Published August 10, 2011
BATON ROUGE, La. – The last two times the BCS national championship game was played in New Orleans, LSU won it.
The big game is coming back to the Big Easy this season, and LSU again is among the favorites to be there.
The Tigers are as stacked as they've been since 2007, the last time they closed out a season with an 85-mile trip to their home away from home, the Louisiana Superdome, to claim the BCS's coveted crystal football.
They have 15 starters back from a squad that went 11-2 last season, along with young but proven players like cornerback Tryann Mathieu and running back Spencer Ware, who did not start in 2010 but made big plays when given the chance.
They've reported for fall camp supremely confident, not shying away from talk of lofty expectations.
"It's just having that championship swagger," said Mathieu, a versatile defensive back who is expected to start at cornerback and move to nickel back in passing situations. "Last year was a disappointing season for us. We finished 11-2 and we finished in the Top 10, but we pride ourselves on being a champion."
Should the Tigers realize their ambitions, they'll have done so after an offseason with its share of distractions.
In July, LSU was placed on one year's probation after the NCAA cited a former assistant coach for unethical conduct.
LSU also announced that it was cooperating with another NCAA probe involving several schools that did business with a scouting service owned by Willie Lyles. The NCAA is concerned Lyles may have sought payment in exchange for influencing recruits' decisions about where to play, but LSU officials have said they only paid Lyles for permitted video clips.
This month, as players reported for fall camp, they learned that Steve Kragthorpe, hired last January as LSU's new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Kragthorpe gave up coordinator duties, but is remaining as quarterbacks coach.
Head coach Les Miles promoted offensive line coach Greg Studrawa to offensive coordinator. Studrawa, a former Bowling Green offensive coordinator who enters his fifth season at LSU, believes he is ready for the job. He also suggests there are certain advantages to having plays called by the coach who knows the offensive linemen best.
"The first thing I want to know when we call a play is how we're going to block it," said Studrawa, adding that creative ideas about skill positions amount to little if protection collapses.
That should not be a problem for the Tigers, whose offensive line is an experienced group with four starters back and 6-foot-6, 325-pound sophomore Chris Faulk expected to take over at left tackle.
Miles and Studrawa are confident they'll have the push up front to allow LSU to control the ball and wear down foes with a punishing running game featuring Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue.
At the same time, Studrawa pledged he'll be aggressive about taking shots downfield to receivers Rueben Randle, Russell Shepard and possibly some standout freshmen like Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
The success of the passing game will hinge on whether senior Jordan Jefferson has improved as much as Miles claims. LSU ranked last in the Southeastern Conference in passing last season with 155.6 yards per game, but Jefferson also is an effective runner.
Miles said Jefferson has looked good in fall camp, adding, "He did very well at the back end of last season and we expect him to continue that way."
Defensively, LSU has been near the top of the SEC since John Chavis took over as coordinator in 2009. This season, the Tigers' defensive backfield could be among the nation's best, featuring Mathieu and 2010 team interception leader Morris Claiborne, along with senior Brandon Taylor and sophomores Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, who as freshmen had interceptions in LSU's Cotton Bowl win.
The defensive line has one of its best end rushers back from injury in Sam Montgomery, and Chavis said freshman tackle Anthony Johnson is already good enough to see meaningful playing time.
At linebacker, Ryan Baker anchors an experienced group joined by converted safety Karnell Hatcher.
The Tigers' SEC schedule, which includes a road game against rival Alabama, will be tough, and that comes after LSU opens the season with a neutral-site game in Dallas against 2010 BCS runner-up Oregon on Sept. 3.
For now, though, the Tigers hardly seem worried about their capacity to handle it.
"Our goal is to win the national championship," Jefferson said. "That's what everybody's mindset is on this team and we're not striving for anything less."