Baton Rouge, LA – The third-ranked LSU Tigers open the 2012 season at home this Saturday, as they entertain the North Texas Mean Green in non-conference action.
North Texas, which is opening the season on the road for the 11th straight year and has won just two of its last 15 lidlifters overall, is 0-4 all-time against LSU, and every game thus far has taken place on the Tigers' home field. The Mean Green have been outscored by a staggering 198-13 margin in the first four meetings.
North Texas is under the tutelage of second-year head coach Dan McCarney, and the team is coming off a year in which it went 5-7 overall and finished an even 4-4 in Sun Belt Conference play. It was actually the best season for UNT since 2004, and something on which McCarney hopes to build.
As it does nearly every season, LSU comes in with lofty expectations as the Tigers have an overabundance of talent on both sides of the ball, and are one of the favorites to once again challenge for both the SEC crown and BCS National Championship.
Coached by Les Miles, who has amassed a stellar record of 75-18 during his seven years at the helm, the Tigers recently suffered a significant blow when star CB Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team. Still, this is LSU -- a team where the second- and third-string guys can start on most other clubs.
"We (lost) a quality person, teammate and contributor to the program," Miles said after news broke of Mathieu's dismissal. "However, we have a standard that our players are held to and when that standard is not met, there are consequences."
LSU, which currently owns the nation's longest home winning streak at 17 games, has won a school-record nine straight season openers, and the Tigers haven't lost a regular-season game against a non-conference foe since 2002.
The North Texas offense has the benefit of returning nine players with starting experience, including junior QB Derek Thompson who threw for 1,759 yards and 11 TDs last season despite completing just 57.7 percent of his pass attempts. Wide receivers Brelan Chancellor and Chris Bynes are back after combining for 74 catches, 899 yards and 8 TDs in 2011, although both will need to elevate their level of play considerably as the team tries to find a replacement for leading rusher Lance Dunbar (269 carries, 1,115 yards, 10 TDs).
Hoping to fit the bill will be a slew of skilled, if unproven runners, although the only ones with any experience whatsoever are junior Brandyn Bird (20 carries, 83 yards, 1 TD) and senior Jeremy Brown (5 carries, 23 yards).
The UNT defense allowed more than 30 points and 429 total yards per contest last season, so shoring things up at the point of attack is paramount to the team achieving better results this time around.
At first glance, the unit lacks playmakers. But all isn't lost as junior linemen Brandon McCoy (44 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Ryan Boutwell (28 tackles, 2.5 TFL) provide some stability, while last year's top tackler, junior LB Zachary Orr (74 stops, 7 TFL, 1 INT) highlights the middle of the field.
The secondary suffered widespread losses due to graduation, meaning all four starters will be brand new. McCarney did a solid job of convincing some talented defensive backs to come to Denton, and look for a guy like Oklahoma transfer Marcus Trice to make an immediate impact.
LSU put up more than 35 points per game in 2011, using a solid ground attack (202.6 ypg, 35 TDs) to do the bulk of the damage. Junior RB Michael Ford is back after rushing for 756 yards and 7 TDs last year, averaging 6.0 ypc in the process, and Spencer Ware (177 carries, 707 yards, 8 TDs), Alfred Blue (78 carries, 539 yards, 7 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (62 carries, 336 yards, 8 TDs) can also expect to get plenty of work this season as well.
As for the Tigers' passing game, it accounted for just 152.5 ypg and 21 TDs last year, but the three QBs who saw time completed a combined 62 percent of their tosses and were intercepted only 5 times. Junior Zach Mettenberger is making his first start in this game after seeing action as a back-up in five outings a season ago. The loss of talented WR Rueben Randle (53 receptions, 917 yards, 8 TDs) leaves a void in the receiving corps, but expected to have an expanded role is sophomore Odell Beckham, Jr. who tallied 41 grabs for 475 yards and 2 TDs as a rookie.
Miles knows Mettenberger will need to grow into the role as starter, but is confident he has the proper mind-set to accomplish his goals, "I think it's a great challenge to him to just do the job that he has to do. I think because of the fact that the team really depends on his abilities, he has not only attempted to play the position, but to really acquire leadership skills."
As has been the case for a number of years, LSU's defense is again poised to be one of the best in the nation. Even without Mathieu and fellow elite corner Morris Claiborne, there is talent across the board, notably in the secondary where junior FS Eric Reid (tied for team-lead with 76 tackles, 2 INTs) and junior CB Tharold Simon (42 tackles, 2 INTs, 10 PBU) are considered two of the best at their respective positions.
The defensive line boasts highly-skilled guys in juniors Bennie Logan and Sam Montgomery, the two combining for 106 tackles and a dozen sacks last year, the latter tallying a team-best nine sacks himself.
The Tigers allowed just 11.3 ppg last season, with their effort against the run (90.1 ypg, 7 TDs) being particularly impressive. If there is an area of weakness on the LSU defense this season it's at linebacker, where junior Kevin Minter is the only returning starter.