker Drew Alleman and Mathieu handling the punt-return duties. All three are as good as anybody in the country at their crafts and give the Tigers a major advantage against most teams. Receiver Paul Turner could step in as the kickoff returner and has some electric potential.

PREVIOUS PREVIEWS:

EAST
Georgia (1)
South Carolina (2)
Florida (3)
Missouri (4)
Tennessee (5)
Vanderbilt (6)
Kentucky (7)

WEST
Alabama (2)
Arkansas (3)
Auburn (4)
Mississippi State (5)
Texas A&M (6)
Mississippi (7)

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