Answer: Of all the personnel losses LSU sustained from a year ago on defense, the area hit hardest was the defensive line. The only returning player on the line with legitimate experience and platoon-style time with the first team in years past is DT Anthony Johnson. He's been a real vocal and emotional leader for LSU's defense through spring ball and into Fall Camp so far, and it doesn't hurt that Johnson is one of the team's best two or three overall players.
Aside from Johnson, another guy stepping up has been fellow DT Ego Ferguson. That combination will be a lot to handle inside, and it will shift a bit the way LSU attacks an offensive front – in recent years it's been about speed off the edges from DEs, this year the surge figures to come more up the middle. LB Lamin Barrow, a redshirt senior, is coming off a 104-tackle season and is more of the quiet, lead-by-example type for the defense. In the secondary, senior S Craig Loston is also coming off an All-SEC season in 2012 and continues to give the Tigers a heavy-hitting element in the back.
Overall, considering how many new faces are in starting roles for the first time, I think this defense has come along nicely under the tutelage of John Chavis. They're certainly just as fast if not faster than last year's group. Where the loss of all the guys (Sam Montgomery, KeKe Mingo, Bennie Logan, Kevin Minter, Tharold Simon, Eric Reid, etc.) from last season will be felt the most is in defensive depth. Now that all of the players who've been waiting in line have been promoted to the first team, much of the second unit and some of the rotational guys are comprised of true freshmen.
2. How has LSU QB Zach Mettenberger improved this fall? What are his best strengths
Answer: The biggest feather in Mettenberger's cap this offseason has been the opportunity to learn and sponge things from new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who this time a year ago was working with soon-to-be Super Bowl-winner Joe Flacco (and has also coached the likes of Drew Brees and Philip Rivers). Cameron has spent the spring and fall drilling Mettenberger on playing faster and working smarter under duress, in particular when the pocket breaks down, when Zach struggled mightily at times in 2012.
So the hope for Cameron and the LSU coaching staff is that Mettenberger has improved most with his internal clock and ability to process reads and make decisions quicker. He came to LSU already blessed with a rocket arm, which to date remains his biggest strength. In the two years-plus he's been in Baton Rouge, Mettenberger has actually had to make a concerted effort to take something off the balls thrown to short and intermediate routes. He's slowly but surely added some more touch to his repertoire, but that remains an ongoing process. So too does his ability to connect on the deep balls. A season ago Mettenberger had his difficulties hitting open receivers downfield. More often than not he overthrew them. So combining accuracy and touch with an already-strong arm has been a big part of his offseason focus as well.
3. What is LSU's best strength on offense, will they still rely heavy on the running game? Who are the key weapons?
Chief among them is senior RB Alfred Blue. The 6-foot-2, 222-pounder, who was leading the SEC in rushing before he was lost to a season-ending knee injury in 2012, will start in the backfield for LSU. He's a physical runner but also a consistent pass-catcher. I expect Blue to receive the bulk of the carries for the Tigers Saturday night. LSU's two other backfield options are juniors Kenny Hilliard, a power back at 233 pounds, and Terrence Magee, a great pass-blocker and receiver. The common advantage all of them hold? They get to follow FB J.C. Copeland, a 6-foot, 270-pound bowling ball who has slowly begun to siphon away a few carries for himself as an upperclassman.
When the Tigers do go to the air, which they like to do against stacked boxes, the primary receiving weapons will be juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Beckham is capable of getting deep on a defense while Landry is primarily a chain-mover over the middle. The newcomer in the receiving corps has been redshirt freshman Travin Dural. The 6-foot-2 leaper will start at the X position for LSU and has been the offense's best deep threat throughout Fall Camp.
4. TCU fans are very excited about this game, as are the players; what has the buzz been like down in Baton Rouge with the LSU fans?
Answer: I think there definitely has been some enthusiasm, but, not to be a killjoy, there are two factors that slightly detract from the excitement for LSU fans. First, this kind of game is getting to be old hat for the program and its supporters. The TCU tilt will mark the third time in four seasons – and the second time in Arlington – that LSU has opened up in a kickoff classic game. In 2010 the Tigers played North Carolina in the Georgia Dome and followed that up in 2011 with an opener versus Oregon in Jerry World. And, if you take it a step farther, it's already been announced that LSU will begin 2014 in Reliant Stadium in Houston versus Wisconsin. Where TCU falls in line among those four teams as far as excitement level goes, I'm not here to say, but there's certainly a sense of ‘We've done this before, and we'll do it again' with the fan base.
Second, any time you're the favored team and especially when you're an SEC heavyweight playing out of conference, there's usually more to lose than there is to win in a game like this. If you win, you were supposed to. If you lose, prepare to be lambasted. Just like when an upper-half SEC team falls out of conference in bowl season, it seems to be one of those things the national media and rest of the country latches onto with pride. So, whether it's fair or not, there is a feeling of ‘Let's not screw this up' when it comes to LSU fans. Different story with the team and players. It's obvious TCU has their attention, and LSU's players have spoken for weeks about the difficulty in preparing for the Horned Frogs. But a game like this is one that won't skyrocket LSU up the rankings if they win, but it could have an opposite effect should they lose.
With all that said, no fan base likes a good party as much as LSU's. I expect Tiger tailgaters to be out in force in Dallas, Arlington and many areas in between. Should make for a great gameday environment.
5. What are your keys to an LSU victory and a prediction on the game if you have one?
Answer: This isn't rocket science, but LSU can't afford to turn the ball over. The Tigers do have a young, athletic defense that's capable of making plays, but they're not equipped at this point in their development to spend the majority of the game on the field. So ball control, something I know TCU and Gary Patterson put a premium on as well, and avoiding turnovers will be crucial to letting the LSU defense find its footing in game one.
It's also important LSU get good special teams play, particularly in the field-goal kicking department, where the Tigers will be trotting out a brand-new starter in Colby Delahoussaye, who happens to be a walk-on. This is definitely an area of mild concern entering the game, and it obviously could have a big impact on the outcome.
If LSU excels or can at least tread water in these two areas, I expect the Tigers to win, probably somewhere in the 28-13 range. But, should turnovers plague the purple and gold or kicking let them down consistently, TCU has more than enough talent to capitalize.