Arlington, TX – The premier matchup in week one of the 2011 ranked LSU collide.
Les Miles' Tigers come into the season at less than full strength, as the team suffered some suspensions of late that will have their starting quarterback and key receiver missing time to begin the year. Still, there is plenty to work with on the LSU roster and the hope is that the losses can be assuaged by a talent-rich team. The Tigers finished last season at 11-2 overall, including a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M. The Tigers bring the nation's longest non-conference regular-season winning streak into this contest, having won 33 straight affairs outside of the SEC.
The Ducks are no stranger to controversy, as they have made plenty of negative headlines this off-season as well. On the field however, Chip Kelly's squad is seeking a second straight trip to the BCS Championship Game. Oregon won the Pac-10 last season, but could not run the table, falling to Auburn in the title game and finishing 12-1 on the season. The hope is that the team captures yet another conference crown, this time the inaugural Pac-12 title and gets another crack at the big prize.
This contest marks the fourth all-time meeting between these two teams and the first in over three decades. All three previous matchups have come in Baton Rouge. LSU holds a 2-1 series advantage, including a 56-17 rout in 1977.
There haven't been many more prolific offenses than the one the Oregon Ducks sent out onto the field each week last season. Oregon averaged a whopping 47.0 ppg, with an average scoring margin of just under 31 points per game.
A number of key players contributed to the offensive onslaught, but none more than running back LaMichael James, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2010 and Doak Walker Award winner. James broke Oregon's single-season rushing record with 1,731 yards and scored 21 touchdowns along the way. Returning for his senior season was definitely a huge positive for the Ducks according to Kelly.
"LaMichael is the returning Doak Walker Award winner as the nation's number one running back and obviously I've always believed to win football games you have to be able to run the football and we've led the Pac-10 in rushing the last four years, total offense the last four years, scoring the last four years and LaMichael's a huge part of that," said coach Kelly. "We've had a great tradition of running backs in the four years that I have been there, but LaMichael's a special player."
James is not the only back that can move the chains for Oregon, as Kenjon Barner (551 yards, six TDs, 6.1 ypc) is also back in the mix. Kelly is also high on redshirt freshman De'Anthony Thomas. It was thought Lache Seastrunk would be the next star, but he has recently decided to leave the program.
While the rushing attack gets most of the attention in Eugene, the passing attack cannot be overlooked. Quarterback Darron Thomas has been just as important to Oregon's success and is poised to take another step forward in 2011. One thing is for sure, coach Kelly believes he has a true gem under center.
"To come in as a first-time starter and go undefeated in the regular-season, go undefeated in this conference and lead his team to a berth in the national championship game and he threw for I think the second most yards ever in a national championship game," said coach Kelly. "Um, the one thing that I remarked and I said it a lot last year is that it almost seemed like ever week he got better and better and there are new facets to his game that he continues to work on. He's probably the toughest quarterback I've ever been around."
Thomas threw for 2,881 yards and 30 TDs last year, while also rushing for nearly 500 yards and another five scores. The loss of favorite target Jeff Maehl (77 receptions, 1,076 yards, 12 TDs) will hurt, but the receiving corps has been restocked with talent, including juco transfer Rahsaan Vaughn and freshman TE Colt Lyerla. Also there is WR Josh Huff, who averaged 15.9 yards per receptions as a freshman.
The Ducks literally out-ran their opponents to the finish line in 2010, but the defense shouldn't go overlooked.
With just five starters back on that side of the football, it may be difficult to match a solid effort in 2011.
To make matters worse in this contest, the defense will be without the services of All-American CB Cliff Harris (six INTs in 2010), who will sit out the game due to suspension for an off-the-field incident.
The defensive front will be manned by players like Terrell Turner (33 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks), Brandon Hanna (18 tackles, 2.0 sacks) and Taylor Hart (18 tackles, 2.0 sacks).
The linebacking corps has been gutted with the loss of star Casey Matthews, Spencer Paysinger and Bryson Littlejohn. Someone will need to step up and become a leader in the middle. A A lot is expected of youngster Anthony Wallace, but he is a true freshman.
In Harris' absence, the secondary will be highlighted by free safety John Boyett, and the senior is ready to be the leader of this young defense. Boyett was credited with five interceptions a year ago, and finished second on the team in total tackles (78).
It all starts up front for LSU, which features four returning starters and plenty of size. While the group didn't play exceptionally well last season, there is no substitute for experience.
"One of the advantages that we'll have on offense, we'll have a veteran offensive line, guys that have all played," says coach Miles.
The big boys up front will have the responsibility of keeping LSU's signal- caller upright. That was supposed to be Jordan Jefferson, but the quarterback was recently suspended for an off-campus fight that is still being investigated. Last season, Jefferson threw for 1,411 yards with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also added 450 rushing yards and seven scores on the ground. Now it will be Jarrett Lee's opportunity under center and Miles is confident that the limited time he saw action last year will benefit him this season.
"I think in the three games that he played significant football a year ago he showed poise. He threw the touchdown pass at the end of the game against Florida. He was responsible for the drive that came down at the end of the game to beat Tennessee. And he made a third and long play late in the Alabama game that depicts a guy that plays in pressure situations. I think there is an every play responsibility at the quarterback position, and it is one that he is talking about. Going into his senior campaign as the new starter, he is looking forward to having a complete year."
There is experience returning at the receiver position, even though WR Russell Shepard has recently been ruled ineligible. Rueben Randle posted 33 catches for 544 yards last season and should step up.
As for LSU's ground game, Steven Ridley has moved on, opening the door for sophomore Spencer Ware to shine. A true burner, Ware only needs a small crease to break a long run, and that home run ability is something the offense lacked a year ago.
Linebacker Ryan Baker may very well be the best player on the defensive side of the ball for LSU, after posting 87 tackles and seven sacks last season. A senior with obvious All-SEC skill, Baker's leadership will be just as important as his productivity. He will get help from Karnell Hatcher at the linebacker position, a junior with the speed to chase down opposing ball carriers.
The biggest loss in the secondary was All-American Patrick Peterson, who was snatched up by the Arizona Cardinals early in the most recent NFL Draft. Still, the final tier of this LSU defense figures to be a strength, as it was corner Mo Claiborne, not Peterson, that led the Tigers with five interceptions a year ago. Players like Tyrann Mathieu, Craig Loston and Brandon Taylor provide plenty of playmaking ability as well.